Larry Mayer and Eli Kaberon of ChicagoBears.com discuss the Bears players they'll be watching on both sides of the ball in Saturday's home game against the Washington Redskins:
Offense: Quarterback Matt Barkley
Making his fifth straight start in place of the injured Jay Cutler, Barkley will try to continue to play with the same poise and accuracy he's displayed over the last month while also eliminating the poor decisions that have resulted in turnovers. In last Sunday's 30-27 loss to the Packers, the former USC star passed for 362 yards—the most ever by a Bears quarterback against Green Bay—and two touchdowns. But he committed turnovers on four straight possessions—including two interceptions on ill-advised passes over the middle—that the Packers turned into 17 points.
Barkley turned a 27-10 deficit entering the fourth quarter into a 27-27 tie by engineering three straight touchdown drives of 75, 78 and 75 yards. But those heroics likely wouldn't have been necessary had he not committed three straight turnovers to start the second half. The Bears don't generate enough takeaways on defense to give the ball away like that on offense.
Barkley will enter Saturday's home finale against the Redskins having completed 95 of 162 passes for 1,163 yards with six touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 75.2 passer rating. He'll face a Redskins defense that ranks 29th overall and 26th versus the pass.
Defense: Inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman
Returning to action after serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL policy on performance enhancing substances, Freeman no doubt will be determined to make up for lost time Saturday against the Redskins. Even after sitting out a month, the veteran still leads the Bears with 91 tackles. His presence inside should help the defense rebound from what coach John Fox called its “poorest tackling game of the season” last Sunday against the Packers. The Bears run defense allowed a season-high 226 yards in that contest, including 162 yards and two touchdowns by converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery on 16 carries.
Freeman is a sure tackler who plays with passion and a chip on his shoulder that emanates from the unorthodox path he took to the NFL. After playing at Division III Mary-Hardin Baylor in college, Freeman spent three seasons in the Canadian Football League before making his first NFL roster with the Colts in 2012. His leadership on a young defense is just as important as his playmaking ability, especially given that Freeman will line up Saturday alongside rookie Nick Kwiatkoski, a fourth-round draft pick who has shown promise while starting the last four games.
Left tackle Charles Leno, Jr.
The Redskins are one of the NFL's top pass-rushing teams, ranking fifth in the league with 36 sacks. Led by Pro Bowler Ryan Kerrigan, who has a team-high 11 sacks, Washington has the potential to do some serious damage in the Chicago backfield. The Redskins like to move Kerrigan around, lining him up in different places so that the offense isn't sure where he is rushing from. That means the Bears' protection needs to be at its best and most alert. More often than not, the job of stopping Kerrigan will fall on Leno, who quietly has had a good year of his own in 2016.
Leno hasn't gotten the praise of some other linemen around the NFL, but he has been strong on the left side of the line for the Bears. In pass protection, Leno has done well in walling off the blind side of right-handed quarterbacks Jay Cutler, Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley. In the running game, the team does well going behind Leno, as the Bears average 5.88 yards on 51 rushes behind the left tackle this season. Both the yards and the attempts rank in the top five of the league.
If Leno can prevent Kerrigan and his fellow Washington rushers from getting after Barkley, and the left tackle continues to pave the way for the Chicago rushing attack, the Bears should be in good shape on Saturday.
Defense: Cornerback Cre'von LeBlanc
A big question that coaches, scouts and other evaluators like to ask about players is a simple one, though the answer says a lot about the person they are watching: How does somebody respond to adversity? It's easy to evaluate a player when things are going well, but it shows a lot about their character and determination to pick themselves up after being knocked down. That's the situation LeBlanc finds himself in on Saturday. After a rough game last Sunday versus the Packers, the talented rookie has to regroup and get back at it versus one of the league's top passing attacks.
Washington likes to come out throwing early and often. The Redskins rank third in the NFL in passing yards gained on first-and-10, and quarterback Kirk Cousins is second in the league in yards through the air. With six Washington players hauling in 40 or more receptions this season, the Bears secondary can't focus their efforts on just one guy. Still, it comes down to individual matchups, and LeBlanc has the talent to win his. Cousins has thrown 10 interceptions on the season, and it would be great to see the rookie cornerback pick one off this week. The Redskins likely won't be afraid of throwing right at him, so LeBlanc needs to regain his confidence and respond with a strong performance of his own.