The Bears (5-7) will look to snap a six-game losing streak Sunday when they host the Houston Texans (4-8) at Soldier Field. Here are four storylines to watch in the game:
(1) Will a once-dominant Bears defense recapture its mojo after poor performances against the Packers and Lions?
Through the first 10 weeks of the season, the Bears could count on their stingy defense to keep them in games. But that hasn't been the case of late, with the unit uncharacteristically allowing five touchdowns in each of its last two outings after permitting only 12 TDs in its previous seven contests.
"You can't be in shock based on what happened," said inside linebacker Roquan Smith. "It is what it is. We went out there and put out those performances, so [we] can't blame anyone but ourselves. We've just got to look at it as a reality check. You've just got to get in the lab, keep getting better. You can't dwell on the past because those two games have happened and there's nothing anyone can do to change that. So it's just about just getting better and more so growing from that."
After permitting an average of 20.9 points through their first 10 games, the Bears allowed 41 and 34 points the last two weeks. They ranked first in the NFL in both third-down efficiency and red-zone touchdown percentage after 10 games but have since slipped to fifth in both categories after allowing the Packers and Lions to convert a combined 12-of-22 first downs (54.5 percent) and score TDs on 7-of-8 red-zone possessions (87.5 percent).
(2) Will the Bears offense build on the improvements it's made in recent weeks, especially last week versus the Lions?
After struggling most of the year, the offense is finally showing some signs of life. Against the Lions, the Bears tied season highs with 30 points and 26 first downs and recorded their second most total yards (389) and rushing yards (140).
The improvement has come since the bye week when Mitchell Trubisky was reinstalled as the starting quarterback, running back David Montgomery returned after missing one game due to a concussion and the offensive line was reshuffled. Montgomery rushed for a season-high 103 yards against the Lions and Trubisky posted a 108.3 passer rating that was the highest by a Bears quarterback this year.
"I feel like we're making progress as an offense," Trubisky said earlier this week. "I feel like it's just a little reassurance that we're getting better in practice, we're doing our jobs and you're seeing the hard work in practice translate to the game a little more. We have to keep doing that. And we have to continue to stay hungry because we're not getting the outcomes we want."
The Bears will look to take another step against a Texans defense that ranks 24th in the NFL in points and 30th in yards (31st against the run and 21st versus the pass). In their last three games, the Texans have permitted 20, 25 and 26 points and 399, 384 and 398 yards.
(3) Will the Bears defense be able to contain Texans star quarterback Deshaun Watson?
Houston has had trouble moving the ball on the ground this season, ranking last in the NFL in rushing yards. But Watson has continued to shine. The fourth-year quarterback leads the NFL in average yards per pass (8.83), ranks second in passing yards (3,542) and is fourth in passer rating (110.0).
"He's a great player," said defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. "What a talent. Top two or three player in this league as far as I'm concerned; could arguably say he's the best player. He's big, he's strong, he's athletic. He's very, very dangerous. He's a great, great talent, He's a great player. Unfortunately, we don't get to play with 13 players. We'd love to this week."
Pagano told reporters that the scheme the Texans run features more run/pass options than anyone in the NFL and is perfect for the multi-dimensional Watson. The Houston quarterback has passed for 344, 318 and 341 yards in his last three games and has rushed for at least 36 yards in five of his last six contests.
"You guys have seen him step out of harm's way multiple times," Pagano said, "and then run for first downs or throw the ball down the field and get a big chunk play."
Having recorded just eight sacks during their six-game losing streak, the Bears need to rediscover their pass rush Sunday against Watson and the Texans.
(4) Will the Bears offense be able to slow down Texans five-time All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt?
Watt established himself as one of the NFL's top defensive players of all time during a ridiculous four-year stretch from 2012-15 when he recorded 20.5, 10.5, 20.5 and 17.5 sacks. His production is down—he has 5.0 sacks in 12 games this year—but he's still capable of producing impact plays—like the Matthew Stafford pass he intercepted and returned 19 yards for a touchdown in a Thanksgiving win over the Lions.
"Obviously, he's a dominant player," said offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. "Hard to block him one-on-one. Both run and pass, he'll make plays. One of the things that's different now than at times in the past when I've coached against him is that he'll move around to a lot of different spots now, whereas you had some times earlier when you had a little easier time predicting where he would be. So that's also a challenge.
"The players are just going to have to be pros about it. They're going to have to be smart, they're going to have to see where he is. If he lines up in a spot that they weren't quite expecting him, then they're going to have to find ways to get help to him. That's kind of how you deal with these kind of players. He can wreck a run play or a pass play. That's just a fact. And he's been doing it a long time."