Larry Mayer and Eli Kaberon of ChicagoBears.com discuss the Bears players they'll be watching on both sides of the ball in Sunday night's road game against the Dallas Cowboys:
Offense: Tight end Zach Miller
Miller played like the Bears' top tight end over the second half of last season and was anointed the starter after Martellus Bennett was traded to the Patriots in March. But Miller hasn't been very involved in the offense this year, catching seven passes for 47 yards in the first two games.
Struggling to move the ball and score points, the Bears offense would benefit greatly from some of the plays that Miller produced last season when he turned a short pass into an 87-yard touchdown in St. Louis and made a one-handed game-winning touchdown catch in San Diego.
Regardless of whether Jay Cutler or Brian Hoyer starts at quarterback in Dallas, feeding Miller the ball seemingly would be a wise decision given the attention that top receiver Alshon Jeffery figures to draw from the Cowboys secondary. It would also help open up a running game that's averaging just 68.5 yards per game, 25th in the NFL.
Defense: Inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman
With injuries to nose tackle Eddie Goldman, outside linebacker Lamarr Houston and inside linebacker Danny Trevathan further depleting a front seven that's already missing outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, the Bears will count on Freeman's leadership and playmaking ability Sunday night even more than usual.
Freeman leads the defense with 15 tackles and four tackles-for-loss and brings a toughness to the unit that had been lacking in previous seasons. On back-to-back plays last Monday night against the Eagles, Freeman drilled quarterback Carson Wentz as he threw a pass and caused an incompletion with a well-timed hit on running back Wendell Smallwood.
The Bears will be looking for more of the same from Freeman Sunday night in Dallas when he faces a Cowboys running game that features rookie first-round pick Ezekiel Elliott as well as a passing attack that boasts tight end Jason Witten. A Texas native, Freeman no doubt will have extra incentive to excel given that he'll be playing in front of family and friends.
Offense: Receiver Eddie Royal
The injury bug has taken a big bite out of the Chicago offense, with quarterback Jay Cutler and receiver Alshon Jeffery both missing practice this week because of various setbacks. That means more than ever, the Bears will need a big game out of players like Eddie Royal. The speedy slot receiver has been fantastic during the first two games of the season, averaging 13.6 yards per reception. He's also been a threat on special teams, scoring on a 65-yard punt return against the Eagles.
Versus the Cowboys, Royal should be able to work the seams and find room to make plays. Dallas has allowed 7.47 yards per pass play, which ranks in the bottom third of the NFL. The team is especially vulnerable over the middle, where Royal likes to operate. On 16 short throws over the middle against Dallas, opponents are averaging 10.69 yards, second-most in the NFL in that part of the field. Even without some of the big-name players in the lineup, the Bears will have ways to move the ball on Sunday, thanks in large part to Royal's work carving up the core of the Dallas defense.
Defense: Linebacker Leonard Floyd
The University of Georgia hasn't played Mississippi State University since 2011, meaning Leonard Floyd never got to face Dak Prescott when both were in the SEC, playing for the Bulldogs (Floyd at UGA, Prescott at MSU). They will, however, be on the same field come Sunday night, and Floyd's job now as a Bears linebacker will be to make life difficult for his fellow rookie and the current Cowboys quarterback.
The challenge of getting into the Dallas backfield and getting after Prescott will be a tough one. Not only is the quarterback mobile, he is playing behind one of the top offensive lines in the NFL. Still, Prescott has been sacked four times already this season, and Floyd has the ability to add some more to that total. The linebacker had a half-sack in the season opener versus Houston and has flashed terrific speed and athleticism. With last season's leader in sacks for Chicago, Lamarr Houston, now out for the season with a torn ACL, Floyd will need to step up and be the consistent pass rusher the Bears need.