Larry Mayer and Eli Kaberon of ChicagoBears.com discuss the Bears players they'll be watching on both sides of the ball in Sunday's home game against the Tennessee Titans:
Offense: Running back Jordan Howard
The Bears likely will be missing six starters on offense in quarterback (Jay Cutler), receiver (Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White), tight end (Zach Miller), left guard (Josh Sitton) and right guard (Kyle Long) Sunday when they host the Titans at Soldier Field. As a result, they’ll probably need another big game from running back Jordan Howard, who has rushed for 682 yards and two touchdowns on 131 carries this season. Howard, who has four 100-yard games, is second among NFL rookies in rushing behind league MVP candidate Ezekiel Elliott of the Cowboys.
Howard must also improve as a receiver out of the backfield after dropping three passes in last Sunday’s road loss to the Giants. The fifth-round draft pick from Indiana could be a dangerous weapon on screen plays due to his patience and ability to break tackles if he does a better job of catching the ball. Howard’s ability to pick up blitzes will also be key against a Titans defense that’s coordinated by veteran coach Dick LeBeau, who is credited with inventing the zone blitz.
Defense: Outside linebacker Pernell McPhee
After virtually guaranteeing that the Bears defense would get to Giants quarterback Eli Manning last weekend, McPhee and his teammates failed to record any sacks in a 22-16 loss. The Bears need McPhee and the pass rush to make more of an impact Sunday against Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, an athletic second-year pro who is capable of keeping plays alive with his feet.
McPhee also must step up to help fill the void created by the loss of the Bears’ leading tackler, inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, who was suspended four games for violating the NFL policy on performance enhancing substances; and rookie outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, who has been ruled out of Sunday’s game with a concussion he sustained against the Giants. McPhee had recorded sacks in back-to-back contests versus the Vikings and Buccaneers before being blanked last week.
Offense: Receiver Eddie Royal
The Bears will be without Jeffery and Miller versus Tennessee, and that leaves a major void in the offense. Those two players have combined for nearly 40 percent of the receptions by Bears receivers this season and more than 43 percent of the passing yards. Somebody is going to have to pick up the slack, and there is no better candidate for that job than Royal. Though he’s just had three catches total since Week 7—he was inactive for two games because of a toe injury—Royal is a more than adequate fill-in for the two missing pieces in the Chicago passing attack.
Being the main man in the offense is not a new role for Royal. Through the first five weeks of the season, he was targeted on the same number of passes (31) as Jeffery and was thrown to more than Miller. He should be able to make some plays versus a Titans secondary that is vulnerable. Tennessee allows 266.2 passing yards per game, among the worst in the NFL, and they struggle especially versus short throws. If the Bears can work in some screens and slants to Royal, he should have room to maneuver against the Titans.
Defense: Linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski
Rookie linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski has played in eight games so far this season, but this Sunday will be his most important contest yet. With Freeman suspended for the next four weeks, the fourth-round pick from West Virginia will be asked to be a major contributor on the defense. Versus the Giants last Sunday, Kwiatkoski didn’t see any defensive snaps, but played a good amount on special teams.
If playing an increased role wasn’t enough of a challenge for the rookie, the fact that he’ll be facing the Titans’ multi-dimensional running attack makes the new job even tougher. Tennessee averages 29.7 rushing attempts and 140.6 yards on the ground per game, both of which rank in the top four in the NFL. Mariota is one of the NFL’s up-and-coming stars at quarterback, thanks in large part to his mobility on the edge, while back DeMarco Murray is a physical runner between the tackles. Kwiatkoski will have an advantage playing next to veterans McPhee and Danny Trevathan, who will help the rookie be in position to make plays. But against the tough Titans running attack, Kwiatkoski will need to step up and play his best game yet.