When the Bears take on the Cowboys at Soldier Field on Thursday night, keep an eye on these three matchups:
Bears LB Roquan Smith vs. Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott
Smith has stepped into the void left by the injury to Danny Trevathan, stepping up his game as a run-stopper and in pass coverage. He’s also emerged as a blitzing threat. More than all that, Smith has seemed to play with more fire and energy as the season has gone along.
“He’s making plays,” said defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. “He’s directing traffic. With Danny out of there, he’s had to take on more of the communication stuff. Him and Nick [Kwiatkoski] are doing a great job, working together on that stuff.”
Smith will have his hands full as one of the league’s premier running backs comes to Soldier Field. Elliott will almost certainly cross 1,000 yards on the season in Chicago, given that he’s currently at 990. However, while Elliott remains in the top echelon of rushers, his rushing averages per play and per game are down from last season.
Elliott will be called upon to wear the defense down should the game stay close, but he’s also dangerous in the passing game.
“He has great contact balance,” said coach Matt Nagy, “but the other thing they do well with him too is they are able to dump the ball out to him in the flat and he can make guys miss.”
The Bears have matched up favorably all year against elite running backs such as Dalvin Cook, Todd Gurley and Saquon Barkley. Smith said that he’s excited to face off against Elliott.
“I look at everything as a personal challenge for myself,” said Smith, “but it's also a challenge for the defense. He's a challenge for the league. A guy that does the things that he does throughout this league and throughout his career, have a lot of respect for that, so excited for the matchup.”
Bears CB Kyle Fuller vs. Cowboys WR Amari Cooper
Fuller continues to be a force on the outside for the Bears. Not only has he been the team’s best weapon in pass coverage, but his ability as a tackler has shown through in the past few weeks. He recorded six solo tackles against the Lions, including a third-and-goal shoestring tackle on running back JD McKissic that saved a touchdown.
This week, Fuller will face off against Cooper, the Cowboys leading receiver. Cooper has had a season of peaks and valleys this year. In Week 5, Cooper had 11 catches for 226 yards and a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers. Two weeks ago, the New England Patriots held him without a single reception.
Due to their time spent in the AFC West, Nagy said that he knows not to underestimate Cooper.
“I’ve had the unfortunate familiarity of going against him for years and years in Kansas City,” said Nagy. “I’ve seen him have some good games at times but he’s a guy that can win the one-on-one matchup, he has great hands, he’s smart and he’s a football player.”
Fuller can’t be expected to deny Cooper all day, but if he can be held in check, the Bears’ defense will have a chance to turn Thursday night into a statement game for the rest of the season.
Bears LT Charles Leno Jr. vs. Cowboys DE Robert Quinn
With quarterback Mitchell Trubisky finding a rhythm against the Lions, the Bears offense will face off against a very good defensive front, which boasts five former Pro Bowlers as a part of its rotation.
“Every o-line gets beat by these guys,” said offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, “every quarterback gets sacked by these guys, gets hit by these guys and you have to weather that storm.”
Quinn is leading the way with 9.5 sacks and is well on his way to his best season since his 2013 All-Pro effort with the Rams.
The Bears’ offensive line only gave up one sack last week and was able to avoid some of the drive-crushing penalties that plagued the team early in the season. With Bobby Massie's status unknown for Thursday, Leno will face more pressure to step up as a veteran leader and secure his side of the line.