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Ravens-Bears: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 16 November 2013 by Luke Jones

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With an opportunity to climb back to the .500 mark and improve their standing in the AFC playoff race, the Ravens travel to Chicago on Sunday to take on the Bears for the fifth time in franchise history.

Baltimore will be playing its final road game until mid-December and has struggled away from M&T Bank Stadium with a 1-4 record this season, but the Bears are dealing with a number of key injuries including an ankle ailment to starting quarterback Jay Cutler, who is out for Sunday’s game. The Ravens have listed six starters as questionable for Sunday’s game, but all but two — defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and wide receiver Marlon Brown — took part in Friday’s practice.

Sunday’s forecast at Soldier Field calls for temperatures in the low 60s with an 80 percent chance of rain and winds approaching 30 miles per hour, which could make for a very interesting day as the Ravens play in Chicago for the first time since 2005. The all-time series is tied 2-2 with the Ravens winning the last meeting against the Bears, a 31-7 final in Baltimore on Dec. 20, 2009.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to win their second consecutive game and even their record at 5-5 before a three-game stretch at home that could dramatically alter their playoff outlook …

1. Ray Rice will start the game, but backup Bernard Pierce will finish with more carries than the struggling starting running back. The three-time Pro Bowl running back continues to say all the right things, but there have been no signs of him regaining his old form as his numbers have been even worse since the bye week (29 carries for 47 yards). Coach John Harbaugh acknowledged earlier in the week that the Ravens will go with the hot hand in the backfield, and Pierce showed flashes of improved explosiveness against the Bengals and his power running style has a better chance of gaining ground behind a poor offensive line moving forward. The Bears’ 31st-ranked run defense might provide the Ravens with their last best chance to finally make strides in the running game, and Pierce will be given the ball more consistently after another lackluster start from Rice.

2. Jacoby Jones will finally shake free for a kickoff return for a touchdown to help the struggling Baltimore offense. The Bears gave up a 105-yard kickoff return for a score earlier this year and Jones has yet to make a major impact in the return game since recovering from the knee injury he suffered in Week 1. Call it a hunch, but the 2012 Pro Bowl return specialist is due to bust a long one and the Ravens will need it on a day in which the rain and wind will limit quarterback Joe Flacco’s effectiveness in the passing game. To win enough games to remain in the playoff picture, the Ravens need more game-changing plays from their defense and special teams and Jones represents the best chance to do so in the return game.

3. The weather will help the Ravens in the battle against Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, but Bears running back Matt Forte will collect 150 total yards and a touchdown. The rain in the forecast will stunt the Bears’ passing game, but Forte presents a major problem in coverage for either linebackers or safeties as backup Josh McCown will lean on shorter passes. Tight end Martellus Bennett will be another challenge for the pass defense, but his ankle injury will leave him less than 100 percent as he’s listed as questionable for Sunday’s game. Marshall and Jeffery will still make an impact with their size advantage over Ravens defensive backs, but Forte will be leaned upon to move the chains consistently against the Baltimore defense.

4. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil will exploit one of the weaker pass-blocking offensive lines in the NFL with a combined 3 1/2 sacks. After arguably his worst game of the year against Cincinnati last week, Suggs will bounce back against a Chicago offensive line that has struggled all season. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will move Suggs and Dumervil around — perhaps even occasionally lining them up on the same side in an overload look like he did last week — to give each rusher opportunities against right tackle Jordan Mills, whose pass blocking has been a major liability. The Ravens’ pass rush must come up big in putting heat on McCown and eliminate his opportunities to make big plays in the passing game, but head coach Marc Trestman will need to call for more quick passes to help neutralize the Ravens’ deadly pass-rushing duo.

5. The Bears’ ability to run the ball more effectively will be the difference in a low-scoring 20-17 win over the Ravens. If the weather proves to be as bad as forecasts are predicting, this one will come down to the running game and field position, which will play into Chicago’s hands perfectly. The Bears have struggled to stop the run this season, but the Ravens’ historically-poor rushing attack has shown no ability to gain yards other than the final 30 minutes of the Miami game in Week 5. Meanwhile, the Baltimore run defense has struggled from time to time — including a four-game stretch earlier this year in which they gave up 140 or more rushing yards three times — and the Bears possess the league’s 15th-ranked running game. After years of priding themselves as a team equipped to win games in the harsh conditions of November and December, the Ravens will show that’s no longer the case on Sunday as Flacco and the passing game won’t be able to do enough in another road loss.

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Bears passing game dangerous despite backup McCown under center

Posted on 14 November 2013 by Luke Jones

(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Chicago Bears are one of the NFL’s cornerstone franchises built around a reputation of menacing defense that’s stretched across decades of professional football.

However, this year’s team under new head coach Marc Trestman centers around an explosive passing game despite injuries that have sidelined starting quarterback Jay Cutler and thrust 34-year-old journeyman Josh McCown into action for the better part of the last month. With Cutler sidelined for Sunday’s tilt against the Ravens, McCown will again serve in a starting capacity, but the number of pass-catching targets at his disposal qualifies as a new version of the “Monsters of the Midway.”

Of course, the Baltimore defense did exceptional work against Cincinnati’s talented group of receivers led by A.J. Green last Sunday, but the Bears bring a level of physicality that the tall but wiry Bengals receivers do not provide. Leading the way is the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Brandon Marshall, who is coming off back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons and ranks ninth in the NFL with 786 receiving yards and tied for sixth with eight touchdown catches.

“He catches the ball no matter where you put it,” said cornerback Lardarius Webb, who is coming off his best game of the season in Week 10. “If you put it somewhere around him, he can make the catch. That’s what makes him so dangerous. You have to know where he’s at at all times on the field. Wherever he’s lined up, we need to know because he’s a game-changer.”

What makes Marshall so dangerous is Trestman’s willingness to line him up in a variety of places on the field, making it difficult for defenses to find the best matchup consistently. Even if the Ravens are able to harness Marshall, the emergency of second-year receiver Alshon Jeffery has forced pass defenses to pick their poison when electing to bracket coverage on Marshall, leaving the 2012 second-round pick matched up in single coverage.

After an underwhelming rookie season in which he caught just 24 passes for 367 yards, the 6-foot-3 Jeffery is 13th in the league with 735 receiving yards, giving the Bears one of the best pass-catching duos in the NFL. With the Ravens possessing only one cornerback taller than six feet — starter Jimmy Smith — Webb and No. 3 cornerback Corey Graham will need to play in a physical manner similar to how they played last week against the Bengals.

“[Jeffery] catches everything. He goes up and gets the ball,” cornerback Corey Graham said. “I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen him drop a pass on film. If you’re not attacking the ball and going up and making a play, he’s going to get it.”

The news doesn’t get much better beyond that as 6-foot-6 tight end Martellus Bennett has caught four touchdowns and running back Matt Forte is regarded as one of the most dangerous receivers in the league out of the backfield. The Ravens will find size everywhere they look in the Bears passing game, making their ability to pressure McCown that much more critical in Sunday’s tilt at Soldier Field.

It remains to be seen whether defensive coordinator Dean Pees will once again use Webb inside in the nickel package, but the ability of safeties James Ihedigbo and Matt Elam to gain good position in coverage against Bennett will be a major challenge in containing the Chicago passing attack, especially inside the red zone.

Even with an array of power forward-like targets to throw to, McCown must still deal with a defense tied for third in the NFL with 32 sacks. The Ravens were able to harass Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton into throwing three interceptions and will look for similar results against the career backup, who has completed 60 percent of his passes for four touchdowns and no interceptions in three games this season.

Baltimore has talked all week about the takeaway outburst against Cincinnati being the result of preparation finally coming together and will try to prove it wasn’t simply the result of some different defensive looks mixed with good fortune against their division rivals in the 20-17 overtime win.

“You all just happened to see a byproduct of all the work that we put in,” linebacker Jameel McClain said. “We got put in the position to get those plays. I always like to say that turnovers and interceptions are an accumulation of preparation and luck. Some of those plays, [the ball] landed in the perfect position. It’s luck, but it’s preparation for being there.”

Rare chance for running game

The struggles of the Ravens’ historically-poor running game have been discussed ad nauseam, but Sunday may represent their best last chance of hope that the ground production can improve in the second half of the season.

The Bears rank 31st in the league against the run and are giving up just under 130 rushing yards per game this season. The season-ending loss of defensive tackle Henry Melton in September and the current shoulder injury sidelining outside linebacker Lance Briggs haven’t done the defense any favors as the Bears have needed to lean heavily on offense to build a 5-4 record.

It remains to be seen how offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell will handle the workload in the running game after head coach John Harbaugh suggested performance will dictate how many carries struggling starter Ray Rice and backup Bernard Pierce will receive moving forward. Rice is averaging just 2.5 yards per carry while Pierce isn’t much better at 2.8 as both have battled injuries this season.

“We’re working to get better,” Rice said. “I know I’ve worked my butt off to get back on the field to play at a high level. I’ve just got to keep myself motivated, because I know once the opportunity comes and we rip off one of those big gains, we’ll be saying, ‘Well there it goes.’ The day will come.”

If the day doesn’t come Sunday against one of the league’s worst run defenses, it may be time to close the book on any hope for improvement in the Ravens’ rushing attack.

Hester the home-run hitter

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