Finally, the Bears are going to play a non-NFC opponent! After a long, long series of games against opponents which could eventually lead into tiebreaker after tiebreaker, the Bears move into a stretch of games against an AFC West which apparently nobody wants to win. The first one here comes against the San Diego Chargers, the team which has dominated the West over the past few years, making the playoffs four straight years from 2006 to 2009 (losing out to the surprise Chiefs last year), ranking well during the regular season in both offense and defense, but taking a hit this year. That doesn't mean they should be taken lightly - their offense happens to hit an area the Bears defense has struggled in all year, and their defense relies on something the Bears haven't seen in a while, so it will be interesting how Sunday's matchup fares.
That being said, let's hit the jump and take a look at this weekend's opponent...
What Happened Last Year: 9-7, 2nd in AFC West.
So Far This Year: The Chargers started off hot, winning four of their first five in losing only to the Patriots, but enter this game on a four-game skid, including an overtime loss to the Chiefs, a 45-38 shootout against the Packers and, most recently, a 24-17 defeat at the hands of Oakland. They currently sit at 4-5, which is still good for second in the AFC West.
When Last We Met: The last time these two teams met, you have to go all the way back to the season opener of 2007 when the Chargers beat the Bears 14-3. The Bears led 3-0 at halftime before Antonio Gates caught one of LaDainian Tomlinson's halfback passes in the third quarter, then Tomlinson took one in himself in the fourth to seal it. Rex Grossman had a Bad Rex game, going 12-23 for 145 yards and an interception. So no, the Bears haven't faced the Chargers since Jay Cutler became a Bear.
What's at Stake: For the Bears, while for once a win won't mean an additional tiebreaker over an NFC team (for once), it still puts them at 7-3 and in very good position to secure a playoff berth. For the Chargers, this game means a lot more in a weak AFC West. Oakland leads the division at 5-4, but every other AFC West team sits at 4-5 and Oakland gets Minnesota then the Bears. If Minnesota beats Oakland, a win for the Chargers ties them for first in the division.
So, apparently, Philip Rivers and Jay Cutler had a thing when Cutler was a Bronco. Meh. Anyways, Rivers throughout his career has led a strong Chargers passing attack complemented with the elite skills of LaDainian Tomlinson, but since Tomlinson's departure, the offense has been largely a passing attack. The Chargers have the fifth most passing attempts in the NFL, though it helps they've had a high number of offensive snaps. They invested a first round draft pick in Ryan Mathews last year to stabilize the running game, and while he's been okay (4.6 yards per attempt, 117 attempts, 3 TDs), Mike Tolbert has delivered a little better in the end zone (73 attempts, 3.9 yards per attempt, 4 TDs). Rivers himself is having a down year, as his 15 interceptions are the second most in the NFL. Antonio Gates is always a big concern out of the tight end position and looks to continue the tradition of tight ends to score touchdowns on the Bears, but the other major weapons to consider are Vincent Jackson (35 receptions, 635 yards, 6 TDs) and Malcom Floyd (19 receptions, but a 21.1 yards per reception). In fact, with Vincent Brown as well, the Chargers have three receivers with 18+ yards per reception. When they can, the Chargers love them a deep throw, going with the true Coryell offense Norv Turner loves to run.
The Chargers love to blitz from their 3-4 linebacker positions. In fact, the team has 18 sacks - and fourteen of them are from linebackers. While 18 at this point of the year is clearly not the roughest pass rush the Bears have faced, the last few units the Bears have faced have all been 4-3 units which rely on front four pressure. The units that give the Bears the most trouble have been the blitz package-reliant units, the likes of which the Bears haven't faced since weeks 2 and 3 against New Orleans and Green Bay. That being said, should the Bears be able to protect Cutler, roll him out, and/or otherwise give him time to throw, outside of Eric Weddle the back four are the more vulnerable point of the Chargers defense. The Chargers have allowed the 7th fewest passing yards in the league on the second fewest attempts, but have given up 17 touchdowns, good for 28th in the league, and allow the 7th most points in the NFL. Oddly enough, the Chargers are 24th in the league in rush defense, yet have allowed only five rushing touchdowns.
If the Bears do this...
The Bears should try to get Forte going early and then attack the Chargers' secondary getting into the red zone. In their last five games, San Diego has allowed 162 yards to Denver, 162 to the Jets, 94 to the Chiefs, 136 to the Packers, and 191 to the Raiders, or 149 per game, and 4.5 per attempt. In the passing game, the Bears will need to take advantage of the Chargers' secondary with some decent short routes and putting the ball in a place where Weddle can't make a play on it (5 interceptions, another six deflections).
If the Chargers do this...
The Chargers are missing three starting offensive linemen and Rivers has been sacked 25 times on the year. If there were a game for the defensive front four to finally assert itself, this would be it. Otherwise, if Rivers has time to throw, he'll go for his deep targets, and I don't feel particularly good with getting into a shootout. Tillman will likely need to duplicate his effort against Calvin Johnson in this one against Jackson. The safeties have also done a good job of staying deep - they'll need to do so again.
The Chargers have hit a rough patch this year, and I think this is one the Bears should win, but teams with good tight ends do scare me as almost a guaranteed seven points every game, and when one of those is as good as Antonio Gates, it keeps me up a little. But this seems like a Bears defense that has finally figured things out from the start of the year.