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Bears can’t afford to look past Browns

Published: Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013 12:06 a.m. CST

With the Bears desperately needing to close out the season with three more wins to keep their hopes of winning the NFC North and a trip to the playoffs alive, the Cleveland Browns would appear to be exactly the cupcake the doctor ordered.

After all, the Browns are 4-9, mired in a four-game losing streak, and stuck in last place in the AFC North.

Ah, but looks can be deceiving.

The Bears have faced three other last-place teams this season in the Vikings, Redskins and Rams, and their record is 1-3 against them, with a loss to each.

While the Browns' record is weak, they do own victories over the Bengals and Ravens, and they actually had a 26-14 lead last week in New England with only 2 minutes remaining before the Patriots made a miraculous comeback with the help of some questionable officiating.

This is a team the Bears absolutely cannot afford to look past if they don’t want to risk all the ground they just made with Monday night’s win over the Cowboys.

The good news for the Bears is the Browns’ greatest struggles are in the area of the Bears’ greatest challenge. While the Bears are still dead last in the NFL against the run, the Browns are only 28th in the NFL in rushing and 27th in average gain per run.

That is in large part due to their early season trade of Trent Richardson to the Colts, which may have netted them an extra first round draft choice in the 2014 draft, but left them with the aged Willis McGahee, who is averaging only 2.7 yards a carry, and youngsters Chris Ogbonnaya and Fozzy Whittaker.

Cleveland is better throwing the football, ranking 10th in passing yardage, but they’re only 28th in average gain per pass and are 18th in interceptions and sacks allowed.

Part of the problem is the inability to keep quarterbacks healthy.

Brian Hoyer had won the starting job before tearing up a knee and going down for the year, and former Bears’ quarterback Jason Campbell was playing very well with an 88.0 passer rating before battling a concussion for several weeks.

Campbell did make it back last week to throw for 391 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions at New England, the bulk of it going to Josh Gordon.

Gordon is enjoying an All-Pro type season with 71 receptions, 1,400 yards and eight touchdowns. He will pose the biggest challenge for the Bears’ defense, Tim Jennings and Zack Bowman in particular. Tight end Jordan Cameron also is extremely dangerous. He’s caught 72 passes for 825 yards and seven touchdowns on the year.

For all their prowess in the passing game, the Browns still average only 19.8 points a game, good for 27th in the league is scoring.

The Browns’ defense has been excellent most of the season in keeping opposing offenses off the field, ranking seventh in total defense, fourth against the run and second in average yards per rushing play. They are eighth against the pass, and third in average yards per pass play.

Big plays are the Browns defense’s Achilles heel, though, as it’s only 24th in interceptions, 14th in sacks and 19th in points allowed.

Paul Kruger and rookie first-round draft pick Barkevious Mingo are their best pass rushers. D’Qwell Jackson is the club’s leading tackler from the inside linebacker spot, and Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin do a really nice job up front at nose tackle and the five techniques, respectively, in the Browns’ base 3-4 defense.

If the Bears’ offense plays like it did against the Cowboys, it’ll be an extremely tough out for Cleveland. But if the Bears can’t pressure Campbell in the pocket, he, Gordon and Cameron will give the Bears another shootout like all the other last-place clubs they’ve faced.

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