Having played four of their past six on the road, the Chicago Bears finally return home to Soldier Field to host the Miami Dolphins, a team still reeling from falling to the Green Bay Packers in a last-second heartbreaker.
ESPN Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and Dolphins reporter James Walker take a closer look at the matchup:
Wright: There’s plenty of second-guessing going on in Miami after the Dolphins blew a lead and dropped that heartbreaker to the Green Bay Packers in the final seconds. Typically, losses like that are emotionally draining for everyone involved, making it tougher to prepare for the next opponent. What’s your sense of how the players and coaches have responded since Sunday’s setback, and do you see the Dolphins finding a way to bounce back on the road against the Bears?
Walker: Good question, Michael. The Dolphins are putting a “good face” on this loss. Coach Joe Philbin made it a point Tuesday to say this is one of the best practices the team had all season. Players also are beating the drum this week that everything is fine -- the Dolphins are very close, and they were just one play away. That’s what the Dolphins are telling themselves and the media this week. But this is a team that’s lost three of its past four games -– and two were 19-point losses to the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs. At some point, confidence can be an issue for Miami. I don’t believe the team is at that point, because the Dolphins have enough talent to compete with most teams. But anything is possible, especially on the road, and another poor showing in Chicago could create some doubt.
How is former Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall treating this week? Any extra motivation?
Wright: That’s a good question because I’m sure Marshall is no different than any other athlete wanting to play better against his former team. But at the same time, I go back to the summer when I had the chance to hang out with him at his house to do an interview for ESPN The Magazine and we talked about the trade to Chicago from Miami. Marshall has said on multiple occasions that the trade to Chicago possibly saved his life.
Here’s what he had to say about that: “Those people in Miami, they wanted my head for a year or two. But then I come to Chicago and you see me continue to produce at a high level. I had Jay Cutler. I was in a system I was familiar with. So it was career-saving. Now, the life-saving thing we’re talking about, I don’t know if the cameras can see it [Marshall looks around], but look at this beautiful city. You know what I mean? I say that it wasn’t a life-or-death thing. But a lot of us go through life doing things that we don’t love. We’re doing it for the wrong reasons, and we die freaking chasing money or chasing something to pay bills or we’re not happy. But for me, every single day, I walk outside my door and I smell the city air. I look at these tall buildings. I see people wearing Bulls hats, Blackhawks hats, Bears shirts. It’s fulfilling. It’s stimulating. The love and joy that we receive on a daily basis, it sometimes is too much. So that’s what I mean when I say life-saving.”
Looking at Miami’s defense, it appeared the Dolphins were able to get some pressure on Aaron Rodgers. How confident are you the Dolphins can pressure Jay Cutler similarly on Sunday? Like every other quarterback, Cutler will struggle when teams turn up the heat. But he’ll also take chances that lead to turnovers.
Walker: The Dolphins’ defensive line was terrific against the Packers. Their run fits were solid and they hounded Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers for three sacks. Miami probably would have had double that amount if not for Rodgers’ scrambling ability and quick release. This is probably the one unit the Dolphins can count on to take its game on the road and play well at Soldier Field. Miami is legitimately seven or eight deep on the defensive line. Defensive ends Cameron Wake (3.5 sacks) and Olivier Vernon (3.5 sacks) get most of the publicity, but the Dolphins have other defensive linemen such as Jared Odrick, Randy Starks and Earl Mitchell who are all playing at a high level. Dominating the line of scrimmage defensively provides one of the best ways for the Dolphins to pull off the road upset.
Chicago's defense arguably played its best game of the season against the Falcons. Has this group turned the corner?
Wright: I think the biggest change you’re starting to see is the defensive line is starting to come into its own, and as you know, that can work wonders for a defense as a whole. In the victory over the Falcons, Willie Young, Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen combined for three sacks, three quarterback hits and eight hurries, and Young now leads the NFL in sacks (7). When you’re generating pressure up front, the back end obviously isn’t forced to cover receivers for as long, which helps quite a bit. Also, the Bears have done a much better job stuffing the run on early downs, which has forced opponents into third-and-long situations. That puts opponents in must-pass situations, which in turn allows the Bears to pin back their ears and bring the heat. You’ve also got to give some credit to defensive coordinator Mel Tucker for doing a solid job calling games. He’s done an impressive job of mixing blitzes and coverage and seems to have gotten a good sense for what his players are capable of, which has allowed him to make the right calls at the most opportune times.
If I’m a Dolphins fan, I’d find it a little concerning that Philbin felt “antsy” and “queasy” about throwing the ball with the game on the line in the loss to Green Bay. I saw he said something about the quarterback running for his life, but I also know Tannehill has turned the ball over quite a bit. How much is Tannehill at fault for what I perceive as a lack of confidence in him from the coaching staff, and how much do other factors (suspect offensive line play, struggles at receiver, etc.) contribute?
Walker: Philbin deserves a bulk of the blame. It’s just not in his coaching DNA to be aggressive, at least at the right times. Sunday’s loss was the latest of plenty examples over the past three seasons. Two years ago, Philbin had an excuse that it was Tannehill’s rookie year. Last year, Philbin could say he still had a young quarterback. But to still coach tight on offense in Tannehill’s third year is concerning and, as you mentioned, doesn’t show enough confidence in his players. Tannehill is a lot of things at quarterback, but I would not describe him as gun-shy or skittish. Usually when the Dolphins play conservatively, Tannehill is at the mercy of conservative play-calling.
Why have the Bears been a better road team this year? Is that a reason for concern?
Wright: To answer your first question, to me it seems the Bears have been the victim of circumstance more than anything with regard to how they’ve performed at home versus on the road. But I can tell you the common denominator in each of this team’s three losses -- two of them being at home -- is turnovers. In each of the losses, Cutler threw two interceptions. In the season opener at home, the Bears committed a total of three turnovers, which led to 13 points. Then, when Green Bay came to town in Week 4, Cutler tossed two interceptions, which led to 14 points for the Packers. The following week at Carolina, the Bears turned the ball over four times, leading to 10 points for the Panthers. So to answer the second question, there’s no reason for concern from my vantage point about the Bears playing this week at home. It’s all about the turnovers for the Bears, regardless of venue. Since Marc Trestman took over as coach, the Bears are 7-0 when they finish on the positive side of the turnover margin, 2-7 when they finish on the negative side and 1-4 when the turnover margin is equal. The Bears have scored 49 points off takeaways this season, which might be a little scary for Tannehill.