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Bears-Dolphins: 5 things to watch

Julius Peppers could have a breakout performance Thursday, especially if Dolphins left tackle Jake Long can't play. AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

5 THINGS TO WATCH

1. Julius Peppers: Although Peppers hasn’t made much of an impact in two career games against the Dolphins (seven tackles, one forced fumble), he’s shown a tendency to crank things up a couple of notches for nationally-televised contests. In his two most productive seasons -- 2006 and 2008 -- Peppers played three games on Monday Night Football, and registered 4.5 sacks. So after notching two sacks through the first nine games, perhaps Peppers could put up similar numbers in Thursday night’s outing, which would turn out to be his breakout performance for 2010. Potentially helping Peppers’ cause is uncertainty at left tackle, where Dolphins starter Jake Long is nursing a significant shoulder injury. Long plans to play, but his effectiveness will be in question against Peppers.

2. Bears’ return game: Tied with Brian Mitchell for the NFL’s record for kick return touchdowns (on both punts and kickoffs) at 13, Devin Hester needs one more return TD to move past Mitchell for the record. Hester has expressed a strong desire to break the mark Thursday night in front of friends and family in his native Florida, where he played at the University of Miami. There’s a good chance the Dolphins kick the ball away from Hester given his recent hot streak. But if he manages to field something returnable, Hester could take it to the house. Hester’s blockers are just as motivated as he is to break the record.

3. How D deals with misdirection:Expect Miami to throw more formations at the Bears than what they’ve seen in recent weeks, including looks -- such as the Wildcat offense -- featuring multiple threats in the backfield. Several members of the Bears' defense say it’s imperative for the unit to read its keys, trust them, and try not to perform outside of the scope of each player’s individual responsibility on a given play. The Dolphins will create plenty of confusion with misdirection and fakes in the backfield. Look for the Bears to disrupt the timing, and possibly exchanges by penetrating downhill.

4. Chicago’s passing attack:Miami’s pass defense will be one of the best Chicago has faced so far, which doesn’t bode well for the Bears, considering their reliance on the pass. That makes running the football important for the Bears. But when the Bears go to the air, quarterback Jay Cutler needs to spray balls all over the field, similar to the way he performed in Sunday’s win over the Minnesota Vikings. Cutler completed passes to nine different receivers against the Vikings, which makes it more difficult for a defense to key on one target. Such diversity also gives the Bears' offense an air of unpredictability that defenses loathe.

5. Matt Forte and Chester Taylor: The staff has shown a commitment to the rushing attack over the past two games, but the running backs haven’t really taken advantage of the opportunities associated with that. Forte and Taylor have combined for 164 yards in their last two outings and a yards-per-carry average of 2.9. Since Miami’s depleted defense ranks 19th against the run, Thursday night should present ideal conditions. The running backs, in which the team has invested $9 million guaranteed, need to take advantage because the rushing attack can’t continue rely on Cutler bailing it out with scrambles.