After watching a lot of film on the Bears and Rams and talking to coaches and scouts, I found some key things to watch in their "Monday Night Football" game (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET).
Keys to the Game
Who plays good run defense?
Both defenses are vulnerable to good rushing offenses. The key will be which team is the most committed to running the football. With both quarterbacks struggling, these offenses would be well-served to grind it out on the ground, keeping these defenses on the field and turning this into a physical, low-scoring game.
The Rams must play well on special teams
The Bears are the best in the NFL in the kicking game and are capable of dominating field position, or converting a return into a touchdown. Rookie punt returner Devin Hester already has three returns for touchdowns, and the Bears do a great job of not only blocking, but also keeping their lane discipline when they are covering kicks and punts. The Rams are in the bottom third of the NFL in most special teams categories, and with the exception of kickoff returns, they do not match up well with the Bears in this phase of the game.
Rex Grossman must cut down on his mistakes
His lack of consistency in recent weeks is alarming and his QB rating of 1.3 last week versus the Vikings was embarrassing. He continues to throw the deep ball too often. He also gets a lot of balls tipped or knocked down because he can't find good throwing lanes to compensate for his lack of height. When he struggles, his mechanics suffer.
He needs to rediscover his tight ends and also understand what his team is hoping to accomplish; this team is not built on the quarterback throwing to win the game. If Chicago runs the ball early versus a shaky Rams run defense, good perimeter matchups for Grossman will come.
• The Bears' defense must be aware of RB Steven Jackson in the passing game. With the pass protection for Marc Bulger being shaky, the Rams will not run a lot of seven-step drops and deep routes. That leaves Jackson as a safety valve for dump-offs and swing passes. He has responded with 72 receptions (tops on the team), and is averaging about nine catches a game over the last five weeks. Chicago's linebackers must keep Jackson in front of them and close quickly on the short, underneath passes, preventing him from finding holes in the Cover 2 defense.
• Look for RB Cedric Benson to get more carries as the season wears on. He seems to be comfortable with the offense now and runs with excellent power. He will break more tackles than Thomas Jones. He is also a potentially very productive red zone back and with the Bears being 25th in red zone offense, Benson could become a much bigger contributor.
• While the Bears are considered a pretty good running team, they really struggle with a lack of big plays. They are 29th in the NFL in average yards gained per rush (3.57), putting them in too many third-down situations. Better production in the run game on first and second downs will produce more third-and-short situations, which takes the pressure off Grossman.
• Where is WR Muhsin Muhammad? He is a big possession receiver and a safe third-down option in the passing game, but he has only six catches for 71 yards in the last three games. TE Desmond Clark has also become a forgotten man. Grossman loves to throw deep, especially the skinny post, but he should be concentrating on safer passes.
• It would not be surprising to see the Bears blitz more than usual versus a shaky Rams offensive line that has had a lot of injuries. They could bring a linebacker off the edge, especially over the left tackle, and force Bulger to get the ball out quickly. The Bears' corners have good ball skills and are very effective against a quarterback under pressure.
• Clark must be a big part of this game plan versus a group of linebackers who don't match up well versus big, physical tight ends. He is a big target on third down. If Grossman continues to be obsessed with throwing the skinny post, at least throw it to a safe target over the middle. He is also a great option when Grossman is under pressure and needs to dump the ball off. Clark has not been a big part of the offense over the last couple of weeks, and that must change.
• When you break down Grossman on film the last couple of weeks, some major flaws and weaknesses are surfacing. He has a bad habit of not planting his back foot and stepping into his throws. He throws off his front foot too often, negatively affecting his velocity. Early in the season, he did a nice job of looking off defensive backs and freezing them before throwing to his target. Now he seems to be locking on to one target and it's easy for a defender to read Grossman's eyes. His lack of height is also really becoming an issue.
He is at his best when he can find throwing lanes through open areas, but right now he is trying to throw over defenders, leading to passes getting tipped a lot or sailing over receivers.
• It would not be shocking to see the Bears use some no-huddle looks to try to get Grossman into a flow. He likes the tempo of the no-huddle and it would allow him to just settle into a nice groove. The no-huddle also forces the undersized Rams defense to keep its base package on the field, potentially wearing it down.
St. Louis Rams
• If the Rams can run the ball effectively early with Jackson, they may have a chance to pull the Bears out of their Cover 2 defense, forcing them to bring a safety into the box and play man-to-man coverage on the perimeter. St. Louis would love to get WRs Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce matched up versus cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher. If the Bears have the luxury of sitting back in the Cover 2 and playing their patented zone coverages, the Rams will have trouble moving the ball in the passing game.
• There is some in-fighting developing in the Rams' locker room, courtesy of Bulger. He has questioned the commitment level and game preparation of his players, possibly dividing this locker room. The Rams were really sloppy last week in losing to Arizona at home, piling up 10 penalties for 126 yards. They are now turning the ball over and struggling in the red zone. They are not the same efficient offense they were earlier in the season.
• The Rams are playing with a patchwork offensive line and it is really affecting Bulger. He has been intercepted six times in the last four games and is starting to look for the rush. He faces a Bears secondary that can jump routes and close quickly on the ball, and they do a great job of disguising their coverage. If Bulger is hurried, he will make some errors versus these defensive backs.
• Bulger may have some good opportunities to throw vertical routes to his receivers versus a group of Bears corners who tend to jump routes and take chances, especially if he can make some of those throws off play-action. As good as the Bears are in coverage, good receivers can occasionally get behind them.
• The Rams would like to pressure Grossman by only rushing their front four and dropping seven defenders into coverage. The last thing they want to do is blitz a lot and give Grossman one-on-one matchups on the outside. Even if the front four doesn't get to him, the defensive linemen can get their hands up, forcing Grossman to throw over them and try to drop the ball into seven defenders in coverage.
• St. Louis will likely give the Bears a strong dose of Jackson between the tackles. He has excellent power and Chicago's defense can be susceptible to power runners who come right at it, negating its quickness and lateral movement. The Rams must get a body on MLB Brian Urlacher (probably OG Richie Incognito) because he's much more effective in run support, if he can run free to the ball and avoid stack-and-shed situations.
• The Rams are very unhappy with their penalties, especially before the snap. They have too many false starts and too many personal fouls after the whistle. Those kinds of penalties really bother the coaching staff because they are caused by a lack of discipline and concentration.
• The Rams may need to put eight defenders in the box versus the Bears if Chicago commits to running the football. St. Louis is undersized on defense and can be overpowered at the point of attack. That's why more bodies may be needed to stop Jones and Benson, and right now, the Rams are 31st in the NFL in run defense. If they load up to stop the run, it will give Grossman good perimeter matchups, but that's a chance the Rams will have to take.
• A key for the Rams' defense is to be good on third down. The unit is ranked 29th in third-down defense and cannot afford to let the Bears convert in those situations, keeping the defense on the field. What makes this even more intriguing is the fact that the Bears are 29th in the NFL in average yards gained per rush (3.57 avg). That sets up an interesting chess game. Third-down conversions will be a big part of this game.
• Head coach Scott Linehan has turned over the play calling duties to his offensive coordinator, Greg Olson, allowing him to address every area of the team. Ironically, Linehan had a reputation at Minnesota and Miami as a great play caller, so giving up those duties shows everybody he doesn't have a huge ego.
Gary Horton, a pro scout for Scouts Inc., has been a football talent evaluator for more than 30 years. He spent 10 years in the NFL and 10 years at the college level before launching a private scouting firm called The War Room.