Here are five key storylines the Cleveland Browns will be aware of as they take on their Week 15 opponent, the Chicago Bears.
#1 - The Return of Jay Cutler: Head coach Marc Trestman has made two big decisions this year. The first big decision was attempting an overtime field goal on second down from 47 yards against the Vikings a couple of weeks ago, and that backfired. The second big decision? Opting to start Jay Cutler at quarterback this week after the success that Josh McCown has had under center.
McCown has had a resurrection of sorts, throwing 13 touchdowns and 1 interception during his 3-2 stretch as the team's starting quarterback. He has also played a role in the breakout of young wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Statistically, Jay Cutler isn't having as good of a season as McCown, but it is definitely the right move for the Bears to live and die by Cutler, at least for the rest of 2013. This isn't a quarterback controversy -- in fact, it can be seen as a blessing for Chicago, as they know that McCown can step in and deliver should Cutler go down again.
The one concern for the Bears is if Cutler is "rusty" early on, does that kill their playoff hopes? Cutler tried returning a few weeks ago against the Lions, but had his worst outing of the season before sitting out again and rehabbing. Chicago's defense isn't good enough to hold opponents to a low score, so Chicago could find themselves down early if Cutler needs time to settle in again.
#2 - The Best WR Combination in Football: With how good Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron were for the Browns last week, how could I possibly talk up another team's receiving threats in comparison? Meet the Chicago Bears, where all of a sudden, Brandon Marshall looks like a No. 2 receiver, and that is not a dig at him in the least. Marshall has 84 catches for 1,090 yards and 9 touchdowns this season, but second-year receiver Alshon Jeffery has 75 catches for 1,193 yards and 6 touchdowns.
Jeffery's production has drawn comparisons to what Gordon has done for Cleveland: over his past 10 games, Jeffery is averaging 108.9 yards receiving per game, and has also posted two 200+ yard receiving days on the season. In a season where Reggie Wayne and T.Y Hilton, and Roddy White and Julio Jones didn't pan out as 1-2 dynamic duos, the Bears have emerged with the best pair of receivers in football, something which should help ease a transition between quarterbacks.
#3 - Horrid Run Defense: In Mel Tucker's first season as the Bears' defensive coordinator, I'm sure this is the last thing he wanted to see: his unit with the worst-ranked run defense in the NFL, by far. Chicago is allowing an average of 157.0 yards rushing per game, and 5.15 yards per carry. The next-worst run defense in the league is allowing 4.80 yards per carry, which is a big difference.
The Bears have suffered a lot of defensive injuries this season, but the one to Lance Briggs has hurt them in particular. Bears fans were hoping that Briggs could return against Cleveland, but he has been ruled out for another week. To get an idea of just how bad Dallas' run defense has been this year, take a look at these numbers:
- Week 6 (NYG): RB Brandon Jacobs - 22 carries, 106 yards (4.8 YPC), 2 TD.
- Week 7 (WAS): RB Alfred Morris - 19 carries, 95 yards (5.0 YPC).
- Week 7 (WAS): QB Robert Griffin - 11 carries, 84 yards (7.6 YPC).
- Week 7 (WAS): RB Roy Helu - 11 carries, 41 yards (3.7 YPC), 3 TD.
- Week 9 (GB): RB Eddie Lacy - 22 carries, 150 yards (6.8 YPC), 1 TD.
- Week 9 (GB): RB James Starks - 6 carries, 40 yards (6.7 YPC), 1 TD.
- Week 10 (DET): RB Reggie Bush - 14 carries, 105 yards (7.5 YPC).
- Week 10 (DET): RB Joique Bell - 10 carries, 41 yards (4.1 YPC).
- Week 11 (BAL): RB Ray Rice - 25 carries, 131 yards (5.2 YPC), 1 TD.
- Week 12 (STL): RB Benny Cunningham - 13 carries, 109 yards (8.4 YPC), 1 TD.
- Week 12 (STL): RB Zac Stacy - 12 carries, 87 yards (7.3 YPC), 1 TD.
- Week 13 (MIN): RB Adrian Peterson - 35 carries, 211 yards (6.0 YPC).
- Week 14 (DAL): RB DeMarco Murray - 18 carries, 146 yards (8.1 YPC).
- Week 14 (DAL): RB Joseph Randle - 9 carries, 53 yards (5.9 YPC), 1 TD.
Look at all of those 100+ yard rushers the Bears have given up, and then remember that Cleveland has yet to allow a running back to go over 100+ yards rushing in 2013. Simply put, anybody can run on the Bears, including the Browns. With RB Willis McGahee out, the favorite to receive those touches will be RB Chris Ogbonnaya, but our other running backs could end up getting lucky and hitting the jackpot when Chicago's run defenders miss their assignments.
#4 - Importance of the Game for Chicago: This is not a game that the Bears will be over looking. Not only are they playing on the road (where they have lost their past two road games to St. Louis and Minnesota), they know how tough the Browns played the Patriots in New England last week. Chicago desperately needs this game to have a chance at winning the NFC North, too. Currently, they sit in a tie with the Lions for first place in the division with a 7-6 record. Chicago has already lost twice to the Lions this year, so they need to finish a full game ahead of the Lions.
Chicago finishes the season at Cleveland, at Philadelphia, and vs. Green Bay. The Lions finish the season vs. Baltimore, vs. the Giants, and at Minnesota. Detroit's schedule is clearly favorable, but if they slip up, Chicago needs to be ready to seize the advantage. If Chicago loses this week and Detroit wins, the Bears can all but kiss their playoff hopes goodbye.
#5 - Special Teams Overview: Although K Robbie Gould cost the Bears a game with a miss in overtime, he is still as consistent as they come. He is 24-of-27 on the season, but one of those misses was a ridiculous 66-yard field goal attempt. Gould only gets a touchback on 42.7% of his attempts, but the Bears still cover kickoffs well. Adam Podlesh handles punts for the Bears but is near the bottom of the NFL in that department. Chicago always boasts a threat at the kick and punt return position because of Devin Hester. He is averaging 28.1 yards per kick return and 11.6 yards per punt return on the season. Hester has been phased out of the offensive side of the ball in Trestman's system, though.