Bears' Briggs cleared but still questionable
The Sports Xchange
NFL Team Report - Chicago Bears - INSIDE SLANT
Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs was medically cleared to play but he is questionable for Sunday's game at the Philadelphia Eagles.
Briggs has been out for eight weeks with a shoulder fracture. He was injured Oct. 20 against the Washington Redskins.
Briggs fully participated in practice Friday, after he was limited Wednesday and Thursday.
"I'm very optimistic," coach Marc Trestman said Friday. "He practiced for three days. He's been cleared by the doctors. We'll list him as questionable up until game time. He'll work out before the game and we'll see where he's at. But I wouldn't want to say that he's gonna play, he's gonna start. I think that's still 48 hours away. But certainly as we began the week fully optimistic, even more now since he's been cleared by the doctors."
It is not certain how many snaps Briggs will be able to play or how productive he will be in his first game back, if he ends up playing. The Bears are last in the NFL in run defense, facing an Eagles offense that is No. 1 in the league at 152.9 rushing yards per game and features running back LeSean McCoy.
"He's an emotional leader," Trestman said of Briggs. "He's a tremendous football player. He's been out of it for a while. There may be some rust, there may not be. We'll see. That's not the important thing. The important thing is he's gonna impact our team in the huddle."
Briggs, a seven-time Pro Bowler, has 75 tackles in seven games this year, including nine for loss, two sacks, two pass breakups and two forced fumbles.
-- The Chicago Bears have to be asking themselves if it was real or a mirage. They'll find out the answer Sunday at Philadelphia, and it will go a long way toward determining their playoff status.
For the first time since early October, their run defense against the Cleveland Browns looked formidable last Sunday. Whether it was bona fide improvement or the result of going against one of the league's worst rushing attacks is yet to be determined.
"We tackled better last week," Trestman said. "We minimized explosive plays last week. There were some, but they were still minimal, compared."
Against McCoy and the Philadelphia Eagles, Chicago's worst-ranked run defense (152.4 yards a game) faces a matchup nightmare.
The Eagles not only are No. 1 in rushing, but routinely produce the big running plays Trestman thought the Bears prevented well last week. Only the Oakland Raiders have more runs of 20 yards or longer than the Eagles (17) and no team has given up more runs (16) that long than the Bears.
"We have to make sure we don't make a whole lot of mistakes out there," Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. "These guys are one of the best offenses in the league. They run the ball tremendously well. They've got very explosive players in the run game and in the pass game.
"We just have to do our jobs, be assignment sound, play fast and we've got to get a lot of guys to the ball."
The addition of Jeremiah Ratliff at nose tackle seemed to plug the middle some last week, but the big addition the Bears hope for is Briggs.
"It would be huge," defensive lineman Corey Wootton said. "I think Lance is definitely one of the best linebackers in the league. Before he got hurt, he was having an incredible season, so it will be great to have a guy like him, a perennial Pro Bowler, back. Hopefully we can have him back."
As the defensive signal-caller, Briggs could also help further stabilize the group that seemed to make strides last week. Then again, the Bears did give up a touchdown drive based largely on wildcat runs in the game. The read-option style Philadelphia sometimes employs in its running attack is not much different, and it's a style the Bears have struggled to stop.
Chicago's defensive problems started in earnest against the Washington Redskins Oct. 20, the same game Briggs got hurt. They weren't faring well stopping Robert Griffin III and the read-option, and the Redskins started running it at a faster pace much like Philadelphia does. It wore down Chicago's defense to the tune of 209 rushing yards, the first of five contests when the defense gave up 198 yards or more on the ground.
"It's very similar to the Redskins type of offense, their zone read," Wootton said. "They try to confuse you a little bit, so it's crucial that we play gap sound and we have our option responsibilities because you see on film when teams weren't doing what they were supposed to (the Eagles) gash them a little bit.
"Their tempo is a little faster than Washington's. They're one of the faster tempos in the league, so I think it's crucial that we get lined up, get set."
One of the issues with stopping a fast-paced attack is avoiding a worn out defensive front by getting substitutes on the field.
"We think we can get it done," Trestman said. "Again, when they don't change personnel, they can keep their tempo up. When they change personnel, they have to slow it down because they have to wait for teams to match up.
"So, the only value to up-tempo is to keep personnel on the field. Otherwise, the referees are going to hold the ball until you substitute."
Minnesota didn't struggle against the Eagles in dealing them a convincing defeat last week. The Bears defense will need help from their offense to achieve this. The Vikings scored and made Philadelphia need to abandon the run. Plus the Eagles ran less just to attack Minnesota's porous secondary.
A win in the Sunday night game could mean the division title for the 8-6 Bears. They'll know ahead of time because Green Bay (7-6-1) plays earlier at home against Pittsburgh and Detroit (7-7) does the same against the New York Giants.
A Bears win combined with losses by both and the NFC North race ends with a division title in Trestman's first year as coach. Otherwise, it appears it could wind up going down to the final week.
"We're going to see what we're made of," Wootton said. "That's what we're looking forward to, proving what we're capable of."
SERIES HISTORY: 39th regular-season meeting. Bears lead series 28-9-1. Chicago has won four of the last five and has won the last two played in Philadelphia. The Eagles haven't beaten the Bears in Philadelphia since 2002.
NFL Team Report - Chicago Bears - NOTES, QUOTES
--With only one playoff appearance in six years, many Bears have never made the postseason. The most prominent among them is wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
Marshall gains some strength from the fact the Bears control their own destiny. Last year they needed a Green Bay win over Minnesota to get in after they had won in Detroit early on the final Sunday, but the Vikings rallied to beat the Packers and it left the Bears out in the cold -- and coach Lovie Smith without a job.
"I didn't want to be in the same position as last year," Marshall said. "It actually makes it easier that we're in this position right now. I didn't want to be in the same position as last year. ... It was one of the worst feelings of my career."
The Bears could find themselves in the same situation, however, if they lose to the Eagles this week and Detroit beats the New York Giants. Then, even if they won over the Packers on the final weekend, they would need the Lions to lose to the Vikings.
Marshall said the team has already faced a devastating situation and found the strength to bounce back. The blown overtime loss to the Vikings when coach Marc Trestman opted to let Robbie Gould kick on second down and he missed resulted in a down locker room. The scene last Sunday in Cleveland was 180 degrees in the other direction.
"I've got to admit I was really crushed after that game, and I just remember sitting in the corner of the locker room and may even have had tears in my eyes," Marshall said. "And (general manager) Phil Emery just came and patted me on the head. He always leaves me alone when I'm in that mode, when I'm after games and we lose, and he knows that I'm really frustrated. This time he came and he just picked me up a little bit and said, 'We've still got a chance.' And after that I hit the showers and let it go."
--The Bears offensive line ranks third in fewest sacks allowed (24) after years when they've struggled to protect quarterback Jay Cutler.
They've done this despite switching out four starters this year.
"I think the biggest thing is that they've stayed healthy and they've been able to play together," Trestman said. "That's the biggest thing in growing lines. I've seen lines with all different talent levels come together because they've played together. That's the No. 1 thing."
The Bears come into Week 16 without a game lost by a starting offensive lineman this year.
--Punt return man Damaris Johnson is a concern for the Bears much the way Devin Hester is for all their opponents. The Eagles had only six returns of more than 12 yards all season but Johnson came and averaged 11.2 yards a return the second half of the year.
"He's explosive," Bears special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillas said. "He's a gamer. He does a great job. They've done a good job of blocking for him. He already had one but it was called back. He's dangerous, as usual. We just have to do a good job of controlling him."
BY THE NUMBERS: 9 - The number of stuffs (tackles for loss) by LB Lance Briggs this season. It leads the team and is fourth in the NFL despite the fact he's missed seven games.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "This is where I've felt the most comfortable. And that was the biggest thing with me, a comfortable fit -- trust. That's how this team is. Pretty much what you see is what you get. A close-knit locker room. Same thing with the coaches." -- DT Jeremiah Ratliff on how he has fit in well in Chicago after leaving Dallas.
NFC PLAYOFFS AT A GLANCE:
CLINCHED: Seattle - playoff spot
Seattle clinches NFC West division and home-field advantage throughout NFC playoffs with:
1) SEA win or tie OR
2) SF loss or tie
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
New Orleans clinches NFC South division and a first-round bye with:
1) NO win
New Orleans clinches a playoff spot with:
1) ARI loss OR
2) NO tie + SF loss or tie OR
3) NO tie + ARI tie OR
4) SF loss + ARI tie
Carolina clinches a playoff spot with:
1) CAR win OR
2) CAR tie + ARI loss OR
3) CAR tie + SF loss OR
4) ARI loss + SF loss
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
San Francisco clinches a playoff spot with:
1) SF win OR
2) ARI loss OR
3) SF tie + ARI tie
Philadelphia clinches NFC East division with:
1) PHI win + DAL loss or tie OR
2) PHI tie + DAL loss
Chicago clinches NFC North division with:
1) CHI win + DET loss or tie + GB loss
NFL Team Report - Chicago Bears - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--T Joe Long was signed Wednesday off the Steelers practice squad, so he was placed on the 53-man roster. Long received a two-year deal. The 6-foot-5, 304-pounder had been on Pittsburgh's practice squad all year after entering the NFL in 2012 as an undrafted free agent from Wayne State. Long won the Gene Upshaw Award as the top Division II lineman in 2011.
--The Bears waived S Sean Cattouse, who appeared in only one game (Dec. 1 vs. Minnesota).
--LB Lance Briggs continued Thursday to practice on a limited basis and coach Marc Trestman again expressed optimism the seven-time Pro Bowl player and defensive leader would be available Sunday after missing seven games with a shoulder fracture.
--WR Brandon Marshall, who sat out Wednesday with hamstring tightness, returned to practice Thursday on a limited basis and is expected to play Sunday.
OFFICIAL FRIDAY INJURY REPORT:
--QUESTIONABLE:LB Lance Briggs (shoulder)
--PROBABLE: WR Earl Bennett (not injury related), WR Brandon Marshall (hamstring)
--OUT: S Colt Anderson (knee), S Kurt Coleman (hamstring)
--PROBABLE: CB Brandon Boykin (concussion), LB Najee Goode (hamstring), LB Mychal Kendricks (knee), WR Brad Smith (hamstring), S Earl Wolff (knee)
When facing the Eagles, the Bears have to avoid the pitfalls that dragged down Philadelphia. Facing a miserable Minnesota Vikings pass defense, the Eagles strayed from their strength of a running attack and threw seven more times in the first half than they ran. They found themselves down when their own defense faltered, and then had to rely on QB Nick Foles' passing instead of the up-tempo running attack. The Bears have to stress their own strength in the passing game and attack the Eagles defense at all depths with big receivers Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall. Cutler has to be the focal point. This can't be a conservative attack and the running of Matt Forte has to be a complement.
Defensively, the Bears need to do plenty of disguising. They need to line up with the cover-2 look, but bring the safety down into the box at the snap in order to have at least eight close to the line to stop LeSean McCoy. They need to be at their best on first and second down to keep the Eagles from running repeatedly, picking up first downs and building momentum. Their no-huddle approach designed to maximize play totals and wear out defenses, can be deadly against a Bears defense that substitutes greatly. Washington wore down the Bears this way. The Bears have to do what Minnesota did and prevent big plays, shut down the Eagles early and force them into three-and-outs. It's possible they'll stay in their base defensive package most of the day because of the Eagles running attack, which would leave nickel back Isaiah Frey sidelined in favor of a linebacker. Whether the linebacker who leaves in the nickel is Lance Briggs, who is coming off an injury, or rookie Jonathan Bostic, remains to be seen.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Bears LDE Shea McClellin vs. Eagles RT Lane Johnson -- Everyone is picking on McClellin in the run game, and the Eagles will be no different. He's been like a beacon for running attacks. The Eagles strength is the run and the large offensive line gets off the ball and disrupts. Johnson, the 6-foot-6, 310-pound fourth pick of the draft could overwhelm McClellin when the Eagles are running stretch plays and counters to the right side. He is a mauler. They could come at McClellin with read-option style plays and he has yet to exhibit he can handle that style of play. It's possible the Bears keep McClellin sidelined more in this one in favor of David Bass, or play Stephen Paea more at the nose while putting Jeremiah Ratliff at three-technique DT so they can move Corey Wootton back outside because he is more stout against the run.
--Bears WR Alshon Jeffery, who is seventh in the NFL in receiving yards (1,265) vs. Eagles CB Cary Williams, who fought through hamstring issues last week -- It's possible the Eagles will cheat to the other side of the field and Brandon Marshall because they have a 6-foot-1 cornerback to pit against the 6-4 Jeffery. Philadelphia's secondary didn't distinguish itself last week against the Vikings and will be looking to make a statement by stopping one of the best receiver duos in the league.
--Bears LB Lance Briggs, returning after a seven-week absence, vs. LeSean McCoy. In the Bears scheme, the weak-side linebacker frequently has two-gap responsibilities and becomes the big-play 'backer against the run. The question is whether Briggs can be in football shape after almost two months away and be fast enough to track down a burner like McCoy.