CHICAGO - We've heard the talk all week from league observers reasoning why they think Chicago will beat Seattle today - the Bears are a changed team since they lost to Seattle.
The offensive line has stabilized and done a better job of protecting quarterback Jay Cutler. Six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs did not play in the first game.
And specifically, the Bears are relying on more of a balanced offense, letting running back Matt Forte carry more of the load.
A closer look at the statistics shows the change of focus offensively for Chicago. Forte rushed for just 352 yards in the first seven games of the season, and the Bears went 4-3. During the team’s final nine games he more than doubled those numbers, running for 717 yards and leading Chicago to a 7-2 record down the stretch.
However, just as Chicago is a changed team, the Seahawks are improved as well. Defensively, run-stuffing defensive tackles Colin Cole and Brandon Mebane are finally together and playing well again, providing the key to Seattle consistently stopping the run.
Yes, the Seahawks finished the regular season giving up an average of 118.9 yards on the ground, 21st in the league. But Seattle is a different team against the run when both Cole and Mebane are healthy.
In the nine games when both played, the Seahawks allowed 90.6 yards rushing a contest. In the eight games when one of the two was out, the Seahawks gave up 145.5 rushing yards. So the play of Cole and Mebane in helping to contain Forte will be critical for Seattle’s success.
Once Seattle stops Forte, it forces Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler to make plays in third-and-long situations, which he struggled with in the first game – the Bears finished 0 for 12 on third down. Chicago quarterbacks were sacked a league-high 56 times this season. And Cutler got sacked more times this season (52) than he did in his first three combined in Denver (51).
Cutler will be under intense pressure in his first postseason game, and statistics do not favor quarterbacks having success in their playoff debuts, with signal-callers having a 5-16 overall record in 21 such games since 2003.
“We’re expecting that we’re going to see a good dose of the run game,” Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “And then in passing situations we’ve got to be ready to get heat.”
Offensively, expect the Seahawks to continue to do more of the things that helped them score a franchise playoff-high 41 points last week against New Orleans.
That means Pete Carroll will put the game in the hands of Matt Hasselbeck, who is playing in his franchise-record 11th postseason game.
Seattle does not know if it will get the Hasselbeck who threw eight interceptions in December or the quarterback who threw a franchise-record four touchdown passes against the Saints last week.
One thing that should help Hasselbeck is the resurgence of Seattle’s run game. The Seahawks have averaged 145 yards on the ground the past two games.
“I think the running game has really got going in the past two weeks,” Hasselbeck said. “And I think some of things that we’re doing in the passing game are giving us great looks for the run. And I’ve always felt that was the best way to get the run game going is use the pass to set up the run. It’s not a slight on the run at all, it’s just formation-wise you make people cover the whole field, and I just feel like that’s the best way to go.”
Ultimately, Seattle offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates expects a different pace of play than last week, when the Seahawks ran six plays that gained at least 15 yards to strike quickly against New Orleans.
“It’s totally different,” Bates said. “They’re going to make us go the long way. It’s going to be 80 yards of grinding it out, but it’s another fun challenge. It’s the Monte Kiffin school (Chicago’s Tampa Bay Cover 2 scheme), so you’ve just got to be patient and take the shots when they come available.”
Eric D. Williams: 253-597-8437 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/seahawks
No.Name (position) Ht./Wt./Year
8 Matt Hasselbeck (QB) 6-4/225/12th He has to play like the best quarterback on the field.
76Russell Okung (OT) 6-5/310/1st Needs a repeat performance like earlier in the season against Bears.
91Chris Clemons (DE) 6-3/254/7th Will lead Hawks’ pass-rush effort against Jay Cutler.
57David Hawthorne (LB) 6-0/246/3rd Tackling machine has to get Matt Forte down in open field.
No. Name (position) Ht./Wt./Year
6 Jay Cutler (QB) 6-3/233/5th Bears need Cutler to play within himself.
23 Devin Hester (WB) 5-11/190/5th Can make game-changing play whenever he touches the ball.
55 Lance Briggs (LB) 6-1/242/8th Didn’t play in earlier game; could make the difference in this one.
33 Charles Tillman (CB)6-1/200/8th Gambles sometimes, but also makes a lot of plays.
Eric D. Williams, staff writer