John Crist of BearReport.com and Bear Report Magazine and Doug Farrar of Sportspress Northwest continue their Behind Enemy Lines playoff preview for a breakdown of Sundays NFC divison-round matchup between the Bears and Seahawks at Soldier Field.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: BEARS ON OFFENSE
FS Earl Thomas vs. WR Johnny Knox
Knox tore Seattles deep pass defense up in the first game, and the Seahawks have allowed among the most big plays this season. Thomas, another key man in Seattles outstanding 2010 draft class, is learning as he goes. Hell be the last line of resistance against Chicagos deep passing game, especially if Matt Forte starts making gains and strong safety Lawyer Milloy has to come up in the box more often. The speedy Knox can affect any defense with his ability to break open in sideline and deep seam routes. That makes him a likely target for cornerback Kelly Jennings, but especially when the Bears go with three or more receivers, the cornerbacks will be handing off the deep guys to Thomas, and hell have to respond. The Seahawks cannot afford to play catch-up in this game.
P Jon Ryan vs. KR Devin Hester
It would seem odd in most games to talk about a special-teams back-and-forth as one of primary importance, but we know how much of a game changer Hester is and the Seahawks wouldnt be anywhere near the playoffs this season without the excellence of their special teams. The first Seahawks-Bears game could be called a draw between Ryan and Hester. Seattles punter pinned the Bears inside their own 10-yard line four different times, but Hester took another of his punts back for an 89-yard touchdown. The Seahawks are hyper-aware of the threat Hester brings, but they also have enough going on with their own special teams to risk kicking right to him.
RBs Matt Forte and Chester Taylor vs. Seahawks Secondary
It’s not a total shock to check the stat sheet from the first Bears-Seahawks game in Week 6 and see that Jay Cutler was sacked six times, as Chicago has featured one of the worst offensive lines in the entire league all season long. What’s worth noting, however, is that 4.5 of those sacks were delivered by Seattle defensive backs. It’ll be up to Forte and Taylor to do a better job recognizing those corner and safety blitzes this time, with tight ends Greg Olsen and Brandon Manumaleuna also responsible for giving Cutler time in those kitchen-sink situations.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: BEARS ON DEFENSE
FB Michael Robinson vs. OLB Lance Briggs
This week, Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said that one of the primary reasons the Seahawks were able to win at Soldier Field was the absence of Briggs, who missed the game with an ankle injury. Hell be very present this time, and the Seahawks may have an answer for him in Robinson, the former 49ers special teams demon who has somehow morphed into one of the better blocking fullbacks in the game. The Seahawks are using a lot more I-formation and offset-I (including in the Marshawn Lynch run against the Saints youve no doubt seen more than once), and that will be the key. Seattle was able to deal with Brian Urlacher in a run-blocking sense, but Urlacher and Briggs? That could be a real problem.
DE Julius Peppers vs. LT Russell Okung
This is the obvious matchup to watch. In the Week 6 Seahawks win, the rookie Okung not only negated Peppers from a pass pressure standpoint, but he had key blocks on each of Seattles two rushing touchdowns. That said, Peppers is still a beast of a player, and as the proud veteran he is hell have something to prove this time. Last time, Okung was able to succeed over and over despite one-on-ones, which allowed the Seahawks to be more multiple with their offensive formations. If they dont have to sacrifice a tight end to that side to help Okung out, as they didnt last time, it will make a serious difference. Note also that in the later Seattle loss to the Falcons, Okung basically took John Abraham out of the game the same way he did Peppers. Hell have a major challenge on his hands in the second round, but Okungs performance wasnt a fluke.
LB Lance Briggs vs. RBs Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett
While backup linebacker Brian Iwuh played fairly well in the first contest subbing for Briggs, who missed the game with an ankle injury, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck went out of his way to say this week that Briggs’ absence was a big part of Seattle’s 23-20 upset victory. One of the best open-field tacklers in the league, his ability to contain Lynch and Forsett near the line of scrimmage can really hurt Hasselbeck and Co. from a down-and-distance perspective. On top of that, as the weak-side linebacker in coach Lovie Smith’s version of the Cover 2, Briggs is charged with defending ball carriers out of the backfield quite often.
THE SEAHAWKS WIN IF…
… they win the little battles. In that last game, Seattle kept the Bears from converting a third down in 12 tries, prevented any sacks or turnovers, won the field-position battle decisively and pressured Cutler all day. Chicagos offense and defense are each playing better now than they were in Week 6. The Seahawks are playing better on both sides of the ball as well, but they will have to slow-roll the Bears offense and keep drives going on their own side to win what I believe will be a low-scoring game. — Doug Farrar
THE BEARS WIN IF…
… Cutler outplays Hasselbeck, and while I hate to over-simplify a playoff game with this many intriguing matchups on either side of the ball, the team with the better quarterback likely wins Sunday. If the Bears can pressure Hasselbeck and force him into a couple of mistakes, which they weren’t able to do the first time around, chances are it will be easier for Cutler to dent the scoreboard more often. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz was likely foaming at the mouth watching Seattle surrender 400-plus passing yards to Drew Brees last weekend, but he must resist his air-raid nature and call a balanced game. — John Crist
THE SEAHAWKS LOSE IF…
… the things that went right last time go wrong now. Hasselbeck didnt throw an interception in that first game. As great as he was against the Saints last week, Hasselbeck is very much a Jekyll-and-Hyde player at this point in his career. He can be pressured into mistakes, but if hes allowed to get in a comfort zone he can burn any defense he faces. Seattles run game was atypically powerful and effective. If they get stuck in the conversion issues that bedeviled them earlier this season, it will put them in a major hole. And, of course, the improving coverage teams must find a way to keep Hester under wraps. Easier said than done, of course, but I have a feeling this will be a game won by special teams. — Doug Farrar
THE BEARS LOSE IF…
… this game looks anything like Week 6, when Hasselbeck didn’t have to wash his jersey afterward and Chicago’s O wasn’t successful on a single third-down conversion. Hasselbeck has been tremendously hit-and-miss this season, including a four-game stretch from Weeks 12-15 when he was picked off 10 times, but then he came back from a hip injury to fire four TDs against the defending Super Bowl champions in the wild-card round. The Bears need him to be more Mr. Hyde than Dr. Jekyll, as alluded to above, plus Martz going out of his way in the second half of the season to post a 50-50 run-pass ratio should make it easier for Cutler to maintain possession. — John Crist
Doug Farrar: The Seahawks rode a wave of national disrespect to a surprising wild-card win. Pete Carroll will tell you that his guys dont necessarily play with chips on their shoulders, but when you have a situation in which a team that beat another team on the road is a 10-point underdog in the rematch, lets just say there is definitely an edge to this team right now. And if they dont have to score more than 20 points, I like them to spring the upset. The Seahawks are even more primed to pressure Cutler than before, and theyll probably take extra yardage given up to Forte if they can put enough hits on Cutler to force a few mistakes. Both teams have improved since they met in the regular season, and I think the Seahawks have put it together just enough for another three-point win. … SEAHAWKS 17, BEARS 14.
John Crist: I have a hard time understanding why the Midway Monsters are such prohibitive favorites, even if they are at home, won four more games during the regular season and have revenge on their minds after a bad loss to this same Seahawks team back in October. Most everyone had the Bears going to the Super Bowl in 2006, when they were 13-3 and the No. 1 seed in the NFC, yet a 9-7 Seattle squad almost stole that divisional-round showdown in regulation before finally falling 27-24 in overtime. Definitely take the points if you’re a betting man, but I still believe Chicago finds a way to get it done. … BEARS 23, SEAHAWKS 17.