The Bears are back in town. A week after thrashing the Giants, they return to the Meadowlands to take on the surging Jets. It's the last major test for Gang Green before they reach the softest part of their schedule. None of their last six opponents has a winning record, leaving the Jets in great position for a playoff run under first-year head coach Eric Mangini.
CHICAGO BEARS (8-1) AT JETS (5-4) (Sunday, 1 p.m., FOX)
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
One of the most encouraging things for the Jets is the improving play of their young offensive line. Both the pass protection and the run blocking have grown markedly stronger over the last month. Through their first five games, the Jets surrendered a sack once every 10.3 pass attempts. Over the last four weeks, that figure has nearly doubled to once every 19.6 passes. Better run blocking has also contributed to an increase in the team's rushing average, to 4.2 over the last four games from 3.2 yards a carry in the first five.
The Bears defense has gone in the exact opposite direction, from overwhelming to overwhelmed. They've allowed each of their last three opponents to rush for at least 100 yards, surrendering a whopping 5.8 yards a carry. Their pass rush also has disintegrated, dropping from three sacks a game to just one during the same three-game stretch.
Chicago's defense is extremely aggressive, using their speed to create confusion and disruption. Their attacking style leads to turnovers — an average of three a game. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher sets the tone for Chicago, and he appears to be back to full strength after being slowed for two weeks by a toe injury. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris is emerging as another star. He's intimidating, not just because of his size but also because of his powerful burst that helps him get into the backfield quickly.
In many ways, the Bears' defensive philosophy is very similar to New England's. In their win against the Patriots last week, the Jets took advantage of the defense's aggressiveness with quick passes and draw plays. To beat the Bears, they'll have to be much more aggressive with their running game to take advantage of overpursuing defenders. Chicago's secondary ranks no. 1 in fewest yards allowed and is the only team that hasn't allowed a single pass play of more than 40 yards. The Jets aren't going to be able to beat them by airing the ball out.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
From Bronko Nagurski and Red Grange to Gale Sayers and Walter Payton, the Bears offense historically has been characterized by a strong running game. Under offensive coordinator Ron Turner, it's a whole new ballgame. The Bears are throwing the ball more than they're running it, and they like to throw deep.
Third-year receiver Bernard Berrian is having a breakout season. He has the speed to stretch the field, and his 18.3 yards a catch ranks among the league leaders. Veteran receiver Muhsin Muhammad uses his speed to get open on short, quick routes underneath the coverage. Tight end Desmond Clark has flourished in the West Coast-style offense, establishing himself as one of the NFC's best tight ends.
The key to making the offense fly is quarterback Rex Grossman, who is finally healthy after being sidelined by injuries for most of his first three NFL seasons and has since emerged as one of the league's most productive passers. Grossman has a strong arm and a nice touch on his deep throws. His 17 touchdown passes are just one shy of league-leaders Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb.
The Chicago running game is less formidable. Thomas Jones is their leading rusher, a slasher who ran for 1,335 yards last year. This season, however, teams have been able to hold him in check. Jones has averaged just 3.8 yards a carry, and in 189 carries he has only two runs longer than 17 yards. Cedric Benson is a battering ram who is useful in short yardage situations, but injuries have kept the second-year player from making more of an impact.
Not many teams have been able to derail the Bears offense, but those that have found success by pressuring Grossman and making him force throws down the field. He has thrown 11 interceptions in nine games, third most of any NFL quarterback.
Even if the Jets can knock Grossman around, that may not be enough. Their defense hasn't held an opponent to less than 125 rushing yards since Week 1. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has been using the 4–3 scheme more often, and the results have been tantalizing. Defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson, who has looked lost playing in a 3–4, was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week after registering six tackles and a sack versus the Patriots. If the Jets can build on that success, they've got a chance.
KEY TO THE GAME The Bears defense has a league high 27 takeaways, and they make no bones about the fact that they're trying to force turnovers on every play. On the other hand, their vertical passing game makes them vulnerable to making their own mistakes on offense. The Jets are 5–1 when they win the turnover battle, and to beat the Bears, they'll need to do that again.
Lahman's Pick: Jets 24–17