Bears-Texans preview: Chicago's ball

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Bears-Texans preview: Chicago's ball

More than ever, it starts up front

First, by way of background and perspective:

What has happened to the Chicago pass protection in the past three weeks is perhaps the biggest mystery of 2012, exceeding even what precisely Charles Tillman does to get so many footballs out of peoples hands. It is certainly the most concerning.

To dismiss it as proof that a line that blocked for 2,015 rushing yards and three different 100-yard rushers was really horrendous all along doesnt wash. In the five games, all wins, before Jay Cutlers thumb injury last season, the Bears allowed exactly five sacks total. That was with an offensive line that started four different front-fives in the first five games.

This year, with only one change (Chilo Rachal for Chris Spencer at left guard) and that done for upgrade rather than injury, the Bears gave up as many sacks the each of the Green Bay (seven), Detroit and Carolina games as they did in that entire five-game win stretch last season.

The Bears gave up five sacks to the Detroit Lions (out of their 18 total for the year), six to the Carolina Panthers (equaling one-fourth of their season total) and three to the Tennessee Titans, who had 11 in the previous eight games.

Now they have the Houston Texans, who already have 24 for the year. The headliner is end J.J. Watt and his 10.5 sacks. But Antonio Smith on the other end has four and nine different Texans have sacks this season.

NFLs best D? A style problem

It is superfluous to debate whether the Bears, Texans or 49ers defense is the best in the NFL. Those units dont play each other.

But look beyond simply yardage totals. The Texans rank behind only the Bears in the Aikman Ratings, a weighted composite favored by coach Lovie Smith. They rank in the top 10 in 11 different defensive categories (vs. the Bears eight of 11). There no glaring weaknesses in the Houston defense.

The immediate problem is that although the Texans play a version of a 3-4, it is one that attacks and disrupts with its line. Many 3-4s are read-and-react with their down linemen, typically bigger bodies who do not regularly threaten quarterbacks.

But Mike Tice likened the Houston scheme to the Steelers of recent 3-4 vintage, with linemen playing a one-gap, get-into-the-backfield similar in mindset to the Bears.

The nose tackle is about the only one whos reading, Tice said. Theyre not butting up and peeking into the backfield.

What this means is that all three down linemen in this 3-4 have more tackles (Watt 59, Smith 29, nose tackle Shaun Cody 21) than the highest-ranked Bears lineman (Henry Melton 19).

The game is ideally out of Cutler's hands

The mandate is for the Bears to run the football, although this will require a patient and game-long commitment. Houston is ninth in the NFL in yards allowed per attempt (4.0) so there will be more than a few tries that net little in the first half. And Houston is the only NFL team to allow zero rushing touchdowns this season, the last one coming in game 15 of last year.

Matt Forte is averaging a career-best 5.0 yards per carry. If the Bears can approach that against Houston, they create multiple opportunities.

Matt, he's a beast, said wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who will be the prime beneficiary if the Texans must commit a safety to the box for Forte duty. And that's our guy, our offense is tailored around him, and we're going to continue to try and get him the ball. When he's rolling, everything else opens up for myself and Earl Bennett.

The overriding directive is protecting Jay Cutler, whom the Texans are intent on rattling.

I hope so, said free safety Glover Quin, who is third on the Texans in tackles, has a sack and has broken up more passes (seven) than anyone other that Watt (10). Obviously, we want to try to get to the quarterback and put some pressure on him and force him into some throws that arent his best throws. If we can get him in that situation, thatd be good for us.

Cutler can be his own worst enemy and if he is this week, when his offensive line and protections have their hands full, is middle of the pack (13th) in time to throw, the time from snap to throw or no longer throwing, based on studies by Pro Football Focus. But he is an ominous No. 4 in time to sack at 4.01 seconds, behind only Seattle rookie Russell Wilson, Alex Smith in San Francisco and Michael Vick.

That points to Cutler holding the ball sufficiently to allow his tormentors to close.

Game plan?

No team has given the ball away fewer times than Houston (six five interceptions, one fumble). This points to very little chance that the Bears will have double-digit points coming on turnovers, and that Cutler remain in a controlled place more than most games.

It sounded this week like that has sunk in.

Im just trying to, the way our defense is playing, its just minimize turnovers, try to convert on third down and protect the ball and make smart decisions in the red zone, Cutler said. Were running the ball well. I think offensive lines getting better and better. As they move and get better, thats going to open up more doors for what were able to do in the passing game and kind of open up my game a little bit.

Saturday on CSN: Fire in need of a win vs. D.C. United

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Saturday on CSN: Fire in need of a win vs. D.C. United

The seventh match of the season is a bit early to be thinking about must-win games, but a look at the Chicago Fire's early results and schedule shows why there should be a bit more desperation.

The Fire host D.C. United on Saturday (4 p.m. on CSN; coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live) and need three points to avoid putting themselves in an early hole in the playoff race in the Eastern Conference.

After playing four of the first six matches at home against all against Eastern Conference teams, the Fire (1-2-3, 6 points) have just one win. On top of that, the next three games are all on the road in an eight-day period. Getting points during that stretch will be difficult. That's why Saturday's game against D.C. (2-3-3, 9 points) is about as important as a late-April game can be.

"The team we have a good feeling," Fire midfielder John Goossens said. "We are waiting on the results. We are working hard for it. Last week was really hard sessions. We trained really hard and we have to show it on the weekend.”

On the other side, D.C. has two shutout victories in its last three matches after going winless through five. The veteran team is crushed with injuries at the moment.

Standout goalkeeper Bill Hamid has been out all season and his replacement Andrew Dykstra, a former Fire keeper, has been out since starting the opener. Charlie Horton, who was acquired due to the absence of Hamid, is also out injured. Second-year player Travis Worra has started each match since.

Forward Fabian Espindola, who has three goals so far, picked up a hamstring injury last weekend and is out. He will likely be replaced by Alvaro Sabario at forward, who will pair with former Fire forward Chris Rolfe up top. Midfielder Marcelo Sarvas is suspended due to yellow card accumulation.

In addition to Rolfe, Saturday marks the return of longtime Fire player Patrick Nyarko. Nyarko was traded by the Fire in the offseason after playing eight seasons for the Chicago club. Nyarko has made seven starts for United.

“I think they have good individual quality," Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said of D.C. "They have also experienced players, many of them have played a long time together so that’s a great advantage for their team. I think they are very good on the counter also and very good on set pieces so we will work on that to prepare as much as we can... We have to be smart and don’t concede fouls and corners and set pieces in our half.”

On the Fire injury front, David Accam is still out with a knee injury. Rookie Alex Morrell, who has come on as a sub in each of the last two matches, is also listed as out in the injury report due to a calf strain.

Chicago Fire vs. D.C. United

When: Coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

TV: CSN Chicago (simulcast in Spanish on CSN+)

Where: Toyota Park; Bridgeview, Ill.

Cubs playing it safe with Kris Bryant's ankle

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Cubs playing it safe with Kris Bryant's ankle

Cubs nation can breathe a sigh of relief: Kris Bryant is considered just day-to-day with an ankle injury.

In fact, Bryant may even see game action in the latter innings of Friday's game against the Atlanta Braves.

Bryant suffered the ankle injury running the bases Thursday and a precautionary MRI showed nothing more than a mild sprain.

The Cubs kept him out of the lineup for Friday's action and Bryant will stay in the training room at the beginning of the game. 

But if the team needs his bat late in the game, that could be a possibility.

"We'll know game-in-progress whether or not he's able to hit late if we need that," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.

The Cubs lineup is deep, but they can't really afford to be without Bryant for any extended period of time with Kyle Schwarber already lost for the season and Miguel Montero placed on the disabled list Thursday.

That's a big reason why they opted to play it safe with Bryant's ankle and give him time to heal so this doesn't become a lingering issue.

"[Ankle injuries] are tricky," Maddon said. "[Cubs trainer P.J. Mainville] seems to be optimistic about this whole thing. I think if we just kinda rest him a little bit right now and not really abuse it right now, then it should go away relatively fast.

"The thing with sprained ankles is always if you re-jam it somehow. That's the problem. You could be feeling fine after maybe a week or two weeks and all of a sudden, you just hit it wrong and you feel it.

"The biggest concern is always that somebody's not able to hurt themselves further. You can play with a soreness as long as there's no threat for a greater injury."

Bryant is currently hitting .289 with an .878 OPS, four homers and 15 RBI through the Cubs' 16-5 start.

For Andrew Ladd, chance to play for a contender trumps money

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For Andrew Ladd, chance to play for a contender trumps money

Andrew Ladd’s second stint in Chicago was, in some ways, like his first one.

He had good teammates and enjoyed being around them again. He had nothing but good things to say about the organization that welcomed him here for the second time in his career.

The only difference was the abrupt postseason ending.

“It’s disappointing, for sure,” Ladd said during Wednesday’s wrap-up interviews. “You bring your family here and move your whole life. You want to make a run for it, make it worthwhile. Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way.”

Ladd’s stay with the Blackhawks is likely to be a brief one. They traded for the veteran, who was part of their 2010 Stanley Cup team, figuring he could be a key piece for another run. It wasn’t to be. Ladd had a quiet postseason, recording just two points in the Blackhawks’ seven-game series against the St. Louis Blues.

“It was a tight series, could’ve gone either way and that’s life,” he said. “You move on. Just happy to have the opportunity to come back and be a part of this group again.”

Ladd has reached that point in his career where he can look at the big picture. He’s won two Cups, one with the Blackhawks and the other with the Carolina Hurricanes. His family grew by another member earlier this month; Ladd brought his his son Walker Gordon, born April 14, home on Tuesday.

“It was a good day after what happened in St. Louis,” Ladd said. “It kind of put things in perspective when you can come home and take your mind off everything else.”

As for Ladd’s continuing hockey career, he said it’s not about getting the lucrative contract anymore as much as it’s about playing for a winner.

“I think I’m at the point in my career where I can make decisions based on being in a good situation. At the end of the day it’s not all about money for me. It’s about being in a good place for my family and being on a team that’s going to contend every year,” Ladd said. “You’d be crazy not to want to be a part of this group and this organization. We’ll see what happens.”

Chances are the Blackhawks and Ladd will not be together in the near future. The Blackhawks are once again facing a salary-cap crunch and, if there is a high-priority signee for them, it’s Andrew Shaw. Even that possibility is a tough one.

Still, Ladd’s not ruling anything out. Ladd’s latest playoff run with the Blackhawks was much shorter than he or they would have liked. But the Blackhawks have the pieces to contend again, and Ladd wouldn’t mind being a part of it.

“Every guy’s at a different point in his career in terms of what he wants to accomplish, whether he has a family or he’s getting on later in his career and wants to be part of a contender,” Ladd said. “There are a lot of things that go into that. You evaluate that individually and try to make the best decision possible for yourself and for your family. At the end of the day, you try to do whatever’s possible to be a part of a group and an organization like this.”