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.

Northwestern holds off Ohio State for fifth Big Ten win, first win in Columbus in 40 years

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USA TODAY

Northwestern holds off Ohio State for fifth Big Ten win, first win in Columbus in 40 years

It's not something that's been said often over the decades, but Northwestern is one of the best teams in the Big Ten.

That's the story the standings tell, and with another week of the 2016-17 season in the books, the Wildcats sit at 5-2 in conference play, good for the second-best mark in the league.

That fifth conference win came Sunday afternoon with a 74-72 defeat of Ohio State. It was the first time Northwestern won in Columbus since 1977.

This is the first 5-2 start to Big Ten play for the Cats since 1968. So is this the first time ever the Cats get an invite to the NCAA tournament?

Of course that remains to be seen, but Chris Collins' squad sure seems to be setting itself up for inclusion in the field of 68. Sunday's win was just the latest to come away from Evanston, and in seven conference games, four of the team's five wins have come in road games, including three straight at Nebraska, Rutgers and Ohio State.

Northwestern had to find a way to win Sunday. A couple surges in the first half took the Cats from modest deficits to a lead that grew as big as eight. The halftime advantage was five, but that slipped away quickly as Northwestern shot poorly after halftime. Ice cold is a better descriptor, the Cats struggling to get their field-goal percentage above 30 percent over the final 20 minutes. It got there eventually, the team finishing shooting 32.3 percent in the second half, but it was the work from the free-throw line that made the win possible. Over the final 20 minutes, Northwestern was 14-for-16 from the charity stripe, including going 11-for-12 over the final minute and a half.

The key stretch came when a Scottie Lindsey 3-ball broke a 56-all tie with four and a half minutes to play. Ohio State countered with a bucket, but freshman point guard Isiah Brown turned in back-to-back scores of his own, the second a breakaway layup off a steal. That made it a five-point lead, and though the gap shrunk over the game's final three minutes, Northwestern's free-throw shooting allowed the Cats to hold that lead the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, the Buckeyes shot themselves in the foot at the free-throw line. They were 12-for-23 on the game, and all but one of the attempts came in the second half, making for 10 missed free throws over the game's final 20 minutes. Northwestern committed a lot of fouls, but Ohio State couldn't capitalize, something that has to be quite painful for the Buckeyes, considering they had edges in other statistical categories. They shot 45.6 percent from the field compared to the Cats shooting 37.5 percent. Ohio State also had 16 second-chance points and 28 points in the paint. But Northwestern had 17 points off 13 Ohio State turnovers.

Lindsey finished with a game-high 21 points and has scored in double figures in every game this season. Bryant McIntosh had 17 points, and Vic Law had 10. Jae'Sean Tate scored 14 points for Ohio State, with JaQuan Lyle adding 13, Trevor Thompson scoring 11 and Cam Williams putting in 10.

The win was Northwestern's fourth straight and boosted its overall record to 16-4 to go along with the 5-2 mark in the conference. The Cats next play Nebraska on Thursday.

The loss snapped a modest two-game win streak for Ohio State and dropped the Buckeyes' record to 12-8 overall and 2-5 in the Big Ten. They next play Minnesota on Wednesday.

Marcus Kruger 'pretty close' to returning for Blackhawks

Marcus Kruger 'pretty close' to returning for Blackhawks

Marcus Kruger has been sidelined a little longer than the originally expected three weeks with his right hand injury. Not that any missed time is enjoyable.

"I wanted to get back there probably a few weeks ago but unfortunately I couldn't," said Kruger, who suffered his injury on Dec. 30 against the Carolina Hurricanes. "I tried to listen to the doctors and do everything I can instead to be ready when I get cleared. That's my mindset."

Kruger is close, but not quite there, as the Blackhawks prepared for Sunday night's game against the Vancouver Canucks. Kruger skated with his teammates for the first time since being injured but wasn't among the line rushes. The center took faceoffs on his own at the end of practice. Kruger pronounced himself, "pretty close," to returning. Coach Joel Quenneville said the Blackhawks will see how Kruger is over the next few days. The Blackhawks play again Tuesday and Thursday before heading into the All-Star break this weekend.

The Blackhawks have missed Kruger's versatility and especially his play on the penalty kill. The Blackhawks' kill has been fine through Kruger's absence but he nevertheless is a big part of it when he's healthy.

"We have a lot of options and when he's out everyone gets a more important role, whether starting or faceoffs. And we have a rotation of five guys who are in there most of the time. But he definitely absorbs the most responsibility when he's playing in that area," Quenneville said of Kruger. "So it's nice you get to try some other guys and you get deeper as you go along."

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

One of the players who's emerged in Kruger's absence is Tanner Kero, who filled his third-line center void. Kero and linemates Vinnie Hinostroza and Marian Hossa clicked on the dads trip, coming up with big plays and points in the Blackhawks' victories over Colorado and Boston. As of now, Kero appears to have the hold on third-line center.

"I don't see too many things that would change his positioning because he really helped himself," Quenneville said.

Kruger said he's fine if that means returning to fourth-line center duties. Regardless, he'll help bolster the Blackhawks' forward lines. The last step is likely contact, which Kruger got a little of – outside of faceoffs – in Sunday's skate. Kruger's had to wait a little longer than expected on his injury but he's getting there.

“Obviously [I want to] get back and playing the same way,” Kruger said. “First I want to get healthy and then get back playing my best and do everything I can for the team.”