Bears-Texans preview: Chicago's ball


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.

In Game 1, Jon Lester doesn't quite live up to his World Series reputation: 'We got a long ways to go'

In Game 1, Jon Lester doesn't quite live up to his World Series reputation: 'We got a long ways to go'

CLEVELAND – While the Cubs came into this World Series as the heavy favorites, the team with the global following and baseball’s best roster on paper, Jon Lester understood the challenge ahead. The Cleveland Indians would counter with their own Game 1 ace, a dynamic reliever changing the way we think about bullpens and a future Hall of Fame manager.

That’s how it played out in a 6-0 game that felt a lot closer, Corey Kluber pitching like a Cy Young Award winner, Andrew Miller handling the seventh and eighth innings and Terry Francona improving his record to 9-0 in World Series games.     

Welcome to “Believeland,” where the Fourth Street bars on Tuesday were buzzing more than seven hours before first pitch. That night, LeBron James and the Cavaliers would get their championship rings and watch the banner-raising ceremony at Quicken Loans Arena, just up the street from Progressive Field.

By the first inning – when pitching coach Chris Bosio had to walk out to the mound to talk to Lester – the red video ribbons lining the stadium said: “CLEVELAND AGAINST THE WORLD.” With the bases loaded, Lester had just drilled Brandon Guyer with a pitch, forcing in a second run, a sequence set in motion by walks to Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana and Jose Ramirez’s soft infield single up the third-base line.

It didn’t matter that Lester would eventually settle down and pretty much control this Cleveland lineup. (Except for that rocket Roberto Perez launched off the left-field railing for a solo homer and a 3-0 lead in the fourth inning.) Or that the Indians didn’t run all over the bases, with Francisco Lindor going 1-for-2 in stolen bases. (“Whatever, it’s happened all year," Lester said.)

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This is Cleveland’s blueprint for October, maybe its only chance to win its first World Series since 1948.

“It’s always important (to get a lead), no matter what time of year it is,” Lester said. “It makes a manager’s job a lot easier. It makes your job a lot easier. When you give a guy like Kluber – who’s locked in from pitch one – two runs in the first, it makes his job a lot easier. I know the feeling on the other side. You’re just able to attack differently.

“With the bullpens and all that stuff that they’re setting up nowadays, all you got to do is get through six.”

Lester kept it a 3-0 game, but didn’t finish the sixth inning, a rare October night where he didn’t seem to be automatic. Until Tuesday night, he had gone 3-0 in three World Series starts, allowing only one earned run in 21 innings.

Lester won his two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox, overlapping with Francona and Miller at different points. This is why the Cubs gave Lester a $155 million contract, to set the tone on the mound and within the clubhouse.

Near the end of a 103-win regular season – and even after winning the franchise’s first pennant in 71 years – Lester has offered colorful versions of: We haven’t done anything yet.

But Lester – the National League Championship Series co-MVP after putting up a 1.38 ERA against the Los Angeles Dodgers and watching the Cubs win both of those starts – also doesn’t do overreactions to losses.

“We got a long ways to go,” Lester said. “If we win tomorrow, we’re right back in it. Just like LA – everybody counted us out after Game 3. They said we were the worst best team in baseball. We’re here. We’re not giving up.

“I know my guys. I know my team. And I know that nobody in this clubhouse is giving anything up.”

Andrew Miller's outstanding postseason continues with escape to beat Cubs

Andrew Miller's outstanding postseason continues with escape to beat Cubs

CLEVELAND — Andrew Miller added another impressive chapter to an already legendary postseason performance on Tuesday night.

The Cleveland Indians reliever pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the top of the seventh inning to preserve a three-run lead and help his team achieve a 6-0 victory over the Cubs in Game 1 of the World Series in front of 38,091 at Progressive Field.

Despite putting four men on base, Miller added two more scoreless innings to his 2016 playoff résumé. Miller also struck out more three batters, giving him 24 in 13 2/3 innings this postseason, the second most by any reliever in playoff history. Critical to the effort was the strikeout of Cubs veteran David Ross with a checked swing on a 3-2 slider to strand the bases loaded in the seventh.

“You’re just trying to see the ball as long as you can and stay up the middle,” Ross said. “The 3-1, that’s the one that kinda messed me up. It didn’t break as much, so now you’re like ‘OK, let’s protect and just battle.’ ... Looking back at it, I wish I just stood there and not swung at all. If I could rewind. If it were that easy. I wish it was. And then he’d throw one right down the middle and America hates me.”

Ross has had his share of success against Miller before, though it all came when the left-hander was still a struggling starting pitcher. The veteran catcher is 3-for-5 with a walk against Miller in his career. But that wasn’t the reason Cubs manager Joe Maddon opted to stay with Ross instead of pinch hit for him with either Jorge Soler or Albert Almora Jr. with two outs in the seventh inning and Miller struggling for the first time all postseason.

With a man on and nobody out, Miller took over for Corey Kluber and walked Kyle Schwarber — only Miller’s third free pass of the postseason. Javy Baez followed with a single to load the bases.

But Miller rebounded quickly and retired Willson Contreras on a fly out to shallow center before he struck out Addison Russell. Based on his experience, Maddon thought Ross was the right man for the spot.

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“I thought David could hit him or David would accept his walk more than the other guys,” Maddon said. “David works good at-bats in that moment. So I felt good about him, actually. I felt better about him.

“I think with Soler coming off the bench or Albert they had less of a chance than David because I thought there was a two-fold opportunity to either get the hit or draw the walk.”

Ross worked the count to his favor quickly as he took a fastball for a ball, and after swinging and missing a slider, took two more balls to get ahead 3-1. But Miller dropped a slider in for a called strike and then turned to it once again, getting Ross to commit just enough for the third strike. The strikeout improved the Indians’ chances of winning by 26.5 percent, up to 94.7, according to

“I was trying to throw a really good one because if he hits it, it goes a long way,” Miller said. “That’s David Ross. I think even he would say, you can pitch to him, but if you throw something in his wheelhouse it’s going to go a long way and do some damage. Fortunate that it worked out. I threw a good one that was in a spot that he went after in the situation.”

Miller struggled again in the eighth inning as he walked Kris Bryant and allowed a Ben Zobrist single with two outs. But Miller — who allowed two hits and two walks for the first time all season in 77 appearances — struck out Kyle Schwarber to strand the pair.

The Indians’ key acquisition before the July 31 trade deadline threw 46 pitches, the most he’s thrown in a game since Sept. 8, 2011, when he was still a starter.

Indians manager Terry Francona wouldn’t commit to whether or not he’d use Miller in Game 2 on Wednesday. Francona cited how Miller bounced back after throwing 40 pitches in a Game 1 victory over Boston in the American League Division Series and would have been ready if needed. But any number of factors could keep Miller from pitching, and Francona is happy to have a 1-0 series lead in his pocket.

“I don’t know,” Francona said. “He was ready to come back and pitch the next night. I just think there’s a lot that can happen.

“But we won tonight. I think when you have a lead, you try to win.”