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.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Breaking down the World Series hangover

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Breaking down the World Series hangover

Do the Cubs have a World Series hangover?

On the latest edition of the Cubs Talk Podcast, NBC Sports Bay Area Giants Insider Alex Pavlovic joins CSN's Patrick Mooney to talk about the World Series hangover, how last year's playoff loss lingered in San Francisco, Johnny Cueto's quirks, the legend of Madison Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija's ups and downs.

Plus Kelly Crull, Jeff Nelson and Tony Andracki break down the Cubs’ defensive struggles this year compared to an historic 2016 and how Ian Happ fits into the Cubs’ lineup in both the short and long term.

Listen to the latest episode below:

What does Caleb Swanigan's departure for NBA mean for Purdue and the 2018 Big Ten title race?

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USA TODAY

What does Caleb Swanigan's departure for NBA mean for Purdue and the 2018 Big Ten title race?

Caleb Swanigan, unsurprisingly, is heading to the NBA.

Last season’s Big Ten Player of the Year announced Wednesday that he’ll pass up the final two seasons of his NCAA eligibility for a paying gig at the professional level, an awesome opportunity for a kid who battled obesity and homelessness to become one of the best basketball players in the country.

But Swanigan’s departure from West Lafayette means a heck of a lot to the Big Ten.

Without the league’s most dominant big man, what becomes of Purdue’s chances at winning a conference title? Similarly, with a weakened — though still strong — group of Boilermakers, what does the Big Ten race look like going into 2017-18?

First, Purdue. Matt Painter’s program is plenty healthy, and while there’s no doubt that losing Swanigan is a big deal, the Boilers got some really good news, too, Wednesday when Vincent Edwards announced he’ll be returning for his senior season. Seven-footer Isaac Haas also made the decision to return to West Lafayette, meaning the towering frontcourt hasn’t been completely decimated just because tha man called “Biggie” is gone.

Purdue will also return Carsen Edwards, who had an impressive freshman campaign, and Dakota Mathias, a terrific defender and 3-point shooter. Two more important pieces — P.J. Thompson and Ryan Cline — are back, as well. And Painter will welcome in freshman Nojel Eastern, a highly touted guard from Evanston.

So the Boilers are still in very good shape. There will be a big magnifying glass on Haas, who despite his physical attributes hasn’t always found consistent on-court success. But there have been plenty of flashes of brilliance from the big man. A big step forward in his game would go a long way in easing the blow of losing Swanigan and could keep Purdue as one of the frontrunners for a conference title.

That brings us to the Big Ten race. Ever since Miles Bridges, the conference’s reigning Freshman of the Year, announced he’d be returning to Michigan State for his sophomore season, the Spartans have been the near-unanimous favorite. Only something like Swanigan deciding to stay at Purdue could’ve changed that. And with Swanigan expectedly heading to the NBA, Michigan State remains the preseason pick to win the conference crown.

Like any good year in the Big Ten, though, there will be challengers.

But Michigan State is the popular choice to win it because of Tom Izzo’s insane 2016 recruiting class is returning completely intact: Bridges, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford are all back. And Izzo brings in one of the top 2017 recruits in forward Jaren Jackson.

But Sparty isn’t the only one with an impressive returning group. Purdue’s experienced roster has already been covered. Northwestern, a surprise contender in 2016-17, should be even better as Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey enter their fourth year playing together. Dererk Pardon, a shot-blocking whiz at center, is also back, as is sharp-shooter Aaron Falzon, who sat out the 2016-17 season with an injury after starting during his freshman year in 2015-16.

There will be big shoes to fill for some perennial contenders like Maryland — which must replace Melo Trimble — and Michigan, which watched eligibility run out on Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin before D.J. Wilson decided to head to the professional ranks Wednesday. But those teams have plenty of talent returning, too. The Terps will have all three of their fab freshmen — Justin Jackson, Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter — back for sophomore seasons, while the Wolverines have Moe Wagner back in the fold alongside Xavier Simpson and Duncan Robinson, among others.

And what of last year’s shocking contender, Minnesota? The Golden Gophers didn’t lose too much this offseason and will return almost every main player from last year’s 24-10 squad: Amir Coffey, Nate Mason, Reggie Lynch, Jordan Murphy, Dupree McBrayer and Eric Curry.

There are up-and-comers to think about, too, such as last year’s freshman-heavy squads at Iowa and Penn State. And could new head coaches Brad Underwood and Archie Miller make instant splashes at Illinois and Indiana, respectively?

If it sounds a little too much like the annual coach speak that “any team can win on any night” in the Big Ten, that’s because there is a good deal of truth to that oft-used phrase.

There are definitely tiers to this thing, though. Even without Swanigan, Purdue is still in one of those upper tiers. But there might be no team besides Michigan State at the very top of the heap, something underscored by Swanigan turning pro.