This Sunday, the Tennessee Titans (5-6) travel to Soldier Field to face the Chicago Bears (2-8). Kickoff is 12:00 PM CST.
Let’s consider four pivotal matchups in the game.
Bears’ quarterback situation vs. Titans’ front seven
Veteran quarterback Jay Cutler may have torn a labrum in his throwing shoulder last Sunday when the Bears lost 22-16 to the New York Giants, per Ian Rapoport and Mike Garafolo. Although Cutler is seeking a second opinion on the injury, it is suspected the 33-year-old will miss the rest of the season.
If Cutler is indeed unable to play, it would mark the third season-ending injury for a Bears’ quarterback this season. Backup Brian Hoyer broke his arm in a Week 7 loss to the Green Bay Packers, and third-stringer Connor Shaw broke his leg during the preseason.
Despite these reports, Bears’ head coach John Fox has not ruled Cutler out for Sunday’s matchup against Tennessee: “You know, in my experience with Jay, he’s a tough son of a gun … So, right now he is day to day.”
Whether Cutler is able or not able to play, the Bears’ quarterback situation does not bode well. In the unlikely event that he starts, Cutler will not be 100 percent. And in the likely event that he does not start, fourth-year quarterback Matt Barkley will have to face a Titans’ front seven that hit Colts’ quarterback Andrew Luck ten times last week.
LT Dennis Kelly vs. RE Akiem Hicks
The Titans suffered a big hit last week in their 24-17 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, when starting left tackle Taylor Lewan was removed from the game because of a sprained left knee. He suffered the injury in the fourth quarter when running back DeMarco Murray blocked Colts’ cornerback Vontae Davis into the back of his leg.
If Lewan is unable to play Sunday, Dennis Kelly is in line to start at left tackle for Tennessee. This offseason, the Titans acquired Kelly from the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for wideout Dorial Green-Beckham.
If Kelly indeed starts in Lewan’s place, he will lineup against a formidable opponent in Akiem Hicks. The Bears’ right end is having his best season to date. He has four sacks, eight quarterback hits, and grades as the league’s 14th overall interior defender per Pro Football Focus.
Right side of Bears’ offensive line vs. LB Derrick Morgan
Two weeks ago versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Bears lost right guard Kyle Long for the rest of the season. According to The Oregonian, Long has been placed on the Injured Reserves and will have multiple surgeries in the coming weeks to repair a torn ligament in his right ankle and a torn labrum in his left shoulder.
Long made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons, and before his injuries, he had continued to play well into his fourth season. According to Pro Football Focus, the former Oregon standout graded as the 14th overall guard at pass protection and the 23rd overall guard in the league.
With Long’s absence, the right side of the Bears’ offensive line is vulnerable, especially since linebacker Derrick Morgan plays on the left side of Tennessee’s defense.
Although Morgan started the season slowly, his past seven games have been stellar. Since Week 4, the 27-year-old has eight sacks for an average of 1.1 sacks per game. Morgan also has 19 quarterback hits this season, the second highest mark in the league behind only Aaron Donald (22) of the Los Angeles Rams.
Bears’ depleted lineup vs. Mularkey’s aggressive play calling
While it seems that the Bears’ state-of-affairs could get no worse, the team has suffered additional roster losses due to suspension of players for taking performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).
Receiver Alshon Jeffery and linebacker Jerrell Freeman were both suspended four games without pay for violating the NFL’s PED policy. Jeffery returns to play in Week 15 when the Bears face the Green Bay Packers, and Freeman returns one week later versus the Washington Redskins.
Thus, Chicago is down their starting quarterback, their Pro Bowl right guard, and their best offensive and defensive players, since Jeffery leads the team in receiving yards (630) and Freeman leads the defense in tackles (91).
Expect Titans’ head coach Mike Mularkey to therefore call some bold plays on Sunday. Not only does Chicago’s depleted lineup present a lot of vulnerability and opportunities for exploitation, but also the Titans are in need of a win if they wish to remain AFC South contenders.