Cubs

Bears need to 'lengthen' the field vs. Houston Texans

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Bears need to 'lengthen' the field vs. Houston Texans

A significant key to Sundays Bears-Houston Texans game: length of field. If it is the same for both teams, the situation tilts in favor of the Houston Texans. And the Bears offense knows it.

At the end of the day, with our defense, as long as we make another teams offense go 80, 90 yards, I think were going to be OK, said quarterback Jay Cutler, who has accounted for all 12 of the Bears turnovers with eight interceptions and four lost fumbles.

The Bears have lived by the takeaway (28) and have turned those into points, seven times for scores by the defense. They are 6-0 with a positive turnover ratio in 2012.

For all of the apparent statistical imbalances, the Bears have driven the ball long distances almost as effectively as the Texans. Houston has 23 drives of 50 yards or longer that have resulted in points. The Bears have 21.

The problem with that for the Bears is that Houston has allowed only 12 drives of 50 yards or longer that resulted in points. The Bears have allowed 16, also very respectable, but Houston is not the Jaguars, Titans or even the Lions, teams in the bottom half of the NFL in average yards per rush, a Bears standard.

The Texans are ninth, second in rush yards allowed per game. They will be without starting nose tackle Shaun Cody because of rib and lung issues, so the Texans will use a three-man combination of Earl Mitchell (starting), rookie Jared Crick and Terrell McClain, cut by Carolina and signed last week.

Starting vs. finishing

The Bears will be in serious trouble if they are forced to play from more than one score behind. That has rarely happened this season, with them trailing in a fourth quarter just twice this season (Green Bay, Carolina).

Not surprisingly then, the Bears have had as many scoring drives in the fourth quarter as in the second and third quarters combined this year:

Quarter Drives
1st 9
2nd 6
3rd 7
4th 13

Cutler has directed only six fourth-quarter comebacks in 49 games as a Bear. That plus the Houston defense points to a need to avoid a serious points need late.

We've had some games where we've started well, coordinator Mike Tice said. We scored on the first series a couple of games ago, we scored on the second series a game a couple of weeks ago. We just need to put a couple of drives together. We need to get that rhythm.

While attention will focus on RT Gabe Carimi vs. ex-Wisconsin teammate DE J.J. Watt, the real game may play out with center Roberto Garza and guards Lance Louis and Chilo Rachal against a weakened Houston middle.

I think weve got to recognize what theyre playing and attack them a certain way according to what coverage and fronts were seeing, Cutler said.

Weather or not Bears want nasty

A home-field advantage may be rolling in on Doppler weather maps in the form of rain for Sunday night. The Bears dont necessarily play better in adverse conditions but they are more accustomed to them than the Houston Texans.

So as far as Soldier Field being a sloppy track by Sunday evening , We hope so, said meteorologist Lovie Smith. Its November, and Im sure Houston is expecting to play in bad weather. Ive been watching the forecast a little bit closer than I normally do, and I hear theres a lot of rain and wind supposed to come in.

Temperatures are expected to be around 60 degrees, which wont bother the Texans. The 22-mile-per-hour south wind wont favor anybody who cant run the football. Same with the rain forecast, which is a 20-percent possibility at 7 p.m., 60 at 8 p.m., 90 at 9 p.m., and an ominous 100 percent at 10 p.m. right about the time a close football game is apt to be decided.

Are Cubs feeling drained? The clubhouse is divided

Are Cubs feeling drained? The clubhouse is divided

For the second straight week, Kyle Schwarber halted his postgame media scrum to get something off his chest.

Standing at his locker — the same spot he stood exactly a week prior — the Cubs slugger got about as forceful as he's ever been with the cameras rolling.

Are the Cubs drained right now?

"Never. Nope. Not at all," Schwarber said. "I'll shut you down right there — we're not running out of gas at all."

Really? 

You gotta admire Schwarber's grit. He's got that linebacker/football mentality still locked and loaded in mid-October after a brutal first three games of the NLCS.

But...come on. The Cubs aren't drained? They're not tired or weary or mentally fatigued?

Schwarber says no, but it doesn't look that way on the field. They look like the high point of the season was that epic Game 5 in D.C. It was one of the craziest baseball games ever played, very reminsicent of Game 7 in last year's World Series.

Only one thing: Game 7 was the ultimate last game. They left it all on the field and that was cool because there was no more season left. Last week's wacky contest wasn't the final game of the season. It was just the final game of the FIRST series of the postseason.

So if the Cubs aren't feeling any weariness — emotional, physical, mental or otherwise — they must be superhuman.

Yet Anthony Rizzo — the face of the franchise — backed Schwarber's sentiment.

"I'm 28 years old right now," Rizzo said. "I could run laps around this place right now. I've got a great job for a living to play baseball.

"We have a beautiful life playing baseball. You gotta keep that in perspective. So if you wanna try to get mentally tired, realize what we're doing."

Rizzo talked that talk, but his performance on the field has hit a wall. After his "Respect Me!" moment in Game 3 of the NLDS, Rizzo went hitless in his next 16 at-bats before a harmless single Tuesday night. He then struck out in his final trip to the plate.

Bryzzo's other half — Kris Bryant — actually took the opposite stance of his teammates.

"Yeah, [that Washington series] was pretty draining, I think," Bryant admitted. "Some good games there that I think were pretty taxing for our bullpen and pitchers, too. 

"Kinda expect that around this time of year. The games mean a lot."

It's not surprising to hear those words from Bryant. In fact, it wouldn't even be mildly shocking to hear every player in the clubhouse share the same point of view.

The Cubs played all the way past Halloween last fall, then hit the town, having epic celebrations, going on TV shows, having streets named after them, etc. 

Then, before you know it, there's Cubs Convention again. And shortly after that, pitchers and catchers report. 

From there, the "title defense" season began, featuring a lackluster first half and a second half that took a tremendous amount of energy just to stave off the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central and get into the postseason.

Oh yeah, and then that series with the Nationals where the Cubs squeaked out a trio of victories by the slimest of margins.

These Cubs have never really had anything resembling a break. 

However, they're now just one game away from getting that rest they so badly need (and deserve).

Ben Zobrist breaks down how Dodgers pitching has made Cubs offense disappear

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist breaks down how Dodgers pitching has made Cubs offense disappear

Ben Zobrist didn’t look for any deeper meaning in Kyle Schwarber’s first-inning homer off Yu Darvish on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, or hope that one swing could change the entire momentum of this National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Zobrist knows what it takes to win in October, the Cubs identifying him as the missing piece to their lineup after he helped transform the 2015 Kansas City Royals into a championship team, and then getting a World Series MVP return on their $56 million investment.

That “Schwarbomb” turned out to be fool’s gold, the only run the Cubs would score in front of a quiet, low-energy crowd of 41,871, the defending champs one more loss away from golfing/hunting/fishing/signing autographs at memorabilia shows.

“That was great to get a homer, but I’d rather see some hits strung together,” Zobrist said after a sloppy 6-1 loss, standing at his locker for almost 10 minutes, answering questions in the underground clubhouse. “I’d like to see a couple doubles together, a few singles, three or four hits in an inning. We just haven’t done that.

“That’s what makes rallies. They’ve stayed away from those kinds of innings. That’s why they’re ahead right now.”

Darvish – Jake Arrieta’s replacement in the 2018 rotation? – canceled out the two singles he allowed in the first inning by getting two of his seven strikeouts and answering some of the questions about how he would respond to all the pressure in October.

Darvish – a trade-deadline acquisition that had echoes of Theo Epstein’s “If not now, when?” explanation for last year’s Aroldis Chapman trade – walked one of the 25 batters he faced and pitched into the seventh inning before handing the game over to a lights-out bullpen.

“There’s nothing that we didn’t see beforehand on video,” Zobrist said. “It’s just a matter of we need him to make more mistakes, and we got to take advantage of those mistakes when he makes them.

“When he got to 3-2 counts, he wasn’t throwing a heater. He was throwing the cutter, and it’s a tough pitch to hit. You have to sit on it, and even then it’s got good movement to it. He kept us off-balance.”

Forward-thinking manager Dave Roberts is at the controls of a Los Angeles bullpen that can match up against right- and left-handed hitters, target locations, unleash upper-90s velocity, execute the elevated fastball that messes with eye levels and lean on All-Star closer Kenley Jansen for multiple innings.

The Dodger relievers essentially put together a no-hitter that lasted nine-plus innings across Games 1, 2 and 3. Together, they have pitched 10.2 scoreless innings, facing 36 batters and allowing two hits and a walk and hitting Anthony Rizzo with a pitch.

“They kept the ball on the edges and kept us off-balance,” Zobrist said. “They’re not throwing the pitch in the middle of the plate when we need them to. They’re keeping it on the edges and those are hard (to hit). When you got guys with good stuff on the mound, you need them to make some mistakes for you, or at least start walking some guys.

“When they’ve gotten in those situations with a three-ball count, they’re still making the pitch when they need to. They’re not walking many guys – and we are.

“That’s why they’re up 3-nothing.”

Zobrist (4-for-23 this postseason) is now more of a part-time player/defensive replacement, no longer the switch-hitting force who dropped the bunt at Dodger Stadium that helped end the 21-inning scoreless streak during last year’s NLCS.

Zobrist insisted the Cubs are still all there mentally, not checked out after a grueling first round against the Washington Nationals and a brutal walk-off loss in Game 2 at Dodger Stadium. He owns two World Series rings and one has the Cubs logo and this inscription: “We Never Quit.”

“We keep it loose all the time,” Zobrist said. “We know what’s at stake. And we don’t shy away from it. We look forward to the challenge ahead. It would be a great story for us to be able to come back in this series and win this series.

“We make adjustments, we take advantage of mistakes and we come out with a victory tomorrow. That’s what we have to do.”