The Bears will face their second potential relocator to Los Angeles in six days. This test will be tougher than Monday night in San Diego.
Out from the shadow of waiting and hoping for their injury-prone, top overall draft pick and franchise quarterback to get on the field, the Rams didn't have Sam Bradford to kick around any more. But the big trade that stole headlines on the opening day of free agency last March has raised questions whether they're much better off with Nick Foles. Jeff Fisher's first three seasons as head coach in St. Louis started 3-5 and never finished above .500. They're a game better than that at this season's halfway point, but as inconsistent as ever.
An emotional season-opening overtime win over the Seahawks (whom we've since learned aren't as mighty as they've been the past three years) was followed by a loss in Washington. Handing Arizona its first loss of the season in the desert has been followed by sub-par performances at Green Bay and Minnesota sandwiched around easy home wins over lowly Cleveland and San Francisco. The legitimate defense they built via the 2011 through 2014 drafts was supposed to be assisted by the bold gamble they took in selecting Todd Gurley tenth overall last April. Gurley's paid off, but the Rams are still just 3-3 since his Week Three debut.
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Sunday marks the exact one-year anniversary of Gurley tearing his left ACL, and his remarkably effective Adrian Peterson-like return included a four-game stretch in which he ran 88 times for 566 yards before Peterson's teammates stacked the box and held him to 89 yards on 24 carries Sunday in Minnesota.
The problem has been Foles and his receiving corps keeping defenses honest enough. The Vikings showed how frightened they were by deciding to take the wind after winning the overtime coin toss. Foles threw for 297 yards in that opening win against the Seahawks, but has yet to surpass 200 yards in a game since. Lightning-quick Tavon Austin is finally being used as, and being, a multi-faceted threat (25 rushes for 207 yards, three touchdowns, and 28 receptions for 300 yards and four scores, plus a punt return TD). Kenny Britt is second in the NFL in yards per catch (20.7) but has only 15 of them (one touchdown). Foles is 12-of-31 (448 yards) on throws of 20 or more yards.
This offense is 30th in points, 31st in yards, and 32nd in passing yards and third down percentage (23.8). They've converted just four of their last 37 third-down chances. Enter Wes Welker, signed Monday after the multi-concussed slot specialist begged and pleaded for some NFL team to keep him from retirement. A roster spot opened for him when Stedman Bailey was caught violating the league's substance abuse policy.
Tight end Jared Cook has never lived up to a better contract than what Martellus Bennett signed with the Bears. Bennett has 77 more catches since 2013 and is a better blocker. That's Lance Kendricks' specialty for the Rams, but has been keeping opposing defenses a little more honest the past season and a half.
As general manager Les Snead invested heavily on the defensive line the previous four drafts, he spent his first seven picks this past spring on the offensive side, from Gurley to second- and third-round offensive linemen Rob Havenstein and Jamon Brown (both starting) to go along with slow-developing left tackle Greg Robinson, the second overall pick in 2014.
Aaron Donald last year. Alec Ogletree in 2013. Michael Brockers three years ago. And Robert Quinn in 2011. Throw in eight-year vet Chris Long and ex-Lion Nick Fairley. Those five defensive linemen and linebacker are former first-round picks that are starters or current regulars on the Rams defense. Throw in four second- or third-round defensive backs selected between 2012 and 2014, and you have the meat of a St. Louis defense that is second in sacks (27), sixth in points per game (18.3), fourth against the pass, and fifth in yards and third-down defense in 2015. And oh, yes: they lead the NFL in red zone touchdown defense (35.3 percent). Since the 34-31 opener against Seattle, they've allowed just one touchdown and 24 total points in three games at the Edward Jones Dome.
Quinn (five sacks) missed Sunday's game with a sore knee, while Long, the starting end on the opposite side who should be facing brother Kyle one-on-one, has missed the past three games, also with a knee problem. Donald, last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year, is exactly halfway to his total from his debut season (nine).
James Laurinaitis leads the team with 60 tackles after fellow linebacker Ogletree paced the defense in that category the past two years. Akeem Ayers came over in free agency on the other side after winning a Super Bowl with the Patriots.
After going through three defensive coordinators in three years, Gregg Williams is in his second season in St. Louis after serving his Bounty-Gate suspension, revisited after nickel back LaMarcus Joyner's controversial hit on Teddy Bridgewater. 6'2 corner Trumaine Johnson has half of the defense's six interceptions and will be asked to slow down Alshon Jeffery, while gambler Janoris Jenkins has a pair of picks on the other side. Thumper T.J. McDonald (also sidelined against the Vikes) was Pro Football Focus' top-rated safety in the second half of last season. Rodney McLeod plays Free, while Williams often uses Mark Barron as a blitzer in the sub-package.
After outplaying poor Chargers return and coverage units Monday night, the Bears' punt coverage must be wary of Austin, who took one to the house in the opener. Benny Cunningham and the kick return team actually rank lower (23rd) than Marc Mariani and the Bears. Former high school quarterback Johnny Hekker's pulled off fake punts, so beware. Greg Zuerlein is just 13-of-20 on field goals this season, but nailed a career-high 61-yarder with an assist from the wind last week.