As the Eagles and Bears get set to face off in Week 7, both teams are trying to prove that they are still among the elite in the NFC. While Philadelphia (2-3) and Chicago (2-4) were both playoff contenders last year, neither team has lived up to preseason expectations so far. Here is a look at five key match-ups in Sunday's game that could play a big part in deciding which team gets back on track with a third win:
1. Brian Westbrook vs. Chicago's run defense
Westbrook returned to the Eagles lineup against the Jets in week six after missing a game with an abdominal injury, and he looked like the dynamic player he can be when he is healthy. Westbrook had 120 yards rushing against New York and he has had at least 85 yards rushing in every game he has played this year. On the season, Westbrook has two touchdowns on the ground and ranks twelfth in the NFL in rushing yards with 411 on 71 carries. He is averaging 5.8 yards-per-carry.
Last week, Minnesota Vikings rookie Adrian Peterson looked like a future all-pro against Chicago as he had his way with the Bear's defense, rushing for 224 yards and three touchdowns. Chicago was not at full strength on the defensive line, with Tommie Harris playing on a surgically repaired hamstring and former Eagle Darwin Walker sitting out with a knee injury, but the Bears have been hurt by the run in the last few games. They have allowed seven rushing touchdowns and are ranked 26th in the NFL against, allowing 134.2 rushing yards-per-game.
2. Philadelphia's Special Teams vs. Devin Hester
Hester has continued to make highlight-reel plays this year and keeping the league's most exciting player out of the end zone will be key for the Eagles. After taking a punt 89 yards for a score last week against Minnesota, Hester has 3 return touchdowns this season and now has eight in his career in only his second year in the league. While he is dangerous as a kick returner, having returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown against Detroit in week 4, Hester is arguably the best punt returner in the league. He has the highest average of yards per punt return, leading the NFL at 19.4 and also has two punt return touchdowns.
The Eagles special teams have been strong all year on punt coverage and have yet to allow a big gain. Opponents average only 6.6 yards per punt return against Philadelphia and the longest punt return they have allowed all season was for 15 yards. The kickoff return team has not played nearly as well and will have to keep Hester from getting to the open field. The Eagles have let up 27.6 yards per kickoff return and rank 4th highest in the league in that category.
3. Kevin Curtis vs. Chicago's secondary
In his first season in Philadelphia, Curtis has come to show that he has the potential to be a very nice fit for the Eagles offense at wide receiver. Although he has disappeared in a few games this season, Curtis has also had some explosive plays and he leads Eagles receivers in receptions with 24, and yards with 444. Curtis also has an 18.5 yards-per-catch average, which is the highest in the NFC. Last week, he showed his exceptional speed when he caught a pass, broke two tackles and sprinted 75 yards for a touchdown. Three of his four touchdowns this season have been for over 40 yards.
Chicago's secondary came into the season looking strong, but they have suffered injuries to key players. Veteran safety Mike Brown suffered a season-ending knee injury in week 1, and Nathan Vasher will likely miss the game against the Eagles with a groin injury. Replacements Ricky Manning Jr. and Danieal Manning have filled in adequately, but the Bears have allowed 1471 yards through the air, along with eight touchdowns. Opposing quarterbacks have been very efficient against Chicago's secondary, completing 67.7 % of their passes. That ranks as the third highest completion percentage in the league.
4. Philadelphia's Linebackers vs. Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen
The Bears offense relies heavily on the tight ends Clark and Olsen and they are both good receivers at their position. Clark ranks second on the team with 22 catches and has 279 yards receiving and two touchdowns. Olsen, an athletic rookie out of Miami, is also a factor in Chicago's passing attack, and he has 11 catches for 148 yards and one touchdown. Brian Griese seems to be at his best when Olsen and Clark are on the field, as he has completed 80% of his passes from two-tight end formations so far this year.
Philadelphia linebackers Omar Gaither, Takeo Spikes, and Chris Gocong will have the duty of handling Chicago's tight ends in coverage throughout the course of the game along with stopping the run. Spikes has emerged as a leader on the defense in the absence of Brian Dawkins, and he leads the team with 32 total tackles. Gaither is second on the team with 30 tackles and is the Eagles best coverage linebacker. This season, he has three pass deflections and got an interception in the game against the Giants. Gocong seems to be getting more comfortable in Jim Johnson's defense each week after making the transition from college defensive end to NFL linebacker.
5. William Thomas and Jon Runyan vs. Mark Anderson and Adewale Ogunleye
The Eagles tackles will have to be at their best against Chicago's strong pass rush, which ranks fourth in the NFL with 18.0 sacks this year. Both Thomas and Runyan are experienced veterans and are important to the success of Philadelphia's offense. When Thomas was out of the lineup in week 4 with an MCL sprain, the Eagles let up 12 sacks to the Giants and struggled to move the chains. It has been clear all season that when McNabb has time in the pocket he is effective, but when he is getting sacked and hurried, the offense tends to stall. Although the offensive line has allowed 22 sacks this season and tied with Atlanta for the second most in the league, they have depth and talent enough to bounce back.
If you have any questions or comments, Andrew Pluta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the Bears, Anderson and Ogunleye are both disruptive ends whose speed creates problems for most linemen. After an impressive rookie year in which he had 12 sacks, Anderson has show the same ability in his second season and has taken the quarterback down 4 times so far. He also has 12 tackles and a fumble forced. On the other side of Chicago's defensive line, Ogunleye is an experienced playmaker. He has shown his versatility in registering 20 tackles, 3 sacks, one forced fumble and two deflected passes this season.