MATCHUPS TO WATCH: BEARS ON OFFENSE
RB Matt Forte vs. Dolphins' Linebackers
When the Dolphins lost at Baltimore two Sundays ago, they had problems covering Ray Rice coming out of the backfield and then bringing him down after he made the catch. It's imperative they keep Forte in check in this game. The Dolphins should be able to contain a Bears running game that's only average and the secondary should be able to stop the deep passing game, but it will be most important to take away Jay Cutler's outlet and force him to take chances – something Cutler always is too willing to do.
LT Frank Omiyale vs. LB Cameron Wake
Chris Williams was selected by the Bears in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft to be the team's left tackle of the future, but the ship appears to have sailed on that idea and the former Vanderbilt Commodore is now lining up inside at left guard. Somewhat unexpectedly, especially since he originally signed with Chicago for a move to guard himself, Omiyale took over at left tackle in Week 2 when Williams went down with a hamstring injury, and, two months later, Omiyale is Lou Gehrig and Williams is Wally Pipp. Omiyale may need to put together an "Iron Horse"-like performance Thursday, as Wake has come out of nowhere to record nine sacks in nine games.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: BEARS ON DEFENSE
DE Julius Peppers vs. Dolphins' Left Tackle
We might not know until close to game time whether Jake Long will be able to play against the Bears while nursing a shoulder injury that reportedly will require surgery at some point. If he does play, it will be interesting to see how limited he will be and how effective he can be in pass blocking, particularly going against a stud like Peppers. If Long doesn't play, the Dolphins will move Vernon Carey from right to left tackle and insert young player Lydon Murtha in the other spot. Under any of the scenarios, it figures the Dolphins will chip and double-team Peppers for most of the evening. Otherwise, he might spend the entire night in the Miami backfield.
LB Brian Urlacher vs. RBs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams
Because the Dolphins are down to their third quarterback after injuries last week to Chad Pennington and Chad Henne, Tyler Thigpen can't be expected to carry the weight of the offense himself. Both Brown and Williams have had success in the past running the ball on the Bears, and it would also make sense for Miami to feature more of the Wildcat formation that took the country by storm in 2008 but has since become a smaller part of the game plan this season. Urlacher is playing incredibly well after dealing with back, neck and wrist injuries from 2007-09, in large part because the front four has done a great job staying in their gaps, so the six-time Pro Bowler should have the ability to make tackles without needing to shed too many blockers first.
RB Ricky Williams
THE DOLPHINS WIN IF...
... they win the turnover battle. With Thigpen starting at quarterback, it's imperative he limit the mistakes he has made in the past and not to try to force things. That said, he'll also have to make some plays because the struggling Dolphins running game doesn't figure to have much success against the rugged Bears run defense. On the flip side, the Dolphins are coming off a game when they had three takeaways against Tennessee, and Cutler has been known to put balls up for grabs throughout his career. The Dolphins have the defense to make this a low-scoring game, but they can't afford to give the Bears cheap touchdowns.
THE BEARS WIN IF...
... they are successful in making the Dolphins one-dimensional on offense, which is something they have been able to do with regularity thanks to a rush defense that surrenders just 82.3 yards per game (No. 2 in the league). Thigpen admitted via conference call Tuesday at Halas Hall that he hadn't taken so much as one rep with his own offense since the final game of the preseason before entering last week's contest as the emergency No. 3 signal caller, so it's only natural that the Miami coaching staff will scale down the playbook to some degree and only make calls he's comfortable running. Expect the Bears to creep both of their safeties toward the line of scrimmage regularly, daring Thigpen to take a shot downfield to Brandon Marshall.
THE DOLPHINS LOSE IF...
... they can't keep Devin Hester under wraps in the return game. The Dolphins' special teams have been a disaster all season, with the exception of kicker Dan Carpenter, and the idea of Hester coming to South Florida is pretty scary. Actually, the last time he was here, he returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown in the Super Bowl against the Colts. The Dolphins have been particularly ineffective at covering kickoffs this season, and last week they gave up a couple of long returns to Tennessee rookie Marc Mariani. Now, Mariani is a good-looking player, but he's no Hester. If the Dolphins don't tighten up their coverage and aren't almost flawless in their lane assignments, this has the potential for disaster. One or two long Hester returns easily could be the difference in this game.
THE BEARS LOSE IF...
... offensive coordinator Mike Martz reverts back to an unbalanced pass-to-run ratio and Cutler tries to do too much with his arm. Going against his air-raid nature, Martz has actually called about as many running plays as he has passing plays the last two weeks, and, coincidence or not, the Bears are 2-0 in that stretch and have only seen Cutler get sacked a total of two times. It's not like Forte and Chester Taylor have been crazy effective on the ground, as they're averaging just 3.8 and 3.2 yards per carry, respectively, but the mere fact that defenses have to now respect the run has taken some of the pressure off Cutler and made it easier for his receivers to find ways to get open when it is time to throw.
Alan Poupart: The Dolphins come into this game battered and bruised, and they're without Henne and possibly Long as well. It would seem the team is too beaten up to be able to come back and win a second game in five days, yet there are things in Miami's favor. The first is home-field advantage, which shouldn't be underestimated even though there will be a large number of Bears fans in the stands. The Dolphins defense also has been solid throughout the season, and there's no reason to think it can't stop a Bears offense that has been inconsistent at best. If you believe in the need factor, it's also a lot more important game for the Dolphins than it is for the Bears, who already are at six wins and don't have nearly as many top teams to deal with in their conference to make the playoffs. The Dolphins have been very good all season at winning in tough circumstances, while the Bears have beaten exactly one team with a winning record all year. Maybe logic says the Dolphins are too beat up to win this game, but it says here they pull it out. ... DOLPHINS 19, BEARS 17.
John Crist: Professional football is a game of matchups and injuries, and it appears the Bears have the advantage in both categories Thursday. The Dolphins feature a run-first offense that hasn't run it particularly well of late, plus, if they change their approach, doing so with a third-string QB getting his first start in a season and a half isn't the way to do it. It's remarkable how healthy the Chicago roster is nine games into the campaign, which is something Miami can't say on either side of the ball, and that makes the quick turnaround from Week 10 to Week 11 so much tougher for the home team. ... BEARS 20, DOLPHINS 13.
To go back and read Part I of this Behind Enemy Lines series, where Alain answered five questions from John, Click Here. To read Part II, where John answered five questions from Alain, Click Here.
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John Crist is the publisher of BearReport.com. Alain Poupart is the associate editor of DolphinDigest.com.
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