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November 22, 2017

Eagles vs. Bears: Five matchups to watch

Eagles NFL

The now 9-1 Philadelphia Eagles will host the 3-7 Chicago Bears on Sunday, in what is, on paper, a lopsided matchup. However, it should be noted that the Bears beat the 8-2 Steelers and 7-3 Panthers this season, so they are certainly capable of pulling off upsets.

Here are five matchups to watch.

1) The Eagles' defense vs. RB Jordan Howard

Bears running back Jordan Howard had a huge rookie year in 2016, when he finished second in rushing to fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott. That season, Howard carried 252 times for 1313 yards (5.2 YPC) and 6 TDs. In 2017, Howard is third in rushing, with 192 carries for 841 yards (4.4 YPC) and 5 TDs.

Typically, teams with losing records are forced to throw significantly more than they run, since they are trailing in most games. The Bears are an exception, as they will stick to the run, even when faced with deficits. In fact, they run the ball on 48.2 percent of their plays, which is second-most in the NFL.

That plays right into the strength of the Eagles' defense, who still have the top-ranked run defense in the NFL, allowing just 71.0 rushing yards per game. The Eagles also come into this game unhappy that they gave up over 100 rushing yards to the Dallas Cowboys, even with a blowout win.

"There's some teams in the league that -- what did we give up, 110, 112," Jim Schwartz asked on Tuesday. "I think some people might get a pat on the back for that. I think it's a tribute to the players in the locker room that that's a poor performance for them, and they consider it a poor performance."

2) The Eagles' defense vs. RB Tarik Cohen

In addition to Howard, who is a north-south runner, the Bears have a very shifty, dynamic running back in Tarik Cohen, who leads the team in receptions and is second in receiving yards. Here is what he is capable of:

The Bears like to use Howard and Cohen in the game at the same time, which is a unique look in today's NFL.

"They put both backs on the field at the same time a little bit," said Schwartz. "Sometimes it's two-back sets, sometimes it's one. Traditionally there's a fullback back there in two-back sets, but not so much with the Bears. They can put two guys back there. It spreads you a little bit thin. You have to be very assignment sound. It'll test us in the run game."

The Eagles have to be careful not to let Cohen operate in space, as he is a legitimate playmaker. I would imagine that in the passing game, the Eagles will make sure they match up a safety or even a corner on him when possible.

3) The Eagles' punishing tacklers vs. rookie QB Mitchell Trubisky

Trubisky, like a many of the other quarterbacks the Eagles have faced this season, is a threat to run, as he has 21 rushes for 163 yards (7.8 YPC).

"He's mobile," said Schwartz. "I think that's probably the big thing. They're running the ball, and they also do enough stuff with read option and some gadget plays to take a little bit of the pressure off of them. They're a good screen team, and he's developing as a quarterback. I'm sure there's things he wants to work on. There's things that we need to keep him from having success with. He's been able to make a few plays with his legs, also, so that adds another dimension to him."

As we noted last week, the Eagles are fine with quarterbacks taking off and running on them on occasion, as long as they're delivering clean, hard shots on them when they do.

4) The Eagles' rushing attack vs. the Bears interior DL

The strength of the Bears' defense is in the trenches of their 3-4 defense, which is manned by DE Akiem Hicks, NT Eddie Goldman, and DE Mitch Unrein. None are those guys are household names (though Hicks has 7 sacks), but they are all very good run defenders.

On the season, the Bears are allowing 3.8 yards per rush, and they have only given up four runs of 20-plus yards. The Eagles will want to establish the run, as they've done all season, and the Bears should serve as a good challenge.

5) The special teams battle

Remember when the Bears were known for their outstanding special teams under Lovie Smith? From 2006 to 2012, the Bears appeared in the top six in the NFL in Football Outsiders' special teams rankings every year, with four first place finishes:

 Bears special teamsFootball Outsiders ranking 

After the Bears fired Smith, the Bears' special teams haven't been as special:

 Bears special teamsFootball Outsiders ranking 

Of note, the Bears allow 12.1 yards per return on punts, and their punt coverage units nearly cost them a game this season. Week 6 against the Ravens, here's what happened with the Bears holding an eight point lead with less than two minutes left in the game:

That is awful. Nobody comes within five yards of the returner until he's 60 yards into his return.

Meanwhile, their former kicker, Connor Barth, was 11 of 16 (68.8 percent) on field goals this season, with four misses from 40-49 yards. They released him on Tuesday and signed former Chiefs kicker Cairo Santos.

The Eagles have issues of their own on special teams this week, as they'll have to make a decision on who their kicker will be on Sunday if Jake Elliott (concussion) can't go, but they should still be able to over-match these Bears special teams units.

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