Reinforcements won't be coming to the aid of the Chicago Bears on either side of the football this week, so they'll need to find a way to beat the Dallas Cowboys at Soldier Field with players who were part of two consecutive losses to teams already out of the playoff chase.
Quarterback Josh McCown again starts because Jay Cutler is still unable to play due to a high ankle sprain, and weak side linebacker Lance Briggs remains out with a fractured shoulder.
It's probably the injury on the defensive side that hurts worse at this point with the Bears owning a 6-6 record and still holding out hopes of surpassing 7-5 Detroit -- although a case can also be made the other way.
"I would say there's no chance that Lance will play this week," coach Marc Trestman said. "He's in the conditioning process. He ran quite a bit today. He'll see the doctors early in the week next week and they'll see where he's at.
"He's working his way back, and that's a good thing."
Unlike Briggs, Cutler was able to practice Thursday but merely ran scout team plays against the first-team defense. He'll be examined again next week and Trestman is not backing off earlier statements that he was certain Cutler would play again this season.
"Jay is very clear on where he is medically," Trestman said. "He's continuing to progress. I think we've been very, very clear that he's got to be released by the doctors before he can play, and he's come to terms with that. He's a strong-willed and strong-minded guy.
"He can't control this decision on Monday other than to continue to work at his rehab."
The Bears have scored about six points more per game with Cutler on the field, although they also have seven more interceptions when he plays as opposed to McCown, whose passer rating is about 25 points higher at 103.6.
"Jay has a stronger arm and can do different things with just his arm strength, rely on his arm strength, and Josh relies on timing and being where we need to be," tight end Martellus Benentt said. "So Jay could make some throws that Josh may not be able to make in some different situations, but they both do a great job for us, and it shows. Every single week we've still been putting up numbers no matter who's there."
So have opposing offenses against the Bears defense. Briggs' absence and injuries to Charles Tillman, D.J. Williams, Henry Melton and Nate Collins have been difficult for the Bears to overcome. Briggs often had a two-gap responsibility against the run from his weakside spot and was a key run stuffer. In his absence, rookie Khaseem Greene has struggled. With Briggs gone, the Bears also have been without their defensive signal caller.
Although the run defense has allowed over 200 yards per game the past six weeks and teams average 5.0 yards per carry, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker remains positive.
"We're to the point now where we're there to make the play," he said. "We just have to finish. We're not talking about missed (run) fits as much now as we were talking about maybe a couple of weeks ago.
"Now, we have to be more physical at the point of attack. We have to get off blocks. We have to make tackles. We're there to make plays and we're going to make those."
Just when one hole started to get plugged, another appeared. The pass defense became a concern because Vikings backup quarterback Matt Cassel threw for 243 yards in a half. And now they face Tony Romo playing at a high level.
"We've got to do a better job tackling and not giving up big plays, make them go the long, hard way," Tucker said. "And when we get a chance to get off the field on third down, we've got to do it."
SERIES HISTORY: 22nd regular-season meeting. Cowboys lead series 11-10. The teams also met twice in the playoffs with Dallas winning both. Dallas won the last game in the series played in Chicago in 2007 and the Bears have won the last two overall
--Bears DT Jeremiah Ratliff dismisses the importance of facing his old team Monday night. Dallas decided it couldn't wait for him to finish rehabbing from a serious groin muscle tear that sidelined him last November, and let him go. In his Bears debut last week, he had 23 plays and expects to continue to improve.
"I feel pretty good," Ratliff said. "I feel stronger. I feel more balanced. Everything's holding up. And there haven't been any complications. So I'm good."
Ratliff always seem to have an angry look on his face on the field or practice field.
"I don't want this to come out the wrong way, but I could really care less how people look at me," he said. "I'm not a mean guy. When I'm on the field and I have a job to do, I can't really afford to be nice, at the end of the day.
"I'm really a smaller guy in terms of being a defensive tackle and nose tackle -- so I play with a little bit of a streak. But off the field, pretty chill."
--The Cowboys-Bears game not only reunites Ratliff with his former team, but also does the same for special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis and tight ends Martellus Bennett and Dante Rosario.
DeCamillis called it a bit of a culture shock to be in Chicago instead of Dallas.
"There, it's a lot different from the standpoint of just the things that go on," DeCamillis said of Dallas. "It's a little bit more like Hollywood and here it's a little bit more, probably, a little tamer. But they're both great organizations and both have had a lot of storied tradition and a lot of championships. That's the main thing."
Ratliff was even more clear.
"Just to put it bluntly -- and it's not a shot -- if they take it like that, so be it," he said. "Here (in Chicago) it's all about football. You can really just focus on your craft, focus on what it is you do. And no matter what's going on, you never forget what you're here for. That's a good thing."
Bennett didn't fire a shot, and, in fact, said he liked Dallas.
"I mean, I'm a Hollywood person," he said.
At Dallas, Bennett was buried behind Cowboys tight end Jason Witten before going to the Giants, where his game flourished.
"Witten's a great tight end, I respect his game," Bennett said. "There's a lot of things he does well and a lot of things that I learned from him, but at the end of the day, sometimes you're just at the bottom of the totem pole and the message doesn't make it all the way down from the top."
As a result, he just lived with a reserve role there.
"So you just try to get the scraps," he said. "It's kind of like when somebody invites you over for dinner, but they don't make you a plate, that's kind of what it's like."
--McCown a continues to play like a starter, even if he did produce just 20 points last week. The Bears turned the ball over on a play when a deflected pass wound up in the hands of tackle Kyle Long, who fumbled. Trestman further cleared McCown of any blame on that turnover.
"As I said to him, I put him in that position with the play call," the Bears coach said. "I think I could have done a better job with that. And then he's got to take care of the ball, certainly, once the play is called, and he didn't do the kind of job he wanted to with that specific play. Overall ... I think he's been very efficient. There comes times when quarterbacks are stressed, they do things that are a little bit out of character, but he's taken a lot of snaps, he's handled himself extremely well, and I think that those one or two times, they can happen to anybody playing that position.
"The good part about it is he seems to be able to overcome those things and move on quickly, and that's the biggest thing, what happens on the next play."
BY THE NUMBERS: 1 -- Number of Bears third-and-one conversions for first downs in their five attempts over the past four contests.
14 -- Number of Chicago Bears jersey numbers that will have been retired after Mike Ditka's 89 is retired in a halftime ceremony Monday. It's the most in the NFL.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "This month of December, that's when it really starts counting. That's when teams catch fire. We could just believe that and if we get that one spark, then we're rolling. We've got to continue with an up-beat attitude and realize we just need that one big spark. And I think it's going to start Monday with a prime time game." -- Bears CB Tim Jennings.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--WR Brandon Marshall is 10 yards away from his seventh straight 1,000-yard receiving season. Only as a rookie in 2006 with Denver did he fail (309 yards) to reach that mark. Marshall has been at 1,020 or over every other year except when he had 1,014 yards at Miami in 2010.
--WR Alshon Jeffery and Marshall have 2,099 receiving yards, making them the league's No. 1 receiving tandem in the league by 67 yards.
--RB Matt Forte had 151 yards from scrimmage last week, which pushed him into No. 2 all time in Bears history at 9,068 ahead of Neal Anderson (8,929). Only Walter Payton (21,264) had more. Forte is 29 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season.
--QB Jay Cutler has been ruled out for this game due to an ankle sprain and will continue working toward a return at Cleveland Dec. 15.
--LB Lance Briggs has been ruled out for this game due to a shoulder fracture that has kept him out since Oct. 20, and his status will be re-examined again next week.
--WR Brandon Marshall returned to practice with full participation Friday after sitting out Thursday due to a quad injury, and is expected to play against Dallas Monday.
--S Major Wright had full participation Friday after missing last week's game and being limited in practice Thursday due to a hamstring pull. He is expected to play Monday.
--G Kyle Long went through a full practice after spraining his ankle against Minnesota and will play this week.
--S Anthony Walters (groin) went through a limited practice Thursday. He missed last week's game and his status is likely to be a game time decision.
GAME PLAN: Offensively, it's a deceiving assignment. The Cowboys now employ Rod Marinelli as a defensive assistant and although they can use the old Tampa-2, they don't do it much. It's a defense that relies greatly on single safety and man-to-man coverage with cornerbacks who date back to the Cowboys' 3-4 days.
The Bears will try to use a lot of back-shoulder throws to their big wide receivers, as well as slants skinny posts. It could be another big day for Alshon Jeffery. The rushing attack should be able to gain more yardage with downhill runs than in recent games as Dallas has been unable to stop the run without loading up the box, and is usually unwilling to do this.
Dallas has the worst overall defense and gives up the second-most yards through the air in the league. The Bears need to avoid mistakes and stay out of sure pass-only situations and they can find big plays. Defensively, there will be more emphasis on playing zone and going four-man rush than in recent games.
Quarterback Tony Romo has been more mistake-free this year, so the defense must expect to give up yardage and long drives while looking for the turnover. The Bears may go with more nickel this week and try to cover Jason Witten with a safety or nickel back because their own linebacker coverage has suffered.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: -Bears WR Alshon Jeffery, who had his second 200-yard receiving game last week vs. Dallas CB Brandon Carr, who is coming off a win over Oakland in which he had his third interception -- Carr is going to play more physical against him than other recent corners, so it will be more of a challenge for Jeffery to use his athleticism against a 6-foot corner.
--Bears SS Major Wright, who missed last week's game with a hamstring injury, vs. TE Jason Witten, who has an 80-game catch streak intact -- Wright is better equipped than the other Bears safeties to cover Witten because of his speed and athleticism. However, his hamstring injury will slow him or even make it so Craig Steltz winds up in the role and Steltz has never been a strong pass defender.
--Bears DE Julius Peppers, coming off his best game of the year with 2.5 sacks, vs. Cowboys LT Tyron Smith, who has allowed only a combined four sacks/QB hits according to Pro Football Focus. Smith allowed only three sacks last season and Dallas' offensive line as a group has been very effective this year keeping rushers away from Romo. The Bears are unlikely to blitz much, so the rush will need to come from Peppers, who hasn't had a sack against the Cowboys since he had a three-sack day in 2005 against them with Carolina.
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