The last time the Bears and Cardinals faced off, the Matt Nagy era was in its infancy. It was still a new and exciting time. Nagy had just won his first game as head coach a week earlier, and a week before that the Bears nearly knocked off the Packers at Lambeau Field.
The Bears and Cardinals met in Week 3 of 2018. Mitchell Trubisky threw for 220 yards in a 16-14 victory for the Bears, while Cardinals QB Sam Bradford played in what would become his final NFL game, during which he was benched for Josh Rosen.
What a difference three years makes.
Now these teams belong to quarterbacks named Justin Fields and Kyler Murray. The Bears and Cardinals kick off at noon Sunday from Soldier Field. Here’s what to watch for.
1. Kyler Murray’s status
The Cardinals have said Murray is a game-time decision. He hasn’t played since an Oct. 28 loss to Green Bay. An ankle injury has kept him out of three consecutive games. Backup Colt McCoy led the Cardinals to wins in two of those three games.
Murray, obviously, elevates the Cardinals offense in ways that McCoy can’t. His status will be the biggest news to watch for prior to kickoff.
Meanwhile, the Bears will start veteran backup Andy Dalton, giving Fields an extra week to recover from a rib injury. Dalton’s start last week against Detroit was his first since Week 2. He played well enough to beat the Lions, but the Cardinals are a different animal than the Lions.
2. Which receivers are available for Dalton?
Star receiver Allen Robinson (hamstring) is doubtful and No. 3 option Marquise Goodwin (foot/ribs) has already been ruled out. That leaves Dalton with the team’s top pass catcher in Darnell Mooney, and then a lot of question marks at wide receiver. The next men up are Damiere Byrd and Jakeem Grant. Isaiah Coulter will likely be elevated from the practice squad to the active roster, and it seems likely the Bears call up an additional receiver, too, if Robinson is out.
Tight end Cole Kmet dealt with a groin injury this week but is expected to play. So at least Dalton will have the full compliment of tight ends.
3. The Cardinals’ receivers are really good
What makes the Cardinals so dangerous is their myriad of weapons. Arizona has four receivers with more than 400 receiving yards (the Bears have one: Mooney) and tight end Zach Ertz would probably be on that list, too, if he had started the year in Arizona.
Christian Kirk, A.J. Green, DeAndre Hopkins and Rondale Moore easily make one of the most dynamic receiving groups in football. Murray has so many weapons he can throw to. Moore, a rookie second-round draft pick, has been an awesome addition. The Cardinals will use him as a jack-of-all-trades, while Green and Hopkins are big-time deep threats.
The Bears secondary will have some work to do.
4. Can the Bears establish the run?
The Cardinals defense is one of the best in the game. The one area where they might be vulnerable is in the run game. Arizona ranks fourth among NFL defenses in passing defense (204 yards per game), but 17th against the run (113.8).
The Bears don’t want to instigate a shootout against the Cardinals because that’s not a winning formula against this team. In both the Cardinals’ losses this season, their opponents threw for fewer than 200 yards and ran for more than 150.
After some great rushing performances earlier this season, the Bears have not had a stellar performance in the run game in several weeks. That’s been particularly true when Fields has been sidelined by injury.
5. The Bears O-line vs. the Cardinals front
The Bears have not fared well against the NFL’s top pass rushing teams. The Cardinals rank sixth in sacks per pass attempt (7.82%). Even without J.J. Watt, who is sidelined by a shoulder injury, Arizona has been highly successful rushing the passer. Outside linebackers Markus Golden (10 sacks) and Chandler Jones (eight sacks) have instigated things from the edges.
The Bears need to protect the quarterback. They have faced two teams with more sacks per pass attempt than the Cardinals, and neither game went well: Cleveland had nine sacks against the Bears in Week 3 and Pittsburgh had three sacks and eight QB hits in Week 9.
Look for Dalton to release the ball quickly in an attempt to mitigate the Cardinals pass rush.