By Chris Cluff
Soldier Field has become almost like home for the Seahawks, who have played there three times in the past two seasons and now go there again for a big NFC game Sunday. As bad as the Hawks (6-5) have been on the road this season, just 1-5, Chicago is one place where they know they can win. Even rookie quarterback Russell Wilson should feel comfortable there; he led Wisconsin to a win over Northern Illinois at Soldier Field last season.
Two of Pete Carroll’s six road wins in three seasons have come in Chicago, including a 38-14 blowout last season. The Hawks also won in 2010, although the Bears got even in the playoffs that season with a 35-24 win.
“Seattle has beaten us two out of three times on our home field,” Bears coach Lovie Smith told reporters. “We just can’t allow that to continue. It’s as simple as that.”
These Bears are better than the team that lost to Seattle without quarterback Jay Cutler last season. They are 8-3, with the No. 3 defense in the NFL, a league-high 33 turnovers and seven interceptions returned for touchdowns. And they have a history of stopping Marshawn Lynch, who is coming off a rough game in Miami. Even in the blowout last season, the Bears held him to just 42 yards on 20 carries, and they have stifled him in all three games — he has just 88 yards on 41 carries (2.1 average). The Bears will be focused on him again, especially with Lynch ranking third in the NFL with 1,051 rushing yards.
“He’s a hard running back to tackle,” linebacker Brian Urlacher told reporters. “He likes to get downhill, he makes guys miss, and he’s got great speed, so it will be a big challenge for us.”
Other top running backs have fared OK against the Bears this season. Frank Gore had 78 yards on 17 attempts, Arian Foster ran for 102 yards on 29 carries and Chris Johnson used an 80-yard touchdown run to tally 141 yards on 16 carries. Adrian Peterson rushed for 108 yards on 18 carries last week.
“He’s a lot like Adrian,” Bears linebacker Nick Roach said of Lynch. “He runs hard, and he’s not easy to bring down. So we’ve just got to get a lot of guys to him and make sure to wrap him up.”
Linebacker Lance Briggs told reporters, “It’s important for us to, (No.) 1, stop the run (because) that’s what they do the best. And (No.) 2, we have to get pressure on the quarterback, keep him in the pocket and force those balls to come out early.”
Rookie Russell Wilson will have to continue his excellent play; he has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league over the last month.
“I have so much respect for guys like (Brian) Urlacher, (Lance) Briggs, (Julius) Peppers and (Charles) Tillman — all of those guys that I’ve watched over the years,” Wilson told reporters. “So it’s going to be pretty awesome for me to play against them. But it’s no different.
“I won’t be starstruck, that’s for sure. I think that you have to play smart. You have to know that they’re very, very intelligent in terms of knowing how to play the game, in terms of their coverages and everything. They do a great job of being in the right spots at the right times. So you have to trust what you see, and just play the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”
Seattle’s fifth-ranked defense, which has been very inconsistent over the last six games, faces the tall task of stopping the Cutler-Brandon Marshall connection. Marshall is coming off his second 12-catch game of the season and has 81 catches for 1,017 yards and eight touchdowns. The Hawks have the size outside to take on the 6-foot-4 receiver, as Richard Sherman (6-3) and Brandon Browner (6-4) will mark him in what might be their last game before the league suspends them both.
“Whenever you get a chance to play a little one-on-one, it’s exciting,” Marshall told reporters. “I’ve been watching film and I saw what they did against Calvin (Johnson) and Larry (Fitzgerald). They threw some (two-man) in there but, for the most part, they do what they do, and I’m excited about that.
“It’s different, obviously, because it’s not what we call the prototypical corners,” Marshall said. “They present some different challenges, but I’m excited about this matchup. I’m happy they’re playing. I’m really excited they’re playing. That’s good for the game, and I’m ready to compete.”
Carroll, who explored trading for Marshall in 2010 before Denver sent the mercurial receiver to Miami, told reporters, “They can hit you even when you cover him or double cover him, they still get it done. Jay Cutler has tremendous faith in Brandon, they have been together a long time, and they just have a great chemistry. We’re going to have to have a really good day to be able to neutralize that factor if we’re able to.”
The Bears have had some issues up front. Former Seahawk Chris Spencer started at left guard vs. the Vikings, but a knee injury might keep him out of this one. Former right tackle Gabe Carimi figures to start at right guard, where he finished last week after Lance Louis suffered a torn ACL.
“We just have to be careful with what we ask those guys (the linemen) to do,” Cutler told reporters. “You don’t want to throw a lot of sevens and chuck the ball 40, 50 times. They’re not programmed for that. We just have to be smart with it.”
The Bears probably will try to get their running game going, although Matt Forte is dealing with an ankle injury.
“I have to get rid of the ball,” Cutler said. “And coach (Mike) Tice has got to dial up some good plays and keep those (offensive linemen) protected, throw a lot of different looks at the defensive line and the secondary. We have to get B (Marshall) going. Hopefully we get Matt Forte going a little bit. It’s a collective (effort), but I drive the thing, so I have to get off to a fast start.”
This big NFC game will come down to which team feels more comfortable at “home.”
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Chris Cluff worked as a sports editor and writer for The Seattle Times for 11 years and has written two books on the Seattle Seahawks. Since leaving the Times, he has written about the Seahawks and Seattle sports for Bleacher Report and the blog he shares with a fellow sportswriter, outsidethepressbox.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.