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Bears vs. Cowboys: Can Trestman make the difference down the stretch?

Updated: January 10, 2014 6:22AM



The night the Bears honor Mike Ditka and retire his jersey No. 89 is a perfect time to wonder if Marc Trestman can coach the team into the playoffs with four games to go.

Nobody could crack the whip like coach Ditka. Nobody could motivate his players like coach Ditka. Nobody could squeeze every last ounce out of a team at crunch time like coach Ditka. Nobody could will a team to victory like coach Ditka.

Well, not really. With all due respect to Ditka, still the only Bears coach to win the Super Bowl, his blustery style — so contrary to Trestman’s humanist manner — had its own limitations. The Bears were 8-16 in the final quarter of Ditka’s last six seasons as the Bears’ coach. His best team was his healthiest team. Once his quarterback couldn’t stay healthy, his teams were prone to disappoint.

So with that as a backdrop, can Trestman make a difference? He started 3-0 but now is 6-6. Even with a big finish, he might be in the same spot Lovie Smith was in last season: 10-6 and out of the playoffs.

The Bears’ season is one big cliché right now.

‘‘We’re one block away,’’ guard Kyle Long said.

Right now, it looks as though ‘‘One Block Away’’ will be the title of the 2013 Bears’ season video. The Bears are oh-so-close to being as good as they can be, which puts them in a class with about 80 percent of the NFL. If every team could turn around one play a game, the entire league might be in the playoffs.

‘‘The positive thing is that we’ve seen we can do it; we can execute against anyone,’’ guard Matt Slauson said. ‘‘The problem is, we haven’t done it consistently. That’s why we’re 6-6.’’

After coming up just short of the playoffs under Smith in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012, the Bears are hoping Trestman can make a difference. But coaching success seems more happenstance than ever this season. Gary Kubiak was coaching a Super Bowl contender in September and was fired Friday. Ron Rivera was on the hot seat in September and might be the Coach of the Year.

So can Trestman really make a difference in the final four games? He said his staff has been emphasizing details this week.

‘‘You have to focus on the things you’re not doing well,’’ he said. ‘‘You have to make it a point of emphasis.’’

That will make a difference if the Bears shore up their weaknesses without springing a leak somewhere else.

‘‘We’re getting the effort out of our players,’’ Trestman said. ‘‘We’ve got to play better — that’s the issue right now. We just have to . . . do a better job . . . in those moments where you’ve got to do it right.’’

For the record, in the last 10 NFL seasons, the 36 teams that were 6-6 went a combined 86-57-1 in their final four games. Fourteen made the playoffs. Only six won their final four games to get there, but two — the Vikings and Redskins — did so last season.

Alas, the Vikings are 3-9-1 and the Redskins are 3-10 this season, with Leslie Frazier and Mike Shanahan on the hot seat. Even if coaching makes a difference in the NFL, it’s not for long.

Email: mpotash@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MarkPotash

WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL

Key Players

Josh McCown, who threw for 355 yards and had a 114.9 rating last week against the Vikings, has thrown one interception in 184 passes this season, though he had a pick nullified by a penalty last week. Cowboys LB Sean Lee, who leads the team in tackles (115) and interceptions (four), is expected to return after missing two games with a hamstring injury.

WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL

Key Players

Bears DT Jeremiah Ratliff played 23 snaps in his first NFL game in more than a year last week. He’ll get more this week against his ex-teammates. The Bears’ best hope of containing Tony Romo is by stopping the run first. DeMarco Murray is effective in small doses, but he gained 175 yards against the Rams and might get a bigger workload in the frigid conditions.

IN THE AIR

Josh McCown has had six consecutive games with a passer rating of 90.7 or higher (four starts) and has thrown for 352 and 355 yards in his last two games. He’ll have an opportunity for more against a Cowboys defense that ranks 31st against the pass (295 ypg). Alshon Jeffery (70 catches, 1,109 yards, five TDs) and/or Brandon Marshall (78, 990, nine) might be in for a big day. The Cowboys have allowed eight 100-yard receivers this season, including the Lions’ Calvin Johnson (329) and the Raiders’ Andre Holmes (136), a Conant High School graduate.

IN THE AIR

Here’s where it gets a little dicey. After failing to corral offenses quarterbacked by Kellen Clemens and Christian Ponder/Matt Cassel the last two weeks, the Bears now face Tony Romo (3,140 yards, 24 TDs, seven INTs, 97.4 rating), who has thrown one or more TD passes in a franchise-record 25 consecutive games. Romo has big-play capability throwing long or short, which will challenge a Bears defense that hasn’t allowed a pass play longer than 45 yards this season but has allowed 82 pass plays of 15-plus yards (sixth-most in the NFL), including 16 the last two weeks to Clemens & Ponder/Cassel.

ON THE GROUND

The Bears should get their chances in this matchup of two of the worst run defenses in the NFL. The Cowboys are 27th in rushing yards allowed (127 ypg) and 30th in yards per carry allowed (4.8). Matt Forte is fifth in the NFL in rushing yards (214 carries, 971 yards, seven TDs). The Bears are 19th in rushing yards per game but eighth in yards per carry (4.4). The Cowboys have allowed three 100-yard rushers in the last five games. The Bears have put an emphasis on improving their short-yardage game. They have converted only 15 of 29 plays with one yard to go for a first down, 31st in the NFL.

ON THE GROUND

It didn’t show up on paper, but the Bears think their 32nd-ranked run defense made improvements against the Vikings and Adrian Peterson, who darted, dashed and bulled his way to 211 yards on 35 carries. The Bears will get a chance to prove it against DeMarco Murray (142 carries, 697 yards, seven TDs) and Lance Dunbar (30, 150, zero), who head a Cowboys running game that ranks 27th (85 ypg). A second consecutive week with DT Stephen Paea and former Cowboys Pro Bowl NT Jeremiah Ratliff figures to help. Murray rushed for three TDs (two, four and seven yards) on Thanksgiving Day.

The X-factor

‘‘Bear weather’’ is a myth, but the sub-freezing temperature will be a factor both teams will have to deal with at Soldier Field. The Cowboys beat the Giants 24-21 in 25-degree weather two weeks ago at the Meadowlands. They also practiced in frigid conditions Saturday in Dallas, so the weather might not be a shock to their system. The Bears practiced outdoors Friday and Saturday. ‘‘Our execution in the weather was very good,’’ coach Marc Trestman said. ‘‘The cold isn’t a factor like the wind can be a factor. The cold weather, if the wind is minimal, really should not affect the game.’’Special teams

This will be a big game for Bears coordinato r Joe DeCamillis, who was the Cowboys’ special-teams coach the previous four seasons. ‘‘There’s a lot of different guys,’’ DeCamillis said. ‘‘But there’s a lot of guys from when I was there, so I’m familiar with them. I look forward to seeing some of them. Once the game starts, let’s get after them.’’ DeCamillis knows how dangerous Dwyane Harris is. Harris is second in the NFL in kickoff returns (31.3-yard average, with a long of 90 yards) and punt returns (14-yard average, with an 86-yard TD). The Bears’ coverage units have improved dramatically in the last six weeks.



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