JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — When asked what Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers brings to the table, Jacksonville Jaguars guard Uche Nwaneri responded with arguably the perfect one-liner.
“A lot of problems,” he said.
Here’s the bigger predicament for the Jaguars (1-3): Peppers isn’t the only one wreaking havoc on Chicago’s defense.
The Bears (3-1) have smothered their last two opponents, stuffing the run and forcing turnovers in the passing game. Now they face the league’s worst offense in Jacksonville — and it looks like a Sunday mismatch.
The Jaguars have managed a combined 329 yards in two home games, a 117-yard effort against Houston in Week 2 and an even more baffling, 212-yard output against injury-riddled Cincinnati last week.
“I can’t explain it,” coach Mike Mularkey said. “I’ve told them that, at some point, it’s going to go our way. I feel like when it does, it’s going to happen in bunches, and I think they believe the same thing.”
The one thing the Jaguars seemingly have in their favor is they’re getting the Bears on a short week.
Chicago beat Dallas 34-18 on the road Monday night, got home early Tuesday and will be back on a plane Saturday. That quick turnaround hasn’t posed much of a problem for the team in the past, though, as the Bears are 7-2 following Monday night games and 6-0 coming off Monday night road games.
“It’s not the ideal situation to be in,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said.
Playing in Florida’s heat and humidity only adds to the concern.
“Any kind of weather, no matter what it is, you always fight through it,” Bears linebacker Lance Briggs said.
Chicago held St. Louis to 160 yards and 12 first downs two weeks ago, neutralizing Steven Jackson early and forcing Sam Bradford into obvious passing situations. Major Wright intercepted a deflected pass and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown that sealed the 23-6 victory.
The Bears also sacked Bradford six times.
They were equally as stout against the Cowboys in prime time, intercepting five passes from Tony Romo and returning two for scores. Charles Tillman got one early and Briggs added one late.
“They are a great defense,” Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert said. “Everybody knows the type of players they have, high-level, potential Hall of Fame guys, and they’ve been in that system for a long time and are very good at what they do. We’ve just got to do our best to execute and we’ve got to minimize turnovers.”
The Bears lead the league with 14 turnovers, which Smith calls the most important statistic for any defense.
“Sacks are important, but turnovers and takeaways are a whole different animal on the defensive side of the football,” Smith said. “When we talk about the best defense around and things like that, we’re not talking about total yardage; that’s one of the most overrated things that there is. It’s about what a defense can do for the offense, and that’s taking the ball away, third-down conversions, scoring also.”
Peppers has been one of the cornerstones of Chicago’s defense.
He has 21 1/2 sacks in three seasons in Chicago, and only Jared Allen (107) and DeMarcus Ware (104 1/2) have more sacks than Peppers (102 1/2) since he entered the NFL in 2002. Peppers has 2 1/2 sacks and a team-high five quarterback pressures this season.
With Peppers, fellow end Israel Idonije (2 1/2 sacks) and defensive tackle Henry Mellon (four sacks), the Bears don’t have to blitz often to generate pressure. The front four get so much attention that is frees up Briggs and Brian Urlacher to fill gaps and make tackles in the run game and allows the defense to drop seven guys into pass coverage.
“Yeah, that’s been key this year,” Briggs said. “We’ve been able to get after the passer with our front four, so we haven’t had to blitz as much. A lot of athletic guys that get up the field fast.”
That could be disastrous for the Jaguars.
Gabbert was sacked six times last week and has been dropped 12 times this season. Guard Eben Britton was beaten so often against the Bengals that he was benched at halftime.
Britton is expected to return to his starting spot this week, and at some point, probably will have Peppers lined up across from him.
Nwaneri, for one, knows what to expect.
“The guy’s a freak,” Nwaneri said. “I remember watching him play basketball at UNC in college. The guy, he’s special. You want to pay attention and make sure you know where he’s at and know how to handle him. He is a very dangerous player if you allow him to get things rolling. You’ve got to be able to keep him out of that zone.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.
(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)