Four Downs: Keys to beating the Lions (10/10/11)

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A look at four keys for the Bears to beat the Detroit Lions.

Calvin Johnson's freakish combination of size, speed, and athleticism make him nearly impossible to defend.
Calvin Johnson's freakish combination of size, speed, and athleticism make him nearly impossible to defend.

1. Run the football consistently

The Bears laid the foundation for their offensive success last week against the Panthers by rushing for 224 yards on 31 carries. The Panthers have a beat-up defense missing two key linebackers, so that type of production from the run game isn’t expected to be replicated week in and week out. But it was the concerted effort to run the ball that enabled the offense to move the chains and tire the defense. The same focus will be needed this week against the Lions because it’ll have a three-pronged effect. First, the Bears should have a bit of success against the Lions’ 20th-ranked run defense. It’s certainly better to run than to let Detroit unleash its mean and nasty defensive line on Jay Cutler. Second, by running the ball, picking up first downs and chewing up the clock, the Bears can keep the Lions’ explosive offense on the sideline instead of allowing them to get into rhythm and putting big points on the board. Third, the Bears didn’t play well on the road at New Orleans in Week 2 and they’ll need to silence the crowd with sustained offensive drives. That might allow them to deal with the crowd noise better and pass the football later in the game.

2. Defense get off the field on third downs and limit quick scores

One can make the snide comment that the Bears defense has been shredded the past two weeks and that third downs haven’t even come up on certain drives. While that’s true, more often than not the Bears will get the Lions in a third down situation and they have to get off the field after those downs. If they allow the Lions to get first downs and move down the field regularly, the defense will get tired and will break down in the fourth quarter. If the Bears do allow the Lions to score — which is all but a certainty, realistically — they have to make the Lions earn every inch and cannot allow quick scores. Everything the Bears do against Detroit on Monday, whether it be offensively or defensively, has to involve limiting the amount of possessions — and thus scoring opportunities — for the Lions.

3. Be physical with Calvin Johnson

A week after allowing Carolina’s Steve Smith to log 181 yards on eight receptions, the Bears defense now has the difficult task of facing perhaps the NFL’s best receiver in Calvin Johnson. Through four games, Johnson has 24 receptions for 321 yards and a league-high eight touchdown receptions, putting him on pace to break the single-season record of 23 set by Randy Moss in 2007. Whereas Smith is short and quick, Johnson is big and powerful and his size and athleticism allow him to make tough catches in traffic. Although the Bears have historically had a modicum of success against him, Johnson poses problems for any defense. While telling the Bears’ cornerbacks to be physical with Johnson is like telling David to get into a fistfight with Goliath, they really don’t have any other choice. The cornerbacks have to get a good bump on Johnson within the first five yards of the line of scrimmage to try to disrupt the timing of passing plays and to give the defensive line another second to get after Matthew Stafford. Without pressure from the line, and if the Lions offense gets into a rhythm, lobbing the ball up to Johnson over any of the Bears’ defensive backs is like money in the bank for Detroit.

4. Win field position battle with special teams

Despite a poor effort from the defense last week, the Bears managed to beat the Panthers because they performed well in the other two phases. Devin Hester had a great day returning a kickoff 73 yards and scoring on a 69-yard punt return. That kind of success may have put the “Hester fear factor” back into effect and the Lions may shy away from giving Hester any opportunity to burn them with a good return. Usually when teams punt away from Hester, they shank the ball and give up field position. That, paired with any possible returns from Hester, will help in a big way to shift field position and give the Bears a sorely-needed edge.

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