Bears-Lions preview and game breakdown (11.13.11)

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The Bears, and Jay Cutler, do well when the quarterback is on the move.
The Bears, and Jay Cutler, do well when the quarterback is on the move.

A preview and breakdown of the matchup between the Bears and Lions on Nov. 13, 2011.

Bears offense vs. Lions defense
What a difference a month can make, especially when you consider the NFL is a week-to-week league. The Bears went up to Detroit on a Monday night in October without an identity on offense and a disorganized mess along the offensive line. They somehow managed to hang around for a while and take a 10-7 lead into halftime before ultimately crumbling in the third quarter and losing by 11. The biggest problem with the line was that it was in a revolving state after injuries and poor play. The line had trouble hearing Jay Cutler’s cadence at noisy Ford Field and committed nine false start penalties. Since that game, the line has stabilized and — dare we say — has played well, allowing just three sacks in the last three games, including zero last week against the Eagles, who have one of the best pass rushes in the league. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz has done Cutler well by moving him around and allowing him to make plays outside on the run. The line has also done a good job of continuing to create holes for Matt Forte, who ranks second in the NFL with 805 rushing yards. The Bears were aided last week by the return of receiver Earl Bennett from a chest injury. It was clear all game how much Cutler and the offense missed his presence since he was lost in Week 2 because he provided a different dimension to their offense, one in which Cutler had a safety valve and a reliable set of hands to throw to. Like the Eagles, the Lions have one of the top pass rushes in the league with great talent along the defensive line. They’re fourth in the league with 24 sacks and are anchored by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who, we all know by now, is as dirty as they get in the NFL. Corey Williams and rookie Nick Fairley, the 13th overall pick of the draft, will rotate beside Suh and both will help Suh clog up the middle. That won’t seem to hinder the Bears’ game plan, anyway, because they like to run outside the tackles, particularly to the right when they pull left guard Chris Williams. Where the Bears will have to pay extra attention is at the end positions where Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch are having strong seasons with five sacks and three fumbles apiece. The Lions secondary has been hawking balls all season and rank fifth in the league with 11. Cornerback Chris Houston leads the team with four, two of which he’s returned for touchdowns. Eric Wright plays opposite him and has picked off two passes, while Amari Spievey and Louis Delmas are the safeties and round out a solid secondary. Delmas is questionable with a foot injury, though.
Advantage: Lions

Bears defense vs. Lions offense
Talk about another unit that has made strides in a month’s time. The Bears had one of the league’s worst run defenses the last time they took on the Lions and they allowed Jahvid Best to rush for 163 yards, including an 88-yard touchdown run. Since then, they’ve improved to No. 11 thanks to strong performances against a pair of the best running backs in the league, Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson — whom they held to 39 yards in Week 6 — and Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy — who managed just 71 yards last week. The defense has thrived largely because of its three Pro Bowlers, linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher, who are playing like they’re in their mid-twenties, and defensive end Julius Peppers, who has played through a knee injury and doesn’t seem to be greatly affected by it. The defensive line as a whole, although not generating a high sack count, has been putting pressure on quarterbacks as of late and managed to not only contain one of the league’s fastest players last week but actually put pressure on and apply hits to Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. Similar to how the Bears offensive line has to take a page out of its game plan from last week, the Bears defensive line has to do the same thing this week to try to rush Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. Stafford is quietly having a terrific season while throwing for 2,179 yards and 19 touchdowns. He’s careful with the football, too, and has only been intercepted four times, fifth-fewest in the league. Heading into last week’s matchup with the Eagles, everybody was so certain that Vick would challenge rookie free safety Chris Conte, who had yet to be tested in his previous action. That never transpired. But this is the week he should be getting quite a bit of action because the Lions like to throw deep. They’re second to only the Packers with eight passes of 40 or more yards. Second-year safety Major Wright is probable with an ankle injury, but even if he goes, we could see Brandon Meriweather work his way into the lineup to get some playing time throughout the game. Lastly, two players who will make an impact on this game are also two of the unsung heroes on defense: cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings. Tillman is one of the most underrated cornerbacks in the NFL and Jennings is a tremendous overachiever who plays much more physical than his small stature would suggest. These guys are getting the job done, particularly in run support, where Tillman leads the team in tackles and Jennings is ranked fourth, behind Briggs and Urlacher. The Bears secondary will have its hands full with Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, but they seem to find a way to play well against him — minus the 73-yard touchdown catch he had last game. The man who blew that coverage, Chris Harris, has since been cut and will be standing on the Lions sideline this week.
Advantage: Lions

Special Teams
The primary concern for the Bears on the special teams front is Devin Hester’s ankle injury, which has caused him to be listed as questionable on the injury report. If he can’t go, Johnny Knox will handle the kickoff return duties and Earl Bennett is likely to take over as the punt returner. Both have scored touchdowns with the Bears in those roles, although neither is anywhere near as good as Hester is as what he does, particularly Bennett. The Lions’ Stefan Logan ranks ninth in the league among those with at least 10 kickoff returns with an average of 26.5 yards per return. He’s not nearly as good a punt returner. Robbie Gould and Lions kicker Jason Hanson are having remarkably similar seasons this year. Each has converted on 17 of 18 field goal attempts with a long of 51 yards. On kickoffs, Hanson ranks sixth in the league with 26 touchbacks and Gould ranks seventh with 24 — in six less kickoffs. Detroit’s Ryan Donahue ranks 30th in the league with a 35.6-yard net punting average. Adam Podlesh ranks 12th with 39.5.
Advantage: Bears

The last time these two teams met, each was in a different situation than they are now. The Lions appeared in their first Monday night game since the advent of color television — not really — and were trying to stretch their record to 5-0. The Bears, meanwhile, slumped after an impressive opening week victory over the Atlanta Falcons and could not play well on the road. Since then, the Bears have figured things out along the offensive line as well as on defense whereas the Lions have lost two of three games and are struggling with being a one-dimensional offense due to injuries to the running back position. The Bears return to Soldier Field for the first time in nearly a month, when they had obliterated the Vikings, 39-10, on Oct. 16. The lakefront will never have looked so good to them and it’ll be nice to not have to deal with a hostile crowd. To win this game, the Bears have to employ essentially the same game plan they used to stop the Eagles last week. They have to protect Cutler well, either with max protection or by moving him out of the pocket where he’s at his best. Forte has to take advantage of the league’s fourth-worst run defense. The defense has to apply the same consistent pressure on Stafford they did last week against Vick. And lastly, they have to take care of the football considering the Lions rank first in the league with a plus-13 turnover ratio. This, by no means, is a gimme despite how convincing the Bears played last week on the road. The Lions have great offensive firepower and Stafford is an accurate quarterback that can pick apart zone coverage. But I think with how well the Bears offense has been playing and with the Bears defense not having to face one of the league’s top rushing attacks as they did last week, the Bears should outlast the Lions and exact some measure of revenge.
Advantage: Bears

Final Score: Chicago 27, Detroit 23

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