Monday Morning Quarterback: Bears-Lions (11.13.11)

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Three return touchdowns, a Devin Hester punt return and two interception returns by the defense, helped the Bears rout the Lions, 37-13.
Three return touchdowns, a Devin Hester punt return and two interception returns by the defense, helped the Bears rout the Lions, 37-13.

While riding a three-game win streak and starting to find their stride on both sides of the ball, the Bears had the perfect momentum to exact a 37-13 measure of revenge against division-rival Detroit on Sunday.

Not only did the game hold strong playoff implications for the Bears (6-3), who are now tied for second in the NFC North with Detroit, there were personal feelings of animosity toward the chirpy Lions as well. Several Bears players shared with members of the media their displeasure in how talkative the Lions were during and after the Bears’ 24-13 loss to the Lions a month ago.

The best way to shut a team up is to go out and thoroughly thrash them just as the Bears did on the lakefront Sunday — right?

Obviously not, because when the Lions fell behind early, they were flapping their gums even more and piling up late hits and personal fouls. As Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher put it, “Once they got down, it got that way.”

The Lions have the reputation of being a dirty team and they earned every inch of it against the Bears. Detroit defends their play and labels it as “toughness,” but when you commit flagrant acts such as ripping a quarterback’s helmet off, driving the quarterback into the turf after a play, engaging in an illegal chop block to take out a defensive lineman’s knees, and furtively pushing a quarterback to the ground after a play when the referee isn’t looking, those are dirty plays befitting a dirty team.

They also reek of desperation and frustration from a team that has gone 1-3 since starting the season 5-0 and one that clearly hasn’t learned how to handle success or lose with class.

As I mentioned last week, the dirty play of the Lions almost makes it seem like they’re trying to overcompensate for years of futility in the Motor City. When you’ve been so bad for so long, you try to change the losing culture by instilling a new attitude, which the little weasel head coach, Jim Schwartz — who chased down 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh after a game a couple weeks ago — clearly has taught his players to do.

Switching gears back to the game, this one was over before it ever really got started. The Lions entered the game first in the league with a plus-13 turnover ratio but they were anything but careful with the ball on Sunday, committing six turnovers.

On the opening drive, Julius Peppers clotheslined Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson and knocked the ball loose. Lions fans will cry foul saying that was a cheap shot, but the tackle was perfectly clean as Peppers’ arm was below the neck on the shoulder pad. Urlacher recovered the fumble and returned it 17 yards to the Detroit 30-yard line, setting up the Bears offense with great field position. Four plays later, Matt Forte punched the ball in the end zone from six yards out and the Bears took a 7-point lead, one they would never relinquish.

Of course, it’s prudent to point out that the dirty play began on that drive as Lions defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch was flagged for unnecessary roughness for hitting Forte late while he already was on the ground.

On the Lions’ next drive, cornerback Tim Jennings was beaten by Nate Burleson for a reception down the sideline. Rather than wrap up, Jennings tried to push Burleson out of bounds but to no avail. Jennings, however, stayed with the play and knocked the ball loose before falling on the fumble to record the Bears’ second takeaway in two possessions.

Once again, the Bears capitalized with points off turnovers as Robbie Gould’s 43-yard field goal put the Bears up, 10-0. The Bears made it three-for-three on offense by tacking on yet another field goal on their third possession, this one coming early in the second quarter.

The Lions offense continued to struggle on the ensuing possession and was held to a three-and-out. Lions punter Ryan Malone, whom the team signed just days before the game, made costly mistakes by kicking the ball to Devin Hester on multiple occasions Sunday. On this particular punt, Hester had to retreat about 17 yards to field it, dropped the ball, picked it up, reversed field, and took it 82 yards down the Lions sideline for a touchdown, his 12th punt return touchdown and 17th total return score of his career.

At 20-0, the rout was on.

After another Lions three-and-out, Malone made the mistake of not kicking it out of bounds, but a holding penalty on Zack Bowman nullified a 35-yard punt return by Hester.

That’s when any faint hope of a shutout was put to rest.

Jay Cutler lost control of the ball before he could hand it off to Forte — it was unclear whether fullback Tyler Clutts bumped into him or not — and the Lions recovered at the 19-yard line. They would settle for a field goal and trail, 20-3.

The Bears offense cooled down after the first quarter and struggled to move the ball as the Lions did a good job defending the run. It wasn’t until late in the second quarter when either team scored again. The Lions’ Jason Hanson tacked on his second field goal to bring the score to 20-6 with just over a minute to play.

The difference between the Bears defense and most others in the NFL was evident late in the first half. The Bears were driving down the field with under a minute to go when Cutler was sacked by Cliff Avril. Avril knocked the ball loose before Cutler’s arm made a forward throwing motion. Because the ball was projected forward by Cutler’s throwing motion, everybody — the Bears offense and Lions defense — thought it was an incomplete pass. The replay booth reviewed the play, and although they overturned the call on the field, the ball was not recovered by the defense immediately so they ruled it as a forward fumble and the Bears kept possession. If the two sides were reversed, the Bears defense would have picked up that ball and returned it for a score because they’re taught by Lovie Smith to treat everything — incomplete passes included — as fumbles in practice.

Gould missed his 43-yard field goal attempt on that drive, but the Bears took a 20-6 lead into halftime.

In the third quarter, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford got sloppy and the Lions continued to turn the ball over. On back-to-back possessions to start the half, Stafford was intercepted by Major Wright and Charles Tillman, who both scored touchdowns. Tillman’s touchdown put the Bears up 34-6.

The Lions defense did all it could to give the team a chance but their offense kept choking under the pressure of the Bears defense.

The Bears managed just one more score, a Gould 50-yard field goal midway through the third quarter, before coasting in conservative mode the rest of the way.

Late in the third quarter, tensions began to boil over for both teams.

The Bears offense was backed up in its own territory when Cutler threw an incomplete pass to Marion Barber. Lions rookie defensive tackle Nick Fairley wrapped up Cutler after he got rid of the ball, drove him backwards several yards and then into the ground in the back of the end zone. The fact that the line of scrimmage was the eight-yard line and yet Cutler was a yard shy of being driven out of the end zone lets you know how flagrant the foul was. That, and the fact that Cutler got up with his shoulderpad outside his jersey and a chunk of grass in his helmet.

On the Lions’ next offensive possession, Stafford completed a pass across the middle to Johnson and Lance Briggs drilled him with his shoulder. Briggs was penalized on the play, but the fact that he did not launch himself at Johnson, nor did he lead with his helmet, illustrates that fine line defenders have to walk in order to make a big hit without it being illegal.

Early in the fourth quarter, Stafford was intercepted by Jennings, who returned it 50 yards down the Lions sideline. The ball was brought back to the 16-yard line because Jennings was down by contact there, but bedlam ensued on the play.

Stafford, clearly frustrated by his and his team’s performance up to that point, was being blocked by D.J. Moore during Jennings’ return. As a quarterback, essentially a glorified kicker when it comes to hand-to-hand combat in football, Stafford grabbed the back of Moore’s helmet and threw him to the ground to try to escape the block. Moore took exception to the act and ran over and tackled Stafford after the play. Lions players came to the rescue of their quarterback and jumped on Moore. Most of the players on the field from each team — as well as the coaches — were trying to separate players and break up the fracas, but there were a handful of players pushing and shoving. The scene ended with Moore drawing a penalty and being ejected from the game to a standing ovation from the crowd.

Moore was clearly at fault for doing what he did. First, it’s never smart to retaliate, especially so flagrantly, because officials always catch the second guy. It’s a rule taught to all athletes from the time they play in youth sports. Secondly, Moore claims he was just protecting himself and his “livelihood,” and although I agree what Stafford did was dirty — that’s the central theme of the Lions — Moore needs to learn to play with a little bit more control of his emotions. If this had been a closer game, his ejection could have really hurt the Bears because Moore plays a large percentage of the Bears’ defensive snaps as the starting nickelback.

Rather than heat up even further, the game seemed to cool down for the remainder of the fourth quarter. There were some pushes and shoves, an illegal chop block that took out the legs of Henry Melton, but nothing else caused tempers to flare. Johnson left the game in the middle of the fourth quarter after the Lions receiver got his bell rung on Stafford’s fourth interception of the game, this one by Corey Graham.

Few wins are ever as gratifying as a resounding beating of a division opponent is. What makes this one even more special is that the Lions have been way too yappy this season and awfully dirty. To put a team in its place, especially one who was probably overrated in the preseason, is a satisfying accomplishment and is the icing on the cake that was the Bears’ important divisional victory.

Two weeks ago, we said how drastically different a situation the Bears would be in if they were to lose both games to the Eagles and Lions versus winning them both. I think any one of us would have accepted a split in order to still be in the playoff picture. As it turns out, the Bears now are in control of their playoff destiny after sweeping the Eagles and Lions and the remainder of their schedule isn’t nearly as tough as the first half was.

The Bears will face the entire AFC West in four straight games coming up, and they realistically should win at least three of them. First up is perhaps the most talented of the four teams, the San Diego Chargers, who will visit Soldier Field next Sunday. They’re an underachieving team and quarterback Philip Rivers is having a bad season.

Considering the history of bad blood between Rivers and Cutler — as a member of the Broncos — I wouldn’t be surprised to see some more chippiness on the lakefront next week.

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