Four Downs: Keys to beating the Lions (10/22/12)

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Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson has not played his best ball against the Bears, but is still a force to be reckoned with.
Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson has not played his best ball against the Bears, but is still a force to be reckoned with.

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

1. Keep everything in front and prevent the big play

The Lions currently have the No. 2 offense in the NFL, but the league ranks offenses based on yards, not points. Generally, opponents who face Lovie Smith teams will always rack up big yards due to the nature of the Bears’ bend-but-don’t-break defense. What the Lions possess is a quarterback in Matthew Stafford who can sling the ball downfield and some weapons in the passing game who can stretch a defense out. Despite having a down year — for him — wide receiver Calvin Johnson is still the best wide receiver in the NFL. He’s a big, physical receiver whom the Bears have generally been able to contain due to Charles Tillman’s size and physicality. They also have tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who can stretch the middle of the field, and veteran Nate Burleson. What’s of the utmost importance is for the safeties to play as deep as they have been and not to let Stafford throw over the top for a big play. It’s imperative that the Bears make the Lions earn every inch of what they get.

2. Must take early lead

After six weeks of the NFL season, the Bears lead the league with 78 net points. What this means is that not only are they winning, but they’re winning big. But what has to be a concern for the team is that most of their scoring has come in the second half of games. Against the Jaguars two Sundays ago, the score was tied at 3 at halftime. The Bears had just 10 of their 34 points against the Cowboys through two quarters. Likewise, they had just 10 points against the Rams at the half. Sure, it indicates a certain resiliency by the team and great halftime adjustments by the staff (meatballs, take notice). But against better teams, it’s going to be that much more difficult to come back from deficits. There’s a long, proven track record of Bears teams during the Smith regime playing fantastic football when taking a lead into the fourth quarter. But there’s just as equal a discouraging statistic of how they fare when trying to come back heading into the fourth. It’s important that against a division rival in prime time at home that the Bears be a little more productive on the scoreboard early in the game. Playing with the lead opens up the playbook so much more and limits the strain on the offensive line.

3. Finish game strong

The Bears have not been known to blow leads late in games under Smith, but that does not mean it’s not an important key to winning this game. The Lions, while having struggled this season, have enough playmakers on offense to come back from most deficits they may face. Last week against Philadelphia, Detroit was trailing by 10 points on the road with a little over 3:30 to play in the fourth quarter. Although the Eagles did their part in gift-wrapping the victory for the Lions, it still took execution by the Lions to pull off the overtime victory. We’ve seen this Bears offense show its potential this season by racking up mass quantities of yards and points, but the one time they were trailing late in the game, they could not come back to beat the Packers. It’ll take a strong finish from both the offense and defense to secure the victory.

4. Control time of possession and keep Lions offense sidelined

It’s not a secret that the formula for success against a team with a potent offense is to keep that unit standing on the sideline. It also bodes well for your offense if you can wear down the opponent’s defense so that it is fatigued later in the game. The Lions have the 12th-ranked run defense so I wouldn’t expect the Bears to run wild on them, but this is one of those situations where simply making the effort to run the ball will help a team succeed. Think quantity of carries, not quality. The total rushing attempts statistic could be a greater indicator of success in this one than yards per carry. The Bears also have to continue moving wide receiver Brandon Marshall around. It doesn’t matter that Jay Cutler locks onto his favorite receiver so long as Cutler doesn’t start forcing the ball to Marshall and having his passes picked off. Marshall is ranked 11th in the league in yards after catch and he’s very tough to bring down in the open field. Completing passes to him over the middle and allowing him to go to work could complement the run game and keep the chains moving, and thus keeping the Lions offense on the sideline for a longer period of time.

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