Monday Morning Quarterback: Bears-Lions (10.22.12)

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The defense got after Matthew Stafford all night and nearly scored a shutout.
The defense got after Matthew Stafford all night and nearly scored a shutout.

The fear heading into Monday night’s battle with the Detroit Lions was that the Bears might come out of the gates a little rusty after 15 days since their previous game. And also that the Lions, fresh off a comeback victory on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles, might be riding a surge of momentum and confidence.

That fear was quickly laid to rest on the first two drives of the game.

Detroit took the opening kickoff and went three and out under the pressure of a fired-up Bears defense. The Bears offense then took the ball 59 yards on 7 plays for a touchdown, the first time they scored an opening drive touchdown since last year’s trouncing of the Lions, according to the team’s official Twitter account. Key plays on that drive were a Jay Cutler scramble on third and eight for a first down, a Matt Forte 39-yard dash down the sideline, and a seven-yard touchdown catch by Brandon Marshall.

The Lions went four and out on their next series — running back Mikel Leshoure had a 15 yard run on first down to give them a new set of downs. And on their third possession of the game, they once again went three and out, failing to show any sort of cohesion on offense in the face of heavy pressure.

On the Bears’ third possession, they added to their 7-0 lead with a field goal by Robbie Gould. After a holding call on Gabe Carimi backed up the offense to a first-and-20 from their own 40-yard-line, Cutler again scrambled for a first down, picking up 24 yards on the play. The Lions were penalized for unnecessary roughness, further moving the Bears into scoring position.

After the teams traded punts, the Bears were pinned deep in their own territory at their 2-yard-line. What could have been trouble led to a dramatic shift in field position as the Bears methodically marched 69 yards down the field. Gould’s field goal was blocked and the score remained 10-0, but it was a good job by the Bears of getting out of harm’s way. In the past, a situation like that could have led to a short field for the Lions’ offense. On that drive, the Bears converted two third downs on pass plays from Cutler to Marshall; one that went for 18 yards and another than resulted in a 20-yard pickup.

With time winding down in the first half, the Lions offense started to get into a rhythm. Beginning the drive at their own 29-yard-line, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford completed all four of his passes on the drive while also rushing twice for 17 yards, and Leshoure also gained 14 yards on one carry.

However, the defense stepped up when it counted. Leshoure fumbled the ball inside the red zone and Peppers recovered for the Bears. The Bears ran out the clock and took a 10-0 lead into halftime.

In the second half, the Bears offense opened the drive with a three and out, but Lions punt returner Stefan Logan muffed the Adam Podlesh punt and recently-acquired Zack Bowman pounced on the loose ball to give the offense a second chance. The Bears then drove down to the 3-yard-line where they had first and goal. That’s where they had an unusual set of play calls where they failed to run the ball even once and had to settle for three points from Gould. Whether offensive coordinator Mike Tice called three straight pass plays or whether Cutler checked off a run and changed it to a pass is uncertain, but with a capable back like Bush in the backfield, the Bears should have tried to punch it in on the ground.

Midway through the third quarter, after a long Lions drive, the Bears defense was on its heels backed up to the goal line. As the Lions tried to punch the ball in from the 1-yard-line, running back Joique Bell lost control of the football as he tried to extend it across the plane of the goal line. Brian Urlacher scooped it up and advanced it a few yards to give the offense a little breathing room.

While protecting a 13-0 lead and trying to go for the shutout, the Bears defense really amped up its pass rush on Stafford and made him uncomfortable for most of the fourth quarter. With just under three minutes to play, the Bears made one more defensive stand that they had hoped would clinch the shutout.

The Lions had first and goal at the 6-yard-line. On first down, Stafford completed a three-yard pass to Bell. On second down, safety Major Wright nearly picked off Stafford in the end zone on a forced pass to tight end Tony Scheffler. On third down, Stafford overthrew Calvin Johnson across the middle of the end zone. And on fourth down, Julius Peppers and Henry Melton created heavy pressure on Stafford and forced him to throw on the run. The pass was intercepted by D.J. Moore and Stafford wound up with a facemask full of the Soldier Field grass for his troubles.

That series would have been a storybook ending to a great game by the defense, but, unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. The Lions got the ball back and marched down the field in the closing minute to put up a meaningless touchdown — meaningless to all those but the gamblers. After the score, the defense was visibly perturbed, mostly the veterans like Urlacher and Briggs. Urlacher was heard dropping the F-bomb and throwing his arms up and down in disgust. You could tell that they really wanted the shutout and it’s hard to argue against the fact that they deserved it.

Although they gave away the shutout — and the Lions were one failed onside kick attempt away from making the game interesting — the Bears dominated the game from the outset in all three phases. The defense is playing like a Super Bowl defense right now, and you have to wonder if they’re peaking too early. The best time to hit your stride is near the end of the season heading into the playoffs, so let’s see how they play the rest of the way. The offense still hasn’t hit its stride yet and they are still figuring out their identity, but it’s clearly the most potent attack the team has had in years. The fact that the Bears more than once were backed up against their own goal line and were able to flip field position speaks volumes moving forward.

One thing of concern as the Bears prepare to face the Panthers next week is the health of a few key members of the offense. Cutler took a vicious hit from Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and had to leave the game for a play — due to the NFL’s rule that any stoppage in play for an injury means the injured player must sit out the next play. When Suh drove Cutler into the ground and the quarterback lay in pain for a few minutes, the collective breath of Bear Nation was lost. However, when ESPN came back from commercial, Cutler was shown running off the field only to return one play later to a rousing ovation from the crowd…

…and somewhere, Maurice Jones-Drew was tweeting from his couch about Cutler’s toughness while Jones-Drew was unable to finish his own game this week due to a foot injury. Karma.

Also of minor concern is the health of Forte, whom Lovie Smith said has “general soreness” as he was seen both limping and holding his arm late in the game.

The Bears now move forward at 5-1 with the second-best win percentage in the NFC behind the Atlanta Falcons. It’d be dangerous to look past any opponent, but the Bears have the Panthers at home and the Titans on the road in the next two weeks, two very winnable games. You’ve got to win the sixth game before you can win the seventh, but the Bears could potentially be 7-1 heading into a Week 10 showdown with the AFC-best Houston Texans at Soldier Field on Nov. 11.

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