The Bears will get their biggest test to date on Sunday when they clash with the Detroit Lions in a division battle for first place in the NFC North.
All week, there have been comments coming from Detroit trying to hype up the battle between these two teams, whereas the Bears have been mostly downplaying the rivalry and their potential dislike for the Lions’ dirty defensive tackle, Ndamukong Suh. Funny how the team that’s lost nine of the last ten games in this “rivalry” — the Lions — are the ones doing all the chirping.
Not much has changed since last year in the city of Detroit. It’s still broke, still desolate, still has a bad football team made up of a bunch of good players who win games on talent alone. The team is still led by a cocky, squirrelly little runt of a head coach who not only doesn’t admonish the dirtiness of his players but actually embraces and promotes it. For those wondering why Suh and some of his teammates play like thugs in uniforms, take a look at Jim Schwartz, the man wearing the headset and calling the shots on Sundays. His behavior is probably best exemplified in two moments in his career as head coach of the Lions. The first was an altercation between him and San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh after a heated contest between the 49ers and Lions a few years back. Harbaugh slapped Schwartz on the back a little more firmly than Schwartz liked, so the little runt went to chase down Harbaugh and confront him. The second example was just last week when, after a last-second Hail Mary pass fell incomplete in the end zone, preserving the Lions’ victory over the Redskins, Schwartz took off his headset and triumphantly spiked it on the ground before proceeding to swagger with cockiness toward midfield for the coach meet-and-greet.
In other words — when he’s successful, he’s awfully cocky and brash. When he fails, he’s a big baby.
But, I digress.
The reason I bring up the mannerisms of Jim Schwartz is because players take on the personality of their coaches, and the Lions are an undisciplined, dirty bunch. Conversely, the Bears are playing disciplined football and taking after the personality of their no-nonsense, intelligent, and determined head coach, Marc Trestman. Through three games, the Bears have not had a false start penalty, and Jay Cutler has been sacked just three times — second-fewest in the NFL. The team has not lost its composure when faced with adversity in making two fourth-quarter comebacks this year. And last week on the road when the Steelers closed the gap to four points, the Bears maintained their composure and buried their opponent with a big fourth-quarter touchdown drive followed by a defensive score.
It’s that kind of composure and determination that the Bears will need to have to beat a tough opponent on the road this week in the Lions.
The Lions have a lot of firepower on offense with one of the league’s best wide receivers in Calvin Johnson, a solid quarterback in Matthew Stafford, and a versatile receiving back in Reggie Bush, whom the team added in the offseason. They also have an athletic tight end in Brandon Pettigrew, who creates problems over the middle. The Lions still lack much of a running game, currently ranked No. 26 on the ground with just 74.7 rushing yards per game. Bush is not a between-the-tackles runner and he does most of his damage as a receiver out of the backfield.
Of course, by now, everybody knows about what happened to Lions wide receiver Nate Burleson, who broke his arm in a car accident this week after allegedly trying to rescue a pizza that was sliding off the seat of his car. If I were a betting man, I’d guess he was texting, surfing the ‘net, or doing something he shouldn’t have been doing on his cell phone while driving. But regardless, the Lions will be without his presence on Sunday and he was their leading receiver this year with 19 receptions. His loss will thin out the receiving corps and really put added pressure on “Megatron” — Johnson — to pick up the slack.
Normally a tough matchup for Johnson, the Bears defense could be without cornerback Charles Tillman — or, at least, without a healthy Peanut. Tillman has battled through dehydration, knee and groin injuries this season and has not been as effective as he’s been the past two years. The Bears will need to provide whatever help they can give Tillman or else Johnson could go off for a huge game.
The biggest key to the game for the Bears defense is containment. And quarterback pressures. The Bears have to make sure Johnson doesn’t beat them up top on big plays down the field, and at the same time, they have to keep Bush contained so that he doesn’t get loose in open space, where his speed and elusiveness cause the most damage. When Bush is limited to sweeps and draws and when he has a linebacker in his lap the moment he catches the ball out of the backfield, he’s a very ordinary player. Whereas Cutler has only been sacked three times this year, the Lions’ Stafford has been dropped only twice this year, fewest in the league. That doesn’t bode well for a defense that hasn’t rushed the quarterback well this year.
The talk all week from the Chicago media has been: how hurt is Tillman? And will his injuries greatly affect the Bears’ chances of defending Johnson? An even more broad, but oft-repeated question this week was: can the Bears stop the Lions’ high-powered offense?
I’m going to flip the script on these media types and ask: Can the Lions’ defense stop this Bears offense?
The fact that that question hasn’t really been discussed at all this week is further proof that the media types haven’t fully bought into Trestman’s offense. They’re still in “wait-and-see” mode and they want a bigger body of evidence. Here are a few numbers to chew on: the Bears are the third-highest scoring team in the NFL behind the Broncos and Packers. The Lions are No. 6. Even if you take away the Bears’ three defensive touchdowns this year and remove the Lions’ one defensive touchdown, the Bears’ offense is still averaging 24.6 points per game vs. the Lions’ 25.0 points per game. Not much of a difference.
So, I repeat: can the Lions’ defense stop the Bears offense? It seems like a foreign concept around these parts, but it carries weight.
When Cutler is protected, he’s one of the most effective passers in the game, as evidenced by his 94.2 passer rating. Thanks to Trestman’s offense, which is reliant on getting the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly, Cutler has the fifth-highest completion percentage in the league. He doesn’t have a great deal of passing yards, but that’s because the Bears run the ball effectively, too. Matt Forte is ranked No. 9 in the NFL with 225 rushing yards. Combine the team’s offensive balance with the short field they’ve earned by their defense and Devin Hester, and they pose major problems for opposing defenses.
I know the media is eager to give the Bears their first loss because most of the media types don’t believe this is a 4-0 team. But let’s examine some facts of the game. The Bears are hurting without Tillman being 100%. But this defense — still molded by Lovie Smith’s bend-but-don’t-break scheme — is capable of yielding big yardage totals to Stafford and Johnson without it leading to touchdowns. The key is to keep the Lions out of the end zone. If they want to kick five field goals, so be it, as long as the Bears’ offense continues to score points.
If this were the Bears offense of the past four years, I’d have my doubts about this game. If it were the offense of old, Cutler would be dropping back seven steps and getting crunched by Suh and his defensive linemates. He’d be heaving the ball up to Hester and Johnny Knox and Rashied Davis and Dane Sanzenbacher, and the diminutive receivers would get crunched by the Lions’ secondary — if they could even break free from the jams at the line of scrimmage. Or, Cutler would try to hit Kellen Davis over the middle and the ball would either bounce off the tight end’s hands or he would fall down. Or both.
But this isn’t the Bears offense of old. This is an offense which features short, quick drops and getting the ball out quickly, to avoid Cutler having his head repeatedly slammed into the turf. This is an offense which features 6-4 Brandon Marshall, 6-3 Alshon Jeffery, and 6-6 Martellus Bennett — three-fifths of a starting basketball lineup with that height. These guys all have solid hands and great athleticism and are matchup problems for any defense. Not to mention, although the Lions’ Reggie Bush is known for his ability as a receiver out of the backfield, Forte is no slouch as a pass catcher for the Bears, either. He factors into the Bears’ game plan big time.
Ultimately, the winner of this game will be the one that executes better on offense, chews up the clock, moves the chains, and ends drives with touchdowns, not field goals. Pair the offensive efficiency with a defensive pass rush — which, I think the Bears will do better this week on a fast turf — and you have the decisive outcome.
That team will be the Bears, assuming they maintain the composure and ball security they’ve had through three games so far.
Prediction: Chicago 30, Detroit 27