Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions – Week 4 Preview

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Week 4 – Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions

Part 4 of a 17 part series analyzing each week of the Bears’ season

 

The Chicago Bears now have their second divisional matchup, which also happens to be their second road game of the season. The team has been impressive in their three wins, with big-time comebacks in their first two games. However, they are still working out the kinks while they learn the Marc Trestman offense.

Injuries are starting to become a factor for the Bears, with Henry Melton tearing his ACL and Charles Tillman dealing with various nagging injuries. They need to maintain good health to continue their success.

The Detroit Lions had a very disappointing 2012 season, going 4-12 despite Calvin Johnson’s monstrous season. Like many teams, the Lions made a lot of changes this offseason, mostly on the defensive side of the ball. They lost five defensive linemen, including both starting defensive ends, along with two starting offensive lineman and a pair of contributing defensive backs. The injury bug hit them pretty hard, but somewhat surprisingly, quarterback Matthew Stafford remained healthy for the second straight season.

Despite all of their subtractions, the Lions were able to bring in some talented players. Most notably was running back Reggie Bush, who looks to solidify a weak Lions running game. In addition, safety Glover Quin and defensive end Jason Jones were brought in to start on defense. A major part of the Lions offseason came in the draft, where they knocked their first three picks out of the park, drafting BYU defensive end Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, Mississippi State cornerback Darius Slay, and  Kentucky guard Larry Warford in the first three rounds. All three have started this season.

 

Key Matchups

Bears CB Charles Tillman versus Lions WR Calvin Johnson

Ever since the Lions drafted Calvin Johnson in 2007, this has been one of the best matchups of every season. Johnson is a top-five wide receiver in the league, and Charles Tillman is a staple in one of the best defenses in the league and is a dominant corner. Because they face each other twice a year, there is a familiarity between these two, which makes the matchup all the more fun to watch.

The two games a year also create a lot of stats that help determine who is the “winner” in their matchups. Last year the Bears and Lions played in weeks 7 and 17. In week seven, Tillman shut down “Megatron”, holding him to just three catches for 34 yards, his worst game of the season. He had a little more success in week 17, however, with five catches for 72 yards.

2011 was a different story. The two teams faced in weeks five and ten. In week five, Johnson went for 130 yards and a touchdown on only five catches. Week ten was also rough for Tillman, allowing Johnson seven catches for 73 yards.

A factor that is gaining importance in this matchup is age. Tillman is 32 years old and past his prime; Johnson is 27 and entering his prime. Tillman has yet to show many signs of slowing down, but eventually his age will catch up to him. And when it does, Calvin will be right there to take advantage of it. In addition, Tillman has been battling groin and knee injuries, and his health is in question heading into this game. Injury has been a big reason for his early-season struggles.

In this matchup, neither player has the advantage. If Tillman is not fully healthy, though, Johnson will likely have the better day. They have gone back in forth so much, that it is impossible to predict who will “win”. If the Bears and the Lions played 16 games against each other, it is likely these two would go 8-8 in their matchups. They truly are fun to watch, and this game will be no different.

 

Bears Offensive Line versus Lions Defensive Line

The Bears’ 2013 offensive line is much improved from years past. They have only allowed Jay Cutler to be sacked twice during the first three games, and they have kept him well protected the majority of the time. It has resulted in a much-improved Cutler, and keeping him protected will be crucial for the team’s offense success.

The Lions defensive line has been very good in recent years, having been built around productive but controversial defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. They lost both DE starters this offseason, but replaced them with the aforementioned Jones and Ansah. Ziggy was a dominant pass rusher in 2012 but had little production prior to that. Jones comes from Seattle, where he had a decent season off the bench. Jones, however, tore his left patellar tendon and is out for the season.

In their 2012 meetings, albeit a very different Chicago offensive line, the Lions were fairly successful, with four sacks in the first meeting. Still, the Bears only gave up one sack in their second meeting, and the Bears won both games. Jump ahead to 2013 and the Bears’ line has improved, and the Lions’ line has stayed relatively the same from a talent perspective.

The biggest factor in this matchup is the interior of the lines, where the Lions boast Suh and Fairley, and the Bears are relying on a 34-year old Roberto Garza in between a rookie in Kyle Long and a struggling veteran in Matt Slauson. The Bears may be required to leave more blockers in the backfield to account for the Lions’ dominating rushers. Keeping Cutler protected is going to be even more of a challenge in this game for the Bears.

 

Bears Front Seven versus Lions RBs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell

Some changes in the Bears’ linebacking corpse have given the front seven a slightly different look, with future Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher no longer running the show. Free agent signings James Anderson and D.J. Williams are taking over for Urlacher and departed linebacker Nick Roach, but the production has been improved. The other four in the front seven have remained the same, but the defensive line has struggled so far this season.

It is up to these players to stop the opponent’s rushing attack, which for the Lions comes in the form of Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. Bush comes from the Miami Dolphins, where he put up over 2000 yards and 12 touchdowns in two seasons. He was brought in to solidify Detroit’s running back group that couldn’t stay healthy last season, ranking 23rd in rushing yards.

Bell played pretty well in 2012 off the bench, rushing for 414 yards and three touchdowns, averaging five yards per carry. In 2013, he is the team’s leading rusher because Bush has missed the better part of two games with a knee injury. Bush is expected to play against the Bears, and he will likely make an impact in both the running and passing game.

The Lions need Bush and Bell to take some pressure off of Stafford, who had a league high 727 pass attempts last season. Teams knew he was going to throw so they were able to drop back in coverage. Bush will force defenses to respect the run, which will open up the field for Stafford. If the Lions can get their two backs going, the Bears defense will have trouble stopping this offense, but if the Bears can shut them down, Stafford might have a tough time getting things going.

 

Biggest Questions 

Will any of the Lions’ receivers step up and take pressure off of Calvin Johnson?

Calvin Johnson is an absolute monster at wide receiver, and he and Stafford form one of the league’s top quarterback wide receiver duos. Opposing defenses heavily defend Johnson because of their strong connection. Many times, Johnson is still able to overcome the opposing defenses’ focus, but when they find a way to shut him down, Stafford is forced to look to his other receivers to keep the offense moving.

Unfortunately for the Lions, they have not typically had much production from wide receivers not named Johnson. 2012 was especially bad in this department. Although the team had some receiving success at tight end, the team’s next highest wide receiver was Titus Young with 383 yards. The team’s usual second wide receiver, Nate Burleson, missed most of the season with a broken leg. Now in 2013, Burleson has broken his arm and is going to miss at least the next few games.

With Burleson out, the Lions desperately need another wide receiver to step up. They will be forced to rely on the young Ryan Broyles, Patrick Edwards, and Kris Durham, all of whom are only 25 years old. While Stafford will likely look to his tight ends more, he will still need at least one other wide receiver to play well to prevent defenses from completely focusing Calvin Johnson. If no one does step up, it could slow down this offense mightily, as defenses would only have to focus one or two targets.

 

Which defensive line will be able to get more pressure on the opposing quarterback?

Both teams have defensive lines that have been very good at getting to the quarterback in recent years. The Bears’ defensive line had 38 sacks by themselves in 2012 while the Lions’ group had 31. Since then, it is fair to say that the Bears’ defensive line has worsened slightly, while the jury is still out on the Lions’ line, although it has been impressive so far against some lesser offensive lines.

Generating a pass rush with just the defensive line is key for all 4-3 defenses, which includes both of these teams. If the four defensive linemen can get to the quarterback with out any blitzing help, the defense can drop the other seven players into coverage and make it more difficult for the opposing quarterback.

This season, the Bears have struggled at times to generate a pass rush without blitzing. Through the first two games, the Bears were only able to get two sacks. When they started blitzing more in the third game, they were able to get three sacks, albeit against a struggling Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive line. The Bears need to be more productive at getting to the quarterback without blitzing to maximize their defensive success.

The Lions on the other hand have had defensive line pass-rushing success, with Ansah being the most successful with 2.5 sacks. If they can get pressure on Cutler, the Bears’ offense is going to struggle. Conversely, if the Bears can get pressure on Stafford, without blitzing, the Lions will have a rough time getting going.

 

Will the Lions’ defense be able to keep up with Matt Forte?

Matt Forte has been the focal point of the Bears’ offense in 2013. He has 20 targets and 55 carries, making him the second most used runningback in the league behind Jamaal Charles. Those 75 touches account for just under 41-percent of the Bears’ offensive plays, which is a higher percentage than Charles. Forte currently has 363 yards from scrimmage, and he always seems to have the ball in his hands.

So far this season, the Lions have had some struggles defending runningbacks. Their first game was against Adrian Peterson, who is tough for any defense stuff. They allowed him to rush for 93 yards and two touchdowns and catch four passes with a touchdown. Week two was against the Arizona Cardinals with Rashard Mendenhall and Andre Ellington, and they allowed Mendenhall to rush for a touchdown and Ellington to catch a touchdown pass. Both rushed for over four yards per carry.

During their week three game against the Washington Redskins, the Lions’ defense did not allow a runningback a receiving touchdown, but Alfred Morris was still able to rush for 4.9 yards per carry and a touchdown while fellow runningback Roy Helu was able to average 11.7 yards per reception. Needless to say, runningbacks have been very successful against the Lions this season.

Enter a Matt Forte who is on pace to set career highs in receiving and near-career highs in rushing, and you have a formula for disaster. The Lions needs to find a way to neutralize him or he could tear up their defense all game.

 

Team Comparison

Offense

Stafford is an excellent quarterback, and he and Calvin Johnson are an even better quarterback-wide receiver duo than Cutler and Brandon Marshall. They are arguably the top duo in the league. At runningback, Reggie Bush and Forte are very comparable, and both have a quality backup spelling them.

Martellus Bennett is having a fantastic season at tight end for the Bears, while the Lions have three quality players in Brandon Pettigrew, Joseph Fauria, and Tony Scheffler. Along the offensive line, both teams have young but solid groups that have had good starts to the 2013 season.

 

Defense

These two front sevens have been thoroughly discussed, and neither group appears to be significantly better than the other. In the secondary, the Bears boast Tillman and Tim Jennings at cornerback while the Lions recently benched second-round pick  Slay in favor of 33-year old Rashean Mathis to go along side Chris Houston. Both teams have struggled at this position at times this season, but the Bears seem to have the better tandem.

At safety, both teams have a pair of younger players who have been very good in their short careers. Both Chris Conte and Major Wright each have an interception this season, while Quin is the only Lions safety with a pick. Both defenses have their strength and weaknesses, but the Bears’ unit is the more highly regarded group.

 

Special Teams

For the first time since 1991, the Lions started the season with a kicker not named Jason Hansen, but his replacement, David Akers, has struggled so far this season, hitting only four of his six attempts. The team’s punter on the other hand, rookie fifth-round pick Sam Adams, has had a fantastic season, averaging 48.5 yards per punt, which is among the top 7 in the league. Michael Spurlock, the team’s kickoff and punt returner, has had an uneventful season.

For the Bears, Robbie Gould has connected on all four of his field goal attempts, while Adam Podlesh is averaging a career high 44.6 yards per punt. In the return game, Devin Hester appears to have found his mojo, setting a Bears record for most kickoff return yards in a game with 249 against the Minnesota Vikings week two. He has gotten close to breaking one for a touchdown, and he is a threat to score at all times.

 

Conclusions

Both the Bears and the Lions are quality teams, and there is a reason they are in first and second in the division. The Lions have been battling quite a few injuries and still find themselves 2-1, and as players regain health, they should improve. They added some big time talent, and they are much better than their 4-12 2012 team. If they can beat the Bears, they will be tied for first in the division and on their way up.

The Bears have impressed nearly everyone, going 3-0 and making Trestman and general manger Phil Emery look like geniuses. He has this Bears team firing on all cylinders, and as the offense learns the new system, they should only improve. It seems like the sky is the limit for this team that is succeeding in their first year under a completely different coaching staff.

Both of these teams are at the front of the division race, and this game could have big implications by the end of the season. Because these teams are so close in record, the winner of this game will have a big tiebreaking advantage until they rematch week 10. The Lions have not beaten the Bears since 2011, but 2013 yields two very different teams. When these two teams matchup, it is always fun to watch, and this game is even more so.

 

Game Prediction: Chicago Bears 31 – Detroit Lions 27