It’s been more than a decade since the Lions have been on Monday night football. But when’s the last time the Lions were undefeated (4-0), tied atop their division and favorites over the Chicago Bears?
You’d probably have to go back to a time when a No. 22 played quarterback, Bobby Layne. In recent years, Detroit has been climbing its way back to respectability and might have finally reached the mountaintop this season with third-year head coach Jim Schwartz.
But how much longer can these Lions stay unblemished? We’ll really see what Detroit is made of, on their home field, versus a scrappy Chicago team.
After watching tape on both teams, here’s how we see this matchup playing out on-paper:
Matt Stafford has emerged as one of the league’s elite passers this season. His 11 TD passes (eight to Calvin Johnson) are third only to Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. The game has clearly slowed down for Stafford, because his decision-making and poise have developed astronomically.
Jay Cutler remains a livewire at quarterback, and his team’s 2-2 record is indicative of that. Cutler has five touchdowns with four interceptions and continues to take a pounding in the pocket (sacked 15 times). After losing back-to-back games against New Orleans and Green Bay, the Bears reeled in Cutler — only dropping him back 17 times (as opposed to an average of 38 pass attempts prior to Week 4).
Matt Forte was fed the ball last week against Carolina, carrying the rock a season-high 25 times for 205 yards, and his consistent play has warranted those touches. A one-cut runner, Forte performs best on the perimeter, and most of his big runs have come on plays he presses to the edge before cutting it back inside the tackles. His ability to catch adds yet another dimension to the Bears’ offense; he leads the team with 26 receptions — more than Johnny Knox, Devin Hester and Roy Williams combined. Chicago runs screens and isolation routes designed specifically for Forte.
On the other hand, Jahvid Best’s rushing attempts have steadily decreased since the season began. He’s gone from 21 carries in Week 1 to just 11 last week. Best’s inability to run between the tackles limits the Lions’ running game, and any hope of pairing Best with a downhill power back in Mikel Leshoure was lost when Leshoure went down in camp with a torn Achilles. And while Best is the Lions’ speedy, home-run hitting back, he has only managed a long run of 17 yards this season. This offense is in the hands of Stafford — and Best will compliment that when needed on screens and swing passes.
WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
With Forte’s success, the Bears receiving corps does not have impressive numbers. In combination with their inability to uncover, and the offensive line’s inability to protect the quarterback for down-the-field routes to develop, Cutler has completed just 48 percent of throws to his wide receivers (39-of-81).
Stafford and his wide receivers, however, have progressed in unison. We all know what Calvin Johnson brings to the table with his 6-foot-5 frame and leaping abilities, but the other wide receivers have stepped up tremendously. Nate Burleson has been a reliable underneath-to-intermediate target for Stafford (completing 16 of his 20 targets) and rookie Titus Young has really flashed on film, as well. In his short career, Young displays the speed and route running ability to be another deep threat for the Lions when Calvin is drawing coverage.
The Chicago Bears offensive line is much improved from last year. They moved around some parts — deciding not to resign Olin Kruetz, moving Roberto Garza to center, adding free agent Chris Spencer and drafting Gabe Carimi from Wisconsin. While the talent and chemistry has improved, some of the same problems are evident. Cutler continues to hold on to the ball in the pocket. Until Cutler’s mental clock gets refined and he becomes more decisive, the protection will continue to break down.
Stafford has only been sacked five times in 161 pass attempts this year (all vs. Minnesota in Week 3). Protection on the edges is of the utmost concern for this team. The Lions recently made a switch at right tackle, sitting Gosder Cherilus and starting Corey Hilliard. Other than a rough day against Jared Allen, left tackle Jeff Backus has played well this year. This line isn’t filled with studs but sturdy vets who have played a number of years.
Stafford’s decisiveness and growing understanding of blitz and coverage schemes masks any leaks upfront.
Both of these teams dominate in similar ways. They play base 4-3 defenses and rely on a pass rush from their front four.
Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije continue to collapse pockets, while 3-tech defensive tackle Henry Melton allow the Bears to bring pressure from all gaps. The Bears have struggled against the run and in short-yardage situations; on third downs of 3 yards or less, offenses have rushed and converted 10 first downs on 13 opportunities.
Ndamukong Suh has drawn the attention of offensive coordinators and offensive line coaches this year and his stats have dropped slightly — but his impact is still felt. Suh is constantly doubled, which singles up fellow interior lineman Corey Williams. Defensive ends Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril, and Willie Young consistently face one-on-one matchups with offensive tackles because of Suh’s presence, as well.
The Bears linebackers haven’t gotten a break — and they just might not get one for the rest of the year. In four games, they’ve faced Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and the newest sensation Cam Newton (who racked up a Solider Field record 543 yards last week). Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are still the heart and soul of the defense and have played well. Briggs looks phenomenal in run support, shooting gaps, attacking pulling guards and fullbacks and making sure tackles. Urlacher has two interceptions, one sack and three tackles for loss in a productive 2011 thus far.
The Lions linebackers were a primary focus this offseason. They brought in free agents Stephen Tulloch from Tennessee and Justin Durant from Jacksonville — both considerable upgrades to pair with middle linebacker DeAndre Levy.
Secondary play has plagued the Lions over the past two decades. So the Lions went out and got cornerback Chris Houston (Atlanta) last year and Eric Wright (Cleveland) this offseason. With the addition of these veterans, big plays and blunders are down. Louis Delmas has also emerged as one of the more active and physical safeties in the league (comparable to Bob Sanders from a few years back).
The Bears continue to get consistent play from their corners, Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman. Tillman remains a ball hawk, forcing two fumbles this year. The real problem with the Bears is their safety position. Chris Harris went down with an injury and Danieal Manning went to Houston in free agency. Major Wright has stepped in as a starter, along with free agent acquisition Brandon Meriweather.
Meriweather was undisciplined in New England, and it has continued in Chicago. Missed assignments in coverage and poor tackling is a week-to-week thing for him. The Bears allowed 16 plays of 15-plus last week — many stem from Meriweather.
The Bears continue to dominate the realm of special teams. Coordinator Dave Toub is one of the most respected in the industry — a label he earned more than two weeks ago against Green Bay with a trick punt return late in the game. Last week against Carolina, Devin Hester had a 73-yard kickoff return leading to a touchdown and a 69-yard punt return TD.
Lions returner Stefan Logan actually has a higher kickoff return average than Hester (Logan is averaging 25.0 yards per return to Hester’s 24.6), but Logan has yet to break a big one — only a long of 28 yards.
NFC North battles are always rock-em, sock-em bouts, but on paper, we see this matchup favoring the Lions.
While Detroit could have its troubles running the ball, their passing attack has been working on all cylinders — especially in second halves — and we don’t see the Bears being able to stick with Stafford and Co.
At the same time, Chicago has its way of always making a game out of it, so we can’t be too bold in predicting a victory. We’ll leave that to Ndamukong Suh to defend, being that the Lions should be 16-0 if all goes according to his plan.
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