The 2011 NFL season is a quarter of the way through and the Lions sit atop the NFC North at 4-0 with the Packers, while the Bears have struggled to a 2-2 record. The Bears came into the season with high hopes coming off of a Division Championship and a trip to the NFC Championship game, but they have struggled to find an identity on offense and the defense has underachieved.
The Lions also came into the season with high expectations, but even the most optimistic fans and experts couldn’t have anticipated the Lions getting off to this start. The Lions won in Tampa Bay, dominated the Chiefs at home and then the two huge comeback wins on the road. The Lions sit at 4-0 despite only playing well in one game, and they have gotten almost half of their road games under their belt.
Obviously this game has huge meaning to Lions fans with Monday Night Football coming to town and a chance to go to 5-0 as well as 2-0 in the division.
The Bears’ most successful seasons have been fueled by a strong defense and a safe mistake free offense, they have neither through four weeks. The Bears are ranked 31st in overall defense, 29th in pass defense and 23rd against the run and they are yielding a 95.3 rating to opposing quarterbacks which is 27th in the league.
The Lions have made it known that they are going to spread the field and attack the defense through the air and despite the 4-0 record they have had mixed results. Part of the reason they have fallen behind the last two weeks was the opposition teed off on the Lions with the pass rush because they are so unbalanced and predictable. The Lions won’t see a lot of blitzing from the Bears, but they do have the ability to get a good rush with the down lineman. The Bears play the Tampa 2, which the Lions have had mixed results against this season.
The Bucs limited the Lions’ ability to attack downfield, but the Lions were able to pick them apart underneath the coverage. The Vikings did the same, but the pass rush got to Stafford and the offense stalled until they were able to get Pettigrew going down the middle seams in the zone. Look for the Lions to do the same against the Bears using Best, the tight ends and Burleson. The Bears haven’t been great against the run allowing 5.1 yards per carry, so perhaps the Lions try to get the ground game going to slow the pass rush.
Calvin Johnson will see a lot of attention from the Bears’ secondary, which is why it will be important for the Lions to establish some of their other weapons early. The Vikings and Cowboys kept CJ quiet through the first half and were able to keep the Lions offense under control. The offense opened up after Pettigrew, Burleson and Young forced the defenses to play honest and then the Lions took their shots downfield.
The Lions’ offense has garnered so much attention for the 4-0 start with Johnson’s leaping grabs and record setting pace, but the Lions defense has been carrying the team through the first quarter of the schedule. The Lions are 12th against the pass, 20th against the run, 12th in total yards and while only ranked 16th in sacks. Those rankings aren’t very impressive, but they are 2nd in interceptions, 5th in fumbles recovered and 4th in quarterback rating allowed at 74.5 which is a testament to the defense’s big play ability.
The story of the Bears’ offense should have a a familiar tone to Lions fans. Poor offensive line play, lack of a commitment to the run and tons of sacks allowed. The Lions encountered those same issues when Mike Martz was their offensive coordinator in 2006 and 2007. The Bears made a commitment to the run last week and were rewarded with a 200 yard performance by Matt Forte and a win, however Martz rarely sticks with the run game no matter how much success he’s had with it. The Bears are going to need the run game to get them through the early portion of the game because crowd noise will be an issue.
The Bears’ passing game has been brutal as sacks, turnovers and missed opportunities far out number touchdowns and big plays. The Bears have some big play threats in Devin Hester and Johnny Knox, but they haven’t been able to get them involved because the negative plays keep disrupting the offense’s rhythm. The Lions’ pass rush hasn’t yielded the sack numbers expected, but they are harassing the quarterback enough to force negative plays. The Bears figure to struggle in the passing game tomorrow because crowd noise will force them to go to a silent count and that puts the offensive line at a huge disadvantage.
The wild card in this game will be Mike Martz’s ego. If Martz checks his ego and runs the ball the Bears can slow the tempo of the game down and take the crowd out of the equation. If he gets pass happy and the negative plays start to pile up, the game could get out of hand early. Lovie Smith got Martz to silence his ego last season for the playoff run and they had success, however early this season Mad Mike has resurfaced. Which will it be for Martz? Run the ball and give his team a chance to win against his former employer, or try to upstage the more hyped passing attack of the Lions and jeopardize the team’s chances?
This game will have a very similar atmosphere as the Saints first game back in the Superdome after Katrina. Obviously, there’s no way to compare the circumstances that led to that emotion, but the fans excitement of having their once downtrodden franchise in the spotlight will be similar. I just have a hard time envisioning the Lions not bringing their A game to MNF and an opportunity to show the nation what they are made of. This will be an incredibly hostile environment for the Bears to play in which only enhances their weaknesses. I predict a Lions’ win in their return to primetime.