The Lions met the Bears one month ago today on Monday Night Football in a sold out Ford Field and played a game to be remembered. Nine false starts for the Bears offense, Jay Cutler being bombarded by pass rushers, Calvin Johnson blowing past the Bears’ secondary and Jahvid Best averaging double digit yards per carry. The Lions finished that night with a resounding win that left them 5-0, media darlings and tied with Green Bay for the best record in the league. The Bears on the other hand were left shell shocked at 2-3 with major questions about their defense and the offensive line.
Since then, the Lions have become the NFL super villains, gone 2-2 and face questions about their legitimacy as a playoff contender. Jahvid Best is out with a concussion and despite a 4-0 record on the road the Lions are underdogs on Sunday. The Bears have somehow managed to reign in the Eighth Wonder of the World, Mike Martz’s ego, and as a result have gone 3-0 and sit right in the thick of the playoff picture.
There is no denying that this football team is Matthew Stafford’s and his incredible play through the first eight games is largely responsible for the 6-2 record. Stafford actually didn’t have a great game against the Bears statistically in the first game, but he was efficient and Jahvid Best carried the offensive attack that night.
The Lions have made little to no effort to run the ball early the bulk of the season, but started to against Denver two weeks ago. As a result they had fewer 3rd and longs and the offense was operating at peak efficiency en route to scoring 31 points (14 were scored by the defense.) The Bears thrive off of keeping teams in obvious passing downs, so it is imperative that the Lions stay on schedule offensively to avoid those long down and distance situations.
Maurice Morris and Kieland Williams have done a good job picking up tough yards between the tackles, but they are rarely going to bust the explosive plays that scare defenses. That isn’t a huge deal because the Lions have one of the most explosive passing games in the league, so they just need the running game to keep them out of obvious passing situations, so the Lions can use their whole playbook rather than having to try to force the ball down field.
The Lions’ offensive line was great against the Bears in the first game, but I have some concerns going into this game. The turf at Soldier Field is pathetic and the weather won’t help on that front. The field will basically be mud, which limits the line’s ability to anchor in pass protection as well as change directions if a pass rusher spins or uses a counter move. Obviously both teams have to deal with that, but the Bears are more familiar with it.
The Bears’ secondary doesn’t have anybody that the Lions would need to game plan around, so the Lions will be able to take their shots as long as Stafford has time to throw. If he doesn’t, they need to back off and settle for the shorter throws to keep the chains moving and take shots down field when the opportunity presents itself rather than forcing the issue.
Chicago’s three game winning streak can be largely attributed to somebody’s ability to get Mike Martz to adjust his play calling. Martz has always loved being aggressive with his play calling and prefers to attack the pass rush rather than adapt to it. Instead of keeping extra blockers in to protect the quarterback, he wants to send five receivers to attack the defense. That approach led to disastrous results in St. Louis (after Kurt Warner,) Detroit, San Francisco and Chicago. Yet, he continued to take that approach.
The last three games he has toned the aggressiveness down and kept Cutler upright (hmm, I wonder if he overheard my ranting about the Lions needing to do the same?) and the Bears’ offense has clicked. Martz has been using a combination of short passes and maximum protection to slow down the rush and get the ball out quickly. Max protection can actually play into the Lions’ hands though.
When a team max protects, they keep some players in to block and send fewer out into routes. That works well against blitzes because the defense has fewer people in coverage. But against a team that rarely blitzes, you have fewer receivers trying to get open against seven defenders which favors the defense. The Brute Squad (as I will be calling the Lions’ defensive line going forward in honor of Killer Kowalski) needs to still generate some pressure against max protection, because even with seven guys in coverage somebody will eventually get open.
Martz knows the Lions don’t blitz much, so he’s more likely to use three step drops and shorter pass routes to keep the pass rush from hitting home.
Everybody is well aware of the season Matt Forte is having, and the Lions need to do whatever it takes to make sure he doesn’t take over the game. I know the Wide 9 technique that the Lions employ is a great defensive front for rushing the passer and funneling ball carrier to the middle of the field, but because of the spacing of the defensive line it leaves the potential for gaping holes if somebody misses an assignment or can’t get off a block. The Lions have gotten burned by that scenario several times this year and in a game where the weather could slow down scoring, the Lions can’t afford to get gashed on the ground.
The weather will really factor into Sunday’s game and has the potential to impact the Lions more than the Bears. The Lions are built to jump out to a big lead with an explosive down field passing game and then defend the lead with a brutal pass rush. If the field is sloppy or there are high winds, the Lions will be sorely challenged to put up points, especially in bunches. The 49ers and Falcons both showed that the Lions are vulnerable when the offense can’t generate big plays.
The Bears’ 3-0 run is being a little over hyped. They beat a bad Vikings team, eeked past the 4-4 Bucs and 3-5 Eagles. Only the Eagles have a decent offense and they were able to put up 330 yards of offense which was the most they surrendered since giving up almost 400 to the Lions. The thing that worries me about this game is the Lions penchant for getting pass happy and trying to force the ball down field even when the defense is looking for it. I think the weather plays a role in helping slow down the offense and the Lions’ run defense gives up some poorly timed big plays that cost the Lions in a close game.