A must-win game.
You’ve heard it already – one too many times.
Oh, and it’s a revenge game on top of that.
For the Bears, it’s a matter of protecting their home turf and evening up their record with the Lions, a team targeting its first postseason berth since ’99. Realistically, both clubs know the NFC North-leading Packers look unbeatable, yet, you could make a clear and valid case for the winner of this division battle becoming the biggest threat to the Super Bowl champs’ conference reign. Needless to say, much is at stake, as the two talented teams meet in the Windy City on Sunday.
1. Damage control – In the three losses this season, the Bears have shot themselves in the foot (turnovers, sacks) and yielded big plays (Henderson, Johnson, Best). Since the Lions’ loss in Week 5, Lovie Smith’s soldiers have improved their protection for #6 (no sacks at Philly) and quieted the boom (the boom is being given, rather than received) generated from opposing team’s aerial attacks. The right side tandem of Lance Louis and Chris Spencer has helped the resurgence of a nasty front five, which has made holes for Forte and aided in keeping Cutler upright. On the flip side, a switch at safety from the duo of Chris Harris (now with Detroit) and Brandon Meriweather (though, he has settled down) from the last time the squads gathered, has made a world of difference. Chris Conte and Major Wright have more margin for error due to their closing speed and for the most part, have kept receivers in front of them and looked sharp in run support.
With that said, all it takes is a Stafford bomb for Calvin Johnson to run under to break what has been fixed. However, I am more concerned about Suh and Cliff Avril getting into the backfield than I am the long ball, albeit, a concern, considering its propensity to change a game. Nonetheless, it will be up to the Tice’s crew to maintain damage control, as Jay continues his best Brett Favre impression, escaping in and out of the sacks, turning losses for gains. The question is: Can he maintain it under the duress of Suh & friends?
2. Run it, make it, take it, stronger – The key to Mike Martz’s playcalling will be to setup the run; first and foremost. If the ground game is established, it will only make for attainable second and third down situations in the passing department. Cutler cannot be put into too many holes where he needs to overcome the Lions’ ferocious front four. If so, it’s a matchup that would be hard to conquer – and he could possibly get destroyed. For a strong offensive performance, Forte has to be dialed early and often. Simply put, if it’s not working, continue to run and run again to make it work. If your goal is to run the ball to get where the other team can’t stop it, then you have run until you get to the point in order to where it works. In essence, don’t abandon what has made the offense so successful the past four weeks – taking the ball out of Cutler’s hands early and placing it into Forte’s mitts. A fast start makes way for a more aggressive offense later.
Truly, the only way the offense can succeed is to impose its will by letting the big uglies find their giddy-up via run blocking. The less they have to see a bull rush, the better. The more runs, the more the linemen have to be disciplined, thus, limiting their chances to kill Cutler. In addition, throwing Marion Barber into the equation will do nothing but enhance the unit’s ability to throw a strong attack at one of the best defenses in getting to the quarterback.
Remember, the Lions have trouble stopping the run (fourth-worst) and you have to believe the key to containing the line will come from a strong dosage of running the football. The way to make it happen? Run it at Suh and making his teammates be put into physical phone-booth circumstances rather than have the ability to go upfield in a mad sprint to the signal caller. In conclusion, play physical and be strong, and take the run to the Motor City men.
3. Two basic “to do’s” stand out – Keep the tight ends in to give the tackles extra help and get Earl Bennett involved as much as possible. Two of the things I saw in the win over the Eagles was a lot of Davis and Spaeth to support the line and Bennett being included in the game plan, especially on third down. With double-teams going Suh’s way, there will be a necessity to use an extra blocker or two to aid in the effort to patrol the pass rush. I was impressed with the extra time Cutler had when that plan was in effect against Philly, and liked how the rollout/bootleg was operated when the tight ends chipped in to crack block off the edge. Let Jay use his athleticism to increase his pocket presence awareness. The more we let him improvise with extra blockers, the better he does when the pocket turns tight and he has to step up or out in order to elude rushers when the tight end is absent.
With Forte reliable out of the backfield, a gimpy Hester, and the heavy pressure a given, I don’t mind going standard with the formations – RB, FB, 2 WR/TE sets. Plus, you get the extra blocker with Roy Williams and on the other side you have Bennett, who’s versatility and rapport with Cutler makes him the second-most important player on offense. It’s the winning formula and it’s what has to be shown for the other things to work. Here and there, go downfield with a play-action bomb or draw up a screen or misdirection, but in the end, let’s keep it simple by using both tight ends and consistently locating Bennett.
Also, this formation is laden to make the defense think a run is being setup and could bait them into playing up, so, when they do, the play-action is able to be executed. There’s a reason why it’s one of the most effective plays in football, and it’s time the Bears start using it to their advantage now that the run has proven effective. This could be the week you see a tight end with four or five catches, along with seven or eight by Earl, and I’m talking about meaningful, move-the-chains type of catches. All in all, the “openness” of the offense can only be reached by soundly executing the fundamentals of the basic formations. Show them the standard look and pass for big gains out of it, and vice versa when you go three/four wide you can keep them off balance with the run.
Prediction – I’m growing weary of the Bears giving up too much cushion to the tight ends. Calvin Johnson is going to attacked by Charles Tillman, but he’s also going to have an extra hand. That being said, Brandon Pettigrew could be a big-time difference maker. In a close game like this, where November makes way to meaningful contests, it could be a couple of Pettigrew third-down hauls that keep the Bears defense on the field longer than it should – which cannot happen against a solid offense.
If Johnson doesn’t go “Steve Smith” on Tillman and the tight end(s) don’t burn us over the middle of the field, I expect our smart offensive coordinator to put his guys in the right place at the right time to make enough plays to win this one. Forte will battle for 120, while Cutler tosses two red zone touchdowns for the second straight week, as the defense plays more bend, but don’t break, in a huge victory. It’s the game the Bears have been waiting for, so look for them to be ready and play like they want it the more than the Lions. Bears 26 Lions 19