By Dan Durkin-
A weekly glimpse at the Bears’ upcoming opponent, this week: Detroit.
(CBS) It will be a showdown in Motown on Monday night, when the Chicago Bears take on the undefeated Detroit Lions in the “2nd place in the NFC North” bowl. Will the Bears hand the Lions their first defeat of the season, or will they fall to 0-2 in the division? Let’s take a look at the Lions’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as the key match-ups in a pivotal Week 5 game for the Bears.
Here are four words that I didn’t envision writing this season: the Lions are overrated. I’ve called them paper champions since the pre-season, and I’ve yet to see anything to change my opinion. So, judging simply by their record, I’m to believe they’re on the same level as the Green Bay Packers, and better than the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, and the Baltimore Ravens? Never.
This is why the analysis of the Lions must go beyond their record. They’ve played a very soft schedule and their second half comebacks have had more to do with their opponents’ mind-numbing play calls and costly giveaways. Furthermore, why were they in position to have to mount such large comebacks in their past two games? Shoddy pass protection, ineffective offense (three points combined in their last two first halves), and porous pass defense. Make no mistake about it, this is a talented team – with upper-echelon talent at critical positions – I just believe their record is a misnomer.
There’s never been a doubt about quarterback Matthew Stafford’s talent. In the limited sample size we’ve seen of him, he’s displayed a very strong arm, and the ability to stand tall in the pocket amidst duress and deliver accurate strikes to the weapons at his disposal. No weapon is larger – literally and figuratively – than superstar wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
I’ve also been saying since my NFC North preview, that if the Lions can keep Stafford upright, we could be witnessing the genesis of the best quarterback-wide receiver combination in the NFL for years to come. Four games and eight touchdowns later, that seems to be completely on point. Johnson is a match-up nightmare requiring safety help over the top at any point on the field, and will be the toughest test yet for a shaky Bears secondary.
With the safety attention devoted to Johnson, opportunities arise up the seam of a defense, and talented tight end Brandon Pettigrew has capitalized. Throw in a vertical threat like Nate Burleson, and rookie water-bug Titus Young, and you have a legitimate group of weapons for offensive coordinator Scott Linehan to work with in the passing game.
Providing time to take advantage of these weapons is another issue, as the Lions offensive line is vulnerable. In terms of talent, the line will rarely be at an advantage, which will be a limiting factor all season long. Combine this with the lack of an in between the tackles running game, and the Lions will have a tough time winning games where they’re losing the battle at the line of scrimmage.
The talent-level of the guys who line up on the other side of the line of scrimmage for the Lions is a different story altogether. Just as Calvin Johnson is a match-up nightmare for defensive backs, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is an absolute terror for opposing offensive lines. In 20 career games, Suh has put himself in the category of Baltimore Raven Haloti Ngata, as one of the premiere defensive tackles in the NFL. Suh is brutally strong at the point of attack, has nimble feet, and rare closing speed for a man his size.
Complimenting Suh with technique-sound defensive ends Kyle Vanden Bosch and underrated Cliff Avril, gives the Lions an envious front four. Seeing that the screen game has been such an integral and effective part of the Bears passing game, look for Martz to dial up screens to slow down the pass rush from the front four.
As much as the front four of the Lions is dominant, the back seven is questionable. Third-year linebacker DeAndre Levy has been a play-maker for the Lions, flashing athleticism and lateral quickness. Levy was previously the Mike (middle) linebacker, but free-agent Stephen Tulloch – a limited athlete – has taken his place, moving Levy outside to patrol the flats of the defense. Bear slot receivers and tight ends should be able to find holes in the second level of the Lions defense.
The Lions secondary is and has been their Achilles’ heel for years. To mask some of the back-end deficiencies, defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham runs a lot of simplified Cover-2 shells. Safety Louis Delmas is a ferocious hitter, but a liability in coverage. When Chris Houston is the best cornerback on your roster, your team is bound to give up big plays in the passing game. Look for the Bears to run some double moves and route combinations to test the Lions’ secondary deep.
The recent history of this rivalry is lopsided in favor of the Bears, who have won six straight games against the Lions. However, the Lions are a more talented team than the Bears at several critical positions, which forces me to throw out any statistics gleaned from the Bears recent run of dominance. I mocked earlier that this is the “2nd place in the NFC North” bowl, but it’s true.
The outcome of this game – which should be a field goal game either way – will tell us a lot about both of these teams. Are the Lions ready to take the next step? Is the Bears’ record indicative of the team they are, or is it the byproduct of being one of two teams in the NFL to start the season against three straight 2010 playoff teams (Houston is the other)? We’ll know all come late Monday night.
What to watch when the Bears have the ball:
Interior of the Bears Offensive Line vs. Ndamukong Suh: I have visions of Ndamukong Suh twisting and stunting around the interior of the Bears offensive line and making life miserable for Jay Cutler. With guard Chris Spencer set to play with a fracture in his hand, and guard Chris Williams just being bad, I expect the Bears to use Roberto Garza on double teams, which has a cascading affect. By doubling with your center, you open blitzing lanes for linebackers and safeties up the middle, and you force your edge blockers to block defensive ends 1-on-1. The pressure is on Mike Tice to dial up proper protection, and ultimately the Bears line to deliver. I’m not optimistic about the latter.
What to watch when the Lions have the ball:
Bears Linebackers & Safeties vs. Brandon Pettigrew: With the extra attention devoted to Calvin Johnson, the Lions will have plenty of opportunities to match up tight end Brandon Pettigrew against Bear linebackers and safeties. The Lions certainly saw what the Packers did with Jermichael Finley against the Bears, and while Pettigrew isn’t the athlete Finley is, he’s certainly a difficult match-up. The Lions scheme a lot of tight end screens and play action seam routes to Pettigrew, so expect more of the same on Monday night.
My NFL picks will be out Friday, but if you’d like to pick against me, check out the Pro Football Challenge, sign up here.
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.