By Laurence Holmes-
(CBS) It’s put up or shut up time for the Bears.
With the Packers moving to 5-0, it’s imperative that the Bears get a win tonight in Detroit. A loss would leave two undefeated teams at the top of the division. Plus, both of those teams at this point would have tie-breakers against the Bears. Even if you think that winning the division is a fantasy, there’s still the issue of the wildcard. If the Bears want to be in that conversation, a win is essential. Here’s what I’m watching in this pivotal matchup:
Gameplan & Adjustments
This is a big game for the Detroit franchise. They haven’t been on Monday Night Football in over a decade. They’ve won eight regular season games in a row (the last team to beat them was the Bears).
At 4-0, the Lions have a lot of people wondering if they’re for real, but here’s the issue — In their last two games (Minnesota & Dallas), the Lions have had to overcome deficits of 24 and 20 points. They’ve started very slowly and every one of their opponents has drawn first blood. That shows some vulnerability. Through their first four games, they’ve been outscored 26-13 in the first quarter. I give them credit for being resilient, but it shows a fundamental flaw in their gameplan that teams have been able to jump on top of them.
The Bears have beaten the Lions in their last six meetings and 10 of their last 12. If they get an early lead, does it get Detroit wondering? It should be noted that the Lions have destroyed teams in the second half. They’ve outscored opponents 102-20 this year in the final two quarters this season. I question both the Vikings and Cowboys play-calling in those two Lions wins. In the Minnesota game, the Vikings had a 24-point lead, and Adrian Peterson only carried the ball five times in the second half. The Cowboys were up by three touchdowns and let Tony Romo throw the Lions back into the game. If the Bears get a significant lead, Lovie Smith will run and punt his way to a victory.
Lovie Smith vs Clock Management & Bears Communication
The Bears have wasted a ton of timeouts because they don’t have the right play, the right personnel or don’t get the play called in time. On the road, those things become more difficult. Add in a hungry fan base and a building with a roof, and it becomes even harder. The Bears need to be decisive and expedient. Get the plays in and move on. The noise is going to be difficult, and the offensive line has been playing musical chairs for the first four weeks of the season. Cut down the mental mistakes and you give yourself a much better chance to win.
Where In The World is Jul-i-us Pep-pers?
Peppers has two sacks, but hasn’t had the impact on games that he ordinarily has. The Panthers rendered him inert. This defense feeds off of his pressure. When he’s getting in the backfield, it changes the protection and frees other guys to do work. Last year he collapsed Matthew Stafford’s shoulder and put him out for a long time. I say it every week, but if the Bears have to blitz, it’s not a good thing. The front four — especially Peppers — needs to have a big game.
Where’s Calvin Johnson?
He’s averaging two touchdowns a game. He’s bigger than most of your defenders. He can run faster. He can jump higher. Expect safeties to cheat to his side, wherever he is. Having Chris Harris back will help. We’ll see if the Bears get physical and try to jam him at the line. Charles Tillman has a hip injury he’s been fighting through, and perhaps more significantly, a hand injury that could limit him. Johnson’s success on the outside has opened things up in the middle of the field for Brandon Pettigrew who is third ranks third among tight ends in catches.
Jay Cutler vs. Ghosts
Since joining the Bears, Cutler is the most sacked quarterback in the NFL (102), but the Bears have actually provided protection for Cutler in the last couple of games. Cutler hasn’t trusted the pocket. He can’t make plays if he doesn’t. Having a run game last week helped, but there’s a very angry young man named Ndamukong Suh waiting to tear Cutler’s head off.
The rest of the Lions defensive line is widely ignored because of Suh’s star power, but Cliff Avril and Kyle Vandenbosch are tough, smart players that can give you trouble, as well. The Bears cannot afford to leave plays on the field. If you see Cutler’s passes going high and hot, then you’ll know he’s not setting his feet and driving the football. It would help if there was a consistent pocket early, no false start penalties and offensive rhythm to start the game.
The Special Teams Battle
The Lions have solid specialists. Stefan Logan is a good a returner and cover guy. Jason Hanson is the NFL all-time leader in kicks over 50 yards. Devin Hester loves the bright lights of big games. The Bears are a three-phase team. Until they find consistency and an identity on offense, the defense and special teams will have to pick up the slack.
By the way, the Bears defense and special teams have outscored the offense through four games, 52-42.
Follow Laurence on Twitter @LHolmes670