Joniak: Keys To Bears-Lions

By Jeff Joniak–

(CBS) The Bears (3-9) are on the road to face the Lions (8-4) at noon on Sunday. Here are my keys to the game.

Offense: Grind it out

It’s not like Bears quarterback Matt Barkley has never played in a noisy, intimidating road stadium in his football playing life. He did that plenty at USC, where he was the all-time passing leader in the Pac-12. It’s just different in the NFL.

His maiden road voyage is Sunday at Detroit’s Ford Field. When the Lions struggle, the place is pin-drop quiet. When the Lions are a playoff contender, the joint is jumping. The first-place Lions have their fans stirred up a bit right now, and it won’t be an easy venue to navigate, nor will the opponent.

No team in the league has held six straight opponents to 20 points or fewer like this Lions defense has. They’re also stopping the run. They like to blitz, most frequently on first down. They want to get you in uncomfortable situations in their building. The Bears’ ground game will be key but will be facing eight- and nine-man fronts. The Lions will challenge Barkley to beat them in the passing game against a good secondary featuring cornerback Darius Slay and ball-hawking safety Glover Quin.

Defense: Limit yards after the catch

Detroit throws the ball as much as any team in the league. As a result, the Lions pile up a lot of yards after the catch. Tackling will be critical for the Bears defense. Missed tackles or blown hits will bite the Bears in this game. The Lions throw it 64 percent of the time, the fifth-highest mark in the league, and 72 of Matthew Stafford’s completions have gone to the running backs (about 25 percent).

Theo Riddick is a dangerous and productive weapon with 53 catches out of the backfield. He will be a matchup the Bears’ inside linebackers have to contain. Overall, the Lions rank in the top five in yards after the catch. There will be opportunities to get to Stafford with pressure.  He’s protected by a shaky interior that’s missing its starting center in Travis Swanson. If defensive lineman Akiem Hicks can play like he did last week against the 49ers, the Bears would have a great chance to own the line of scrimmage.

Special teams: Clean it up

There were too many special teams gaffes last week. The Bears survived, but they can’t keep living on the edge in this phase. They will have to be on point against Lions return specialist Andre Roberts, who shares the league lead with 16 kickoff returns of 20 yards or more while averaging 14.6 on his punt returns, two of which have been returned for touchdowns, including one against the Bears in Week 4 at Soldier Field. Detroit’s kicking unit is stellar with the reliable and accurate leg of Matt Prater and the pinpoint punting of Sam Martin.

Intangibles: Spoil the stew

The Bears have yet to win two straight this season, nor have they won on the road. Barkley is a road starter for the first time in his career.  The Lions are a first-place team. It’s all stacked against the Bears.

However, an upset of the first-place Lions would be a terrific kickoff to the final quarter of the season. These Bears are still learning how to win and how to close games. No team is closing better than the Lions, who have trailed entering the fourth quarter more than any team in the league. A Bears win makes them 3-1 in the NFC North, with games against the Packers and Vikings left. This fact hasn’t gone unnoticed by coach John Fox and his staff, who are trying to turn negatives into positives by winning in the division to prop up what has turned into a rebuilding season.

Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780 & 105.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.

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