By Jeff Joniak-
(CBS) The Bears (5-6) visit the Lions (7-4) on Thursday at 11:30 a.m. at Ford Field. Here are my keys to the game.
Offense: Settle in
Already this season, the Bears have faced the fourth-, seventh- and eighth-ranked rushing defenses in the Jets, 49ers and Bills. Chicago was 2-1 in those games. Detroit’s run defense is tops in the NFL, allowing less than 71 rushing yards per game and a league-low 3.2 yards per rush.
The Bears still must try to run it — and run it at least well enough to settle the crowd, slow the Lions’ pass rush and help Jay Cutler get into a confident rhythm. The risk is falling behind the chains, because the Lions have forced negative yardage a league high 16.7 percent of 221 carries. They allow only 3.4 yards a carry on first down and 3.1 yards on second down, which is also best in the league.
Blocking Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and limiting as much of his disruptive play as possible will be the biggest key to the game. Combination blocks appear to be the best way to slow Suh down. However, running on the edges of the Lions defense with the tackle sweeps and toss plays to Matt Forte could prove to be effective, forcing the Lions’ cornerbacks to come up and tackle.
Another player the Bears must block is linebacker DeAndre Levy, a run-and-hit linebacker who is playing at a Pro Bowl level and is also good at playing the passing lanes.
Defense: Attack the line
Detroit’s offensive weaponry allows coordinator Joe Lombardi to attack every blade of turf, horizontally and vertically. His New Orleans background, much like that of Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, means there are significant elements of the Saints’ offensive scheme in both teams. The Bears will have to defend the screen game and a short-to-intermediate passing game.
Detroit has gone eight straight quarters without a touchdown, but the expected return of Reggie Bush in the backfield will open up the field.
Golden Tate is the league’s best third-down receiver and works out of the slot. He is used on screens and wheel routes, and the Bears have to rally to the ball and make sure tackles. Tate is fourth in the league in yards after the catch, second among receivers.
Calvin Johnson is fighting an ankle injury. Getting physical with him is the best way to break up his rhythm with Matthew Stafford. It’s not easy to do.
The Lions’ offensive line is big but banged up and young at guard and tackle if Larry Warford and Riley Reiff are out. A Bears’ defensive line that’s built momentum over the last two weeks — with sacks, knockdowns and disruptions — needs to take advantage of matchups against the Lions.
Special teams: One big play
On the road on a short week, if the Bears can get one significant play in any phase of the kick or punt game, it would give the team a boost toward the goal of playing continuity football.
Last Sunday, New England was able to make some plays in the return game against Detroit. Making plays like downing a punt, which the Bears have only done twice this season, to flip field position will be huge. They also need a consistent four-quarter performance from punter Patrick O’Donnell.
Robbie Gould hasn’t made a field goal in five weeks, missing his only two opportunities, rare indeed.
This is the game where, if the ball is on the ground, the Bears have to take it away. A big return by Marc Mariani would help. Anything to spark the team, shift momentum or take the buzz out of Ford Field with that holiday crowd is what we’re looking for from the Bears.
Intangibles: Destroy distractions
Detroit is now a game behind Green Bay in the NFC North; 1993 is the last time the Lions won a division title. They went 0-4 to end 2013, and now a late-November two-game slide carries the pressure of that memory. The Bears come in with two straight wins and growing confidence. On a short week, they can have no lethargic, mistake-filled start, because the Lions will be waiting to pounce.
This is a game in which the veterans in the room need to lead the young Bears by example. The mental preparation this week is more important than the physical preparation. Thursday morning will come quick, and the Sunday soreness will linger. Fighting through it and destroying all the distractions of this trip to Ford Field will hopefully maintain the momentum in this crazy season.