By Jeff Joniak–
(CBS) The Bears (2-3) are on the road to face the Lions (0-5) on Sunday at noon. Here are my keys to the game.
Offense: Cash in on big-play opportunities
Big plays in the passing game could be available for the Bears if they so choose. Opposing quarterbacks own a collective 128.7 quarterback rating agains the Lions, which ranks last in the NFL. Foes are completing 78 percent of their passes, and the Lions defense is 31st n big plays permitted, with 25 allowed of 20 yards or more.
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler’s command at the line of scrimmage combined with growing confidence unit-wide gives Chicago confidence heading into Detroit. Tackles Charles Leno and Kyle Long will have to hold up on the edge. Lions end Ziggy Ansah is arguably one of the best pass rushers in the league, and he has five sacks. Fellow end Jason Jones is sneaky and can do some damage inside and out. Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin likes to blitz from the secondary, so the protectors, including tight ends and backs, will have to be on alert. Austin’s defense ranked second in the league last season, and it sacked Seattle six times three weeks ago. Blocking Haloti Ngata at defensive tackle is critical too for the Bears. He’s expected to return from injury and while not a force on every down, he remains a disruptive presence at key moments.
Detroit’s best cornerback is Darius Slay. Young and athletic, Slay is on the rise despite getting beat for big plays against Denver and Arizona. He’s also a step away from making big plays. The Lions’ best defender is linebacker DeAndre Levy, but he suffered a setback after seven weeks recovering from a hip injury.
Teams are turning the Lions over, putting the defense in difficult situations. The Bears and Lions are tied for 29th in the NFL in giving up 41 points on giveaways each.
Defense: Don’t let them light the match
A rapidly developing Bears defense must continue to stay sound and disciplined against the Lions. Despite its struggles, Detroit’s still talented at the skill positions. The great Calvin Johnson is now 30 and isn’t getting the same separation down the field. His longest reception is 28 yards, and he has one touchdown.
The Lions were the last team to earn a 40-yard pass play in the league, and it came in the blowout loss to the Cardinals last week on Corey Fuller’s 48-yard reception. Protection issues haven’t permitted Stafford the time to get the deeper routes to develop. However, when Stafford gets hot, he’s good. His play is tainted at the moment by eight interceptions. The Bears secondary doesn’t have an interception in five games and 149 passing situations.
Detroit’s running game is averaging an anemic 2.8 yards per carry, so the Lions have yet to loosen up defenses. Athletically gifted rookie running back Ameer Abduallah has fumbled three times. Joique Bell has missed two games with an ankle injury. The Lions offense looks different with a healthy Eric Ebron at tight end, as he’s an emerging player who’s impressive in one-on-one matchups.
As always, tackling is critical against a Lions team with excellent catch-and-run weapons and tackle- busters. No team has turned it over more than the Lions with 15, stunting their progress as an offense.
Special teams: Play smart
Detroit’s kick return game is solid, ranking first with the Colts in returns of 20 yards or more, including two beyond 40 yards. Abdullah leads the league with nine 20-plus-yard returns. The Lions also have two punt returns of more than 20 yards, one by T.J. Jones. Continuing to improve on coverage will be a season-long goal for the Bears and their ever changing roster.
Steady Matt Prater is a reliable field goal kicker for the Lions. Punter Sam Martin has a minor knee injury but is second in the league in dropping punts inside the 20. The Bears have seven special team penalties, which ranks 26th, and the hope is that number will shrink over the course of the season. Those penalties are insidious to field position.
Intangibles: Remain resilient
A Bears squad building the reputation as a resilient bunch must continue to battle in Detroit. The Lions are backed into a corner. No team since the 1992 San Diego Chargers has managed to turn around a winless start into a playoff trip. Detroit is 0-5 and feeling the heat from an angry fan base and disappointed ownership.
Frustration is setting in, and if the Lions are in the mood to compete, they will get a bounce from almost anything positive. The Bears are still evolving, so taking any team lightly would be a gross miscalculation, and this coaching staff won’t allow that to happen. There’s a good chance Chicago will be well-represented at Ford Field. Rewarding the Bears fans’ trip with great execution could prove to be demoralizing to a descending team.
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.