By Dan Durkin–
(CBS) The Bears (6-9) host the Lions (6-9) at Soldier Field on Sunday to conclude the 2015 season. The loser of this game will sit alone in the NFC North basement but gain draft position.READ MORE: Transgender Attorneys Says Judges And Clerks Have Harassed Her; Fights For Change
Lions coach Jim Caldwell is coaching for his job, while Bears coach John Fox is completing the first year of his Halas Hall rebuild. The Bears haven’t beaten the Lions since December 2012. If they drop Sunday’s game, they’ll have been swept in the season series for the third straight year, matching a stretch from 1968 to 1970.
Here are some aspects to focus on during Sunday’s action.
What to watch for when the Bears have the ball
The Lions’ defensive front is athletic and quickly pursues the ball-carrier. Over the first half of the season, opponents frequently used that overaggressive flow against them to gash them for explosive runs. While this group has been far more disciplined over the second half of the season, one scheme has consistently worked against the Lions — weak-side runs.
Effective offensive coordinators understand their opponent’s rules, meaning how they respond to certain personnel groupings and who they’ll match players against based on formation. Opponents have used trips formations with the running back offset to the trips side to influence the Lions’ personnel to shift over to that side of the field, only to run to the weak side of the formation on zone and lead plays for big gains.
Look for Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase to follow suit with these schemes, as well as utilize packaged plays/reads for quarterback Jay Cutler. The Bears allow Cutler to make a pre-snap count of the number of defenders in the box, then make a post-snap decision to run zone-read or quickly get the ball down the line of scrimmage on a bubble screen.
Preparing for pressure
Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin will once again be a head coaching candidate this offseason. Despite some tough patches, his unit is well coached and adept at showing a look early in the game, then adjusting it later in the game. He does this both with his coverage elements, as well as his pressure packages.
The Lions trust cornerback Darius Slay to hold up in man-coverage situations against an opponent’s split end. This allows Austin to mix and match his coverage over the middle of the field and the opposite side using pattern matching, as well as get creative with his pressure packages.
Opposite Slay, Austin frequently sends his slot cornerback on blitzes from a split-safety look. The quarterback gets a pre-snap picture of a Cover-2 shell, only to end up with a five-man pressure from a Cover-1 man coverage in which a safety rolls down to replace the blitzer, who typically gets a free run at the quarterback.
Cutler must be aware of the various looks from Austin to get the protection calls correct, and Chicago’s running backs must be on alert for slot blitzers before they release into the flat.
What to watch for when the Lions have the ball
Chronicling RiddickREAD MORE: Death Investigation Underway After Man Found Unresponsive On CTA Red Line Platform In Old Town
The first two times these teams met, the Lions had one of their most productive offensive performances of the season, piling up 546 total yards in a 37-34 overtime victory, their first of the season at that point. That game turned out to be the second-to-last game that former offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi would be calling the shots.
The team replaced Lombardi with Jim Bob Cooter, whom they promoted from quarterbacks coach. His name may not only make the adolescent side of you chuckle, but it should also ring a bell. The Lions denied Bears general manager Ryan Pace the opportunity to interview Cooter for the Bears’ vacant offensive coordinator job back in January.
Since Cooter took over, the Lions are 5-3. The they haven’t done anything drastic in terms of play-calling balance; they’re simply playing more efficient football. During their 1-6 start, they turned the ball over 18 times. Over their past eight games, they’ve turned it over only six times.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford has seen his passer efficiency rating jump by 13 percentage points and his interceptions cut in half. The Lions are using more three-step drops to get the ball out of Stafford’s hands quicker and account for unreliable offensive line play. Another major factor has been Cooter’s use of running back Theo Riddick, who has seen an uptick in touches since Cooter started calling plays.
Riddick’s rushing attempts have doubled, and Cooter’s done an excellent job getting the ball into his hands in space. Riddick’s a matchup nightmare against linebackers and safeties in space. He’s been used more in 11 personnel groupings and has been flexed to the slot. From these alignments, he’s been used on option routes, where he has a two-way go against defenders to use his open-field vision and change-of-direction quickness to get explosive gains.
The Bears’ outside linebackers and slot cornerbacks must be on high alert when Riddick is offset in the shotgun. The Lions quickly release Riddick into the flat to gain leverage, where he can quickly cut back and gain extra yardage by making the first tackler miss.
Ready for the run
Another major factor in the Lions’ turnaround in the second half of the season has been their commitment to the running game. Under Lombardi, the only game in which the Lions eclipsed 100 yards came against the Bears (155). Under Cooter, the Lions have rushed for more than 100 yards in five of their last six games, in which they’ve gone 4-2.
Rookie running back Ameer Abdullah has struggled with ball security this season, coughing the ball up five times (once on a kick return). His four rushing fumbles (two of which have been lost) are the third-most in the league.
Earlier in the season, this cost Abdullah snaps and carries, as he’d lost the trust of his coaching staff. Recently, he’s been given more opportunities and has produced his three best rushing performances of his young career over the past five weeks.
The Lions’ offensive line is playing slightly better, but overall this group is stiff and not athletic in space. However, the team has effectively run the ball from the shotgun, pistol and under center.
The Lions have utilized Abdullah and Riddick both on counter and misdirection plays. Such schemes accentuate their ability to quickly change direction in small areas to get to the perimeter and gain positive yardage. Backside contain will be a big factor this week for the Bears’ outside linebackers, who can’t get influenced by the initial path of the running back.MORE NEWS: Food Delivery Driver Shot And Killed While Sitting In Car In Little Italy
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @djdurkin.