By Jeff Joniak–
(CBS) The Bears (6-9) and Lions (6-9) square off on Sunday at Soldier Field in their season finales. Here are my keys to the game.
Offense: Win the trench war
Before the Bears met the Lions in Week 6, Detroit’s opposing quarterbacks owned a collective 128.7 quarterback rating, which the highest mark in the NFL. In the last 11 weeks, the Lions’ defense has improved to a 101.7 rating, but that’s still 30th in the league.
The Lions have given up 25 touchdown passes while intercepting only six passes. However, the Lions get after the passer. They have 38 sacks and rank fourth in sack percentage. They’ve also created the second-most negative plays in the league.
Bears offensive tackles Charles Leno and Kyle Long will have to hold up on the edge. Ziggy Ansah has 13.5 sacks and 27 knockdowns. He had three hits and a forced fumble but no sacks in the first meeting with the Bears.
To this point, the Lions have blitzed enough to rank in the top 10 in volume but have produced only eight of their sacks and only one interception in that regard.
The Bears are sixth in the league in time of possession, and they will continue to try and own the clock and keep the Lions’ offense off the field. The Bears are 10th in the league on third down and are dedicated to the run game. The Bears are tied for fourth in the league in 10-play drives, with 30, but have only nine touchdowns on those, so finishing drives with a touchdown remains a focal point.
The Bears have done a great job at preventing negative plays, with just 74 of their own offensively, tied for the fewest in the league.
Detroit is ninth in the league and one of 11 teams with more than 4,000 gross yards passing. The Lions are also top 10 with 30 touchdown passes. However, Matthew Stafford has been sacked 40 times.
While Calvin Johnson is still dangerous, he has only 10 catches of 25 yards or more this season. Three of them came against the Bears in Week 6. A plan to defend him is always difficult. Golden Tate and Theo Riddick also have to be accounted for in the passing game, giving Stafford multiple options.
Detroit isn’t getting much traction in the run game, with just 84.5 yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry but nearly a yard per carry better than they were 11 weeks ago when it played Chicago.
Tackling is critical with this bunch. The Lions are fourth in the league in yards after the catch.
Special teams: Avoid the one big negative play
Detroit’s kick return game remains solid, ranking first in returns of 20-yards plus, with 36, including four beyond 40 yards. Rookie Ameer Abdullah leads the league with 33 20-plus-yard returns, tied with Seattle’s rookie Tyler Lockett.
Matt Prater is a reliable field goal kicker for the Lions. Punter Sam Martin is seventh in the league in net average.
The Bears had seven special team penalties in the first five weeks of the season but have had only six combined in the last 10 weeks. Improved coverage on kicks and punts reflect a growing understanding and execution of the scheme, but the Bears can’t afford that one big mistake that leads to a significant turning-point play.
Intangibles: Seeing ’16
Bears players are looking into their respective crystal balls, and they like the vision they see with coach John Fox and his staff. Fox is saying these days the team isn’t far away. Players believe it.
With nine draft picks and a healthy budget for free agents, the Bears are poised to fill holes with good talent and make a big step in 2016. Players want to be a part of it, and many are hoping they get that chance.
In the season finale, look for the Bears to continue to play with an edge and play with a fire against a Lions team that has rebounded from an 0-5 start to win six of their last 10 games.
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.