By Jeff Joniak–
(CBS) The Bears (4-9) are on the road to face the Lions (7-6) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Here are my keys to the game.
In Week 14, the Bears finally found offensive balance. It was near perfect and produced 482 yards in a win against the Bengals. Striking that same balance will open up the field for quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and running backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. No matter how the Bears plan to attack the Lions, everyone must be on high alert. Ten different Lions have forced a combined 12 fumbles. Eight Lions have combined to recover 11 of those fumbles. Seven Lions have intercepted passes. Twelve different Lions have combined to produce 26 sacks. D.J. Hayden pounced on a fumbled snap in these teams’ matchup earlier in the season at Soldier Field in what turned out to be a critical play in Detroit’s three-point win. The Lions have seven return touchdowns this season. Trubisky is doing a terrific job of protecting the ball, and it must continue against an aggressive Lions defense.
Defense: Tackle well
The Lions enter every game one-dimensional. They love throwing it. The variety of pass lengths serve as an extension of a running attack that’s anemic. Those passes are turning into chain-moving gains, so tackling at the catch point is critical for the Bears. The Lions are sixth in the league in yards after the catch (1,759), making up 47.5 percent of their total yardage. Matthew Stafford is a high-percentage passer who’s feasting on catch-and-run plays. Only the Raiders, Bengals and Lions have fewer than 300 rushing attempts this season, 48 below the league average. Detroit is producing fewer than 77 yards per game on the ground. The Bears have to keep it that way, because a missed tackle with the Lions spells trouble. The matchup of talent at receiver for Detroit against the aggressive Chicago secondary featuring Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson will be fun subplot in the game.
Special teams: Never out of range
Bears coach John Fox calls the Lions’ Matt Prater the best field goal kicker in the league. Getting into a situation in which Prater lines up for repeated field goals isn’t what the Bears want Saturday. Prater shares the league lead with seven field goals of 50-plus yards, including one against the Bears. This is new Bears kicker Mike Nugent’s third game at Ford Field. Nugent is 3-of-4 on field-goal attempts, including a 52-yarder. He has successfully converted all seven of his extra points. The rookie returners will be another subplot. Cohen is building his portfolio as a punt returner with one touchdown, while Detroit’s Jamal Agnew has two touchdowns and is averaging 16.8 yards per return to lead the NFL. Cohen is eighth at 9.6 yards, and the duo has combined for an even 600 punt return yards.
Intangibles: Trevathan effect
Without inside linebacker Danny Trevathan in Week 5, the Bears lost 20-17 to the Vikings. Trevathan then missed Weeks 10, 11 and 12 with an injury and the unit permitted 81 combined points in those three losses to the Packers, Lions and Eagles. When he’s on the field, the Bears defense is giving up 17.6 points per game. That figure would rank as the third-best scoring defense in the league right now over the course of a full season. Trevathan is the quarterback of the defense who gets others to rally behind him. The Bears are 4-5 when Trevathan plays, 0-4 when he doesn’t.
Numbers: Good defense
Sacks are eluding Bears defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, who has been shut out in that department in five straight games. However, the Bears still has at least one sack every game. Hicks had seven in the first eight weeks. In the first meeting this season, the Bears sacked Stafford three times, hurried him four times and knocked him down seven times, while also drawing a hold and a false start. Hicks is a major reason why. He still commands double-team attention. He’s disruptive in the running game. Hicks is a major reason the Bears are stingy in the red zone, ranking fifth in opponent touchdown efficiency. Chicago is tied for second in third-down sacks and ninth in blitzing quarterback rating. The Bears also have an league-best 12 fumbles recovered, tied with the Buccaneers. Hicks owns two recoveries.
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780 & 105.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.