Detroit Lions vs Chicago Bears: Keys for Lions' Victory on Monday Night Football
The Detroit Lions haven't lost a game on Monday Night Football in over a decade. Don't get too excited, though. They've only appeared once during that time. They might not have the most experience playing on MNF, but that doesn't mean they can't achieve victory on the NFL's biggest prime-time stage.
In fact, their defeat of the Chicago Bears on MNF last October was arguably the highlight of the season.
It wasn't their best game, though. They were saved by a home-field crowd that rattled the Bears' offensive line to the tune of nine false-start penalties.
The Lions defense provided consistent pressure on Jay Cutler, and Jahvid Best sprung an 88-yard run to finish the Bears off.
Heading into the rematch, both teams find their roles reversed. The Bears are the ones riding the hot streak, and they'll have the home-field advantage.
The Lions are riding a mini-hot streak themselves. Their win at Philadelphia was their best game of the year—at least from a defensive perspective. They'll look to ride that wave of positivity to victory on Monday.
Here's what the Lions need to do to make it two in a row against the Bears on Monday Night Football.
*All stats courtesy of ESPN.com
9. Play Smart, No Flags
The Lions had been doing better minimizing penalties. Then the Philadelphia Eagles game happened, and the Lions drew a whistle every other play.
They committed 16 penalties for 132 yards lost—most in the NFL this season, according to CBSsports.com.
According to ESPN's Kevin Seifert, the Lions totalled nine pre-snap penalties—offsides or encroachment. That's the kind of lapse that earns Detroit the "undisciplined" tag.
They clearly need to clean that mess up.
Their prior performance on MNF may not bode well for Detroit either. They committed 12 penalties against the Bears last year for 94 yards lost.
The fact that they won both of the aforementioned games doesn't reinforce my point.
Nevertheless, given how uneven their offense has played, the Lions can't afford to give yards away. Smarter football means a greater chance of victory.
8. Break the Soldier Field Curse
Soldier Field has been a house of horrors for the Lions. They haven't entered that wind-tunnel of a stadium and come out victorious since 2007.
Let's recap the low points. There was the game in 2008 when Rex Grossman—firmly establishing himself as the next great NFL quarterback—overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to secure the win for the Bears.
Then, of course, there was the "catch" game in 2009. I won't go into detail for fear readers might suffer disturbing flashbacks.
Last year, the Lions went into Soldier Field with Stafford nursing a broken hand and were beaten convincingly. Stafford threw interceptions—there was a brawl—it wasn't pretty.
That's all in the past though. The Lions are riding high after their victory in Philadelphia. They need to ignore the Soldier Field bugaboo and play like the season depends on it. Because it does.
They can't afford to lose another divisional game and fall to 2-4. Regardless of the location of this game or what time it's on, the Lions need this victory to keep their playoff hopes alive.
7. Keep Matt Forte, the Rusher and the Receiver, Under Wraps
Since 2010, Matt Forte has absolutely killed the Detroit Lions.
He has gained 100 yards total in three out of the last four games he's faced Detroit. Even in the game he didn't, he still reached the end zone.
Forte's strength is that he's as good a receiver as he is a rusher—and he's lethal at Soldier Field.
Take a look at his last two games at home against the Lions. Early in 2010, Detroit limited him to 50 yards on the ground, but he gained 151 yards receiving and scored two touchdowns.
Last season, the Lions limited him to only three yards receiving, but he gained 64 yards and scored a touchdown rushing the ball.
Detroit is in its best position to contain Forte, the rusher. The Lions only allow 96.4 yards on the ground per game. That's quite an accomplishment considering all the great backs they've faced already this year—Steven Jackson, Frank Gore, Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson and LeSean McCoy.
Stopping Forte, the receiver, will be more of a challenge. Although, the Lions have only given up an average of 24 receiving yards per game to running backs. That might be a good omen.
The Bears certainly have other weapons. However, Forte is the straw that stirs their drink. If the Lions can limit him to under 70 yards total offense and no touchdowns, they'll greatly increase their chance of victory.
6. Treat Jay Cutler Like Michael Vick
All season the Lions defensive line has been criticized for not living up to their considerable hype. They've been called overrated and over-hyped.
Their criticism—much like they're hype—is way overdone.
The fact is that they've been fairly consistent all year and have been effective run stoppers. The problem is that they weren't getting to the quarterback enough. That's why QBs like Alex Smith and Jake Locker were able to pick the Lions apart.
Last week, the defensive line flipped the script. They looked every bit the part of an elite pass-rushing unit. They sacked Michael Vick three times and knocked him down another 10 times.
The entire defense also deflected six passes and scored 10 tackles for a loss.
To Vick's credit he stuck in there and never seemed fazed. In the same situation, no one can say that Cutler would react the same way.
Everyone has seen him implode when things don't go his way.
Consistent pressure won't be enough, though. Cutler is elusive and can run the offense effectively on the move. The Lions need to hit him early and often to prevent that.
If they do, he'll be more likely to let his emotions get the best of him—as we saw against Green Bay in Week 2. He'll also be more likely to spend most of the game on his back.
Either way, Cutler's impact will be limited and that's what the Lions want.
5. Have a Special Day on Special Teams
The Lions' special teams have a long way to go to achieve redemption this year. After giving up two return touchdowns in two-straight games, they deserve all the criticism they've received.
With that said, last week they took a step in the right direction. They didn't give up any return touchdowns, and limited Philadelphia to 24 yards returned per kickoff. Not great, but not terrible either.
They did particularly well on punt coverage. They limited home-run threat DeSean Jackson to only one return for minus-3 yards.
There is no rest for the weary, though. The Bears have their own home-run threat in Devin Hester, and he's burned the Lions special teamers before. In fact, in their last meeting Hester returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown.
The Lions' coverage units will need to be in top form against the Bears in order to contain the dangerous Hester.
There is little room for error against him, and if he's allowed to run wild on returns the Bears will win. It's that simple.
4. The Play of Alphonso Smith
After the Eagles game, Lions' fans learned that cornerbacks Jacob Lacey and Dwight Bentley were both injured. If neither of them were healthy enough by Monday night, the Lions cornerback situation would be more grim than usual.
Jonte Green would be the only cornerback healthy enough to start opposite Chris Houston.
That's scary. He might be good someday, but right now fans just cross their fingers and hope for the best when Green takes the field.
Fortunately, the Lions realized their precarious situation and brought back an old friend. According to MLive.com's Anwar Richardson, the Lions re-signed Alphonso Smith on Thursday, leading to speculation that Smith would start if Bentley and Lacey are out.
Smith is known for two things. Making big plays and giving up big plays. He's all or nothing, and that was a big reason he was cut this offseason. Nevertheless, he's a better option than Green right now and he could come up huge against the Bears.
Houston will likely match up against the Bears No.1 wideout, Brandon Marshall. That would mean Smith would draw either Earl Bennett or Hester. Those are two players he can manage.
He'll have the motivation to prove to Jim Schwartz and the Lions that they made a mistake when they cut him this offseason as well.
With a second lease on life, Smith might have the best game of his career. The Lions' beleaguered secondary would surely benefit from that.
3. Don't Force the Run Game
Ever since Mikel Leshoure arrived on the scene the Lions have been focused on establishing the run. The results have been mixed.
Leshoure had a great debut gaining over 100 yards on the ground against the Tennessee Titans. In his next two games, he wasn't nearly as good. Then again, his carries were split in half.
Regardless, the Chicago Bears defense is better at stopping the run than any unit the Lions have faced. They rank No. 1 in the NFL, giving up only 65.8 yards per game on the ground. Expectations for Leshoure should be kept in check.
The Lions should also keep their urge to establish a running game in check. Sending Leshoure barrelling into the Bears' brick wall repeatedly will benefit no one. They'll need to be selective with their play calling.
They'll need to get creative, too. The Lions bolster their running attack by regularly running reverse plays. Nate Burleson and Titus Young are dangerous when used in this way.
Calvin Johnson could be effective as well.
The Lions won't dominate the line of scrimmage and run the ball down the Bears' throats. However, they don't need to gain 200 yards on the ground.
If they run the ball wisely, and mix in some trickery, they could still be successful.
2. Reintroduce Calvin Johnson to the End Zone
At this time last season Johnson had nine touchdowns. This year he has one.
He has managed to gain 100 more yards, but scoring is the name of the game. The Lions have missed his dominance in the red zone.
It's not all his fault. Matthew Stafford hasn't been his best, and the other receivers have not stepped up to keep defenses honest.
It's about time they find a way to get Johnson back into the end zone. In fact, their chances of winning soar when he hits paydirt more than once. The Lions are 6-3 when he does.
It won't be easy, though. The Bears have only given up five receiving touchdowns this season. They also lead the NFL with 13 interceptions.
The Lions will clearly have their work cut out for them, but Johnson is still the most dangerous receiver in the NFL. Last year, on Monday Night Football, Johnson lit up the Bears for 130 yards and a touchdown.
There's no reason he can't have that type of performance again.
1. Matthew Stafford Must Return to Form
No one will tell you that Matthew Stafford has had a bad year. Yet, through five games, he hasn't lived up to the expectations he set last season.
His total yardage certainly isn't the concern. He has already passed for 1,493 yards and has thrown for over 300 yards in each of the last two games.
The problem with Stafford is that his touchdown numbers are way down. He's only thrown four on the year, and none to his best offensive weapon—Johnson.
For a top-tier quarterback like Stafford, four touchdowns is unacceptable. Jake Locker and Ryan Tannehill have equaled that.
No one can put their finger on exactly what the issue is with Stafford. Maybe that's because there really isn't anything wrong with him. Defenses are simply playing the Lions differently and many of the passes that were open last year aren't open this year.
If defenses are taking away big plays with two deep safeties—which is how everyone is playing the Lions—then the offense needs to adjust. That means hitting shorter passes in the middle of the field—or in the flat—and getting some big plays out of their running backs.
If the Lions are able to get big gains from a couple of these plays, then they'll see those deep passing lanes open up. If that happens, then Stafford could add significantly to his paltry touchdown total.