First place in the NFC North is on the line as Marc Trestman brings his undefeated Chicago Bears into Detroit to face the 2-1 Lions.
What: Chicago Bears (3-0) at Detroit Lions (2-1)
Where: Ford Field, Detroit
When: Sunday, Sept. 29, 1 p.m. Eastern
Watch: Fox, check local listings
Both teams are coming off road wins. Detroit won for the first time ever in Washington, beating the host Redskins 27-20. Chicago knocked off the Steelers 40-23 in Heinz Field. Chicago has also beaten Cincinnati and Minnesota, the same Vikings team the Lions beat in Week 1 before falling in Arizona in Week 2.
Chicago has dominated this series of late. The Bears have won nine of the last 10 meetings, including the 2012 season finale in Detroit by a 26-24 margin.
If the Lions want to reverse this negative trend, the opportunities are present. Foremost is ceasing the senseless, mindless penalties which continue to plague Jim Schwartz's team. I continually harp on this, but that's because staying focused and composed is the easiest way to avoid self-defeat. Sadly it remains a significant problem, as I noted on Sunday.
The Bears are playing well under new coach Trestman, but they are not invulnerable by any measure. Here are three ways the Lions can secure an important victory.
Protect the Football
The Bears are the best in the business at creating turnovers. Last season they led the NFL with 44 takeaways. This season they are on pace for even more, with 11 already through just three games.
Five of those came Sunday night, and they cashed in those turnovers for 19 points. The defense scored two touchdowns on its own, returning two interceptions for scores.
Chicago has lived and died defensively on turnovers. Over the past two seasons and first three games of 2013, its record clearly demarcates based on how many takeaways it creates.
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The Bears rely heavily on takeaways to make defensive stops. When teams protect the ball, Chicago gives up yards by the bundle.
In short, if the Lions hang onto the football, they have the potential for a huge offensive output. That means no fumbles after the catch or missed handoff exchanges, both of which have plagued the Lions recently.
Beat the Blitz
These are not the Lovie Smith Bears on defense anymore. Under their old coach and defensive system, the Bears brought additional pressure with linebackers very infrequently.
That has changed, and the Lions must be ready. The Pittsburgh Steelers were not, and it cost them right away.
This is Pittsburgh’s third offensive play of the game from Sunday night.
The Bears are aligned in their standard 4-3 front, while the Steelers are in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end), a formation the Lions use frequently.
As the play develops, the defensive tackle on linebacker D.J. Williams’ side crashes in, pulling the right guard with him. The defensive end also tacks inside, which drives right tackle Mike Adams (No. 77) inside as well. It is up to running back Felix Jones (No. 23) and the pulling left guard Ramon Foster (No. 73) to handle the two blitzing backers.
Foster doesn’t see Williams coming from the inside and mistakenly keeps pulling out to try to pick off James Anderson (No. 50). Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, Jones is also keying on Anderson. That leaves Williams unabated at Ben Roethlisberger.
If the Lions see this blitz, they have a great chance to beat it. Left guard Rob Sims must have the vision to pick up the inside rusher, while the backside must hold up as well. If they do, a closer look at the same picture reveals where the Lions can attack.
Notice slot receiver Emmanuel Sanders (No. 88) and all that green space around him? Linebacker Lance Briggs (No. 55) has to roll across the formation and get enough depth to cover him in the middle of the field. The Bears are in a zone shell with man coverage on the outside receivers, and the weak-side safety has flown up the field to cover the running back if he bleeds into the flat.
Here’s another angle of what’s happening down the field on the play.
There is a great deal of room for the slot and the outside receiver to operate. Ryan Broyles can take his slot pattern across the field and underneath the deep safety, or he can curl to the outside. Calvin Johnson on the outside can break back with no underneath help or square in behind Broyles.
Note that the deep safety is fully committed to getting deep, while the non-blitzing linebacker has a great deal of turf to cover. If the rolled up safety chooses to stay deeper, that opens up Reggie Bush or Joique Bell to peel into the flat after they chip the blitzer.
Additionally, the tight end coming across the field has an open path in between the coverage layers if the outside safety cheats up the field too far, or commits to covering the running back. Tony Scheffler or Joseph Fauria have the ability to exploit that potential.
If the line picks up that extra pressure, Matt Stafford will have his choice of targets down the field. If the wideouts can make the catch and make the first tackler miss, it could easily lead to a huge gain or even a touchdown.
The Lions have faced two blitz-heavy defenses in a row in Arizona and Washington, so the pickup assignments should be ingrained already. This gives Detroit a great chance to use Chicago’s newfound aggressiveness against itself.
Divide and Conquer the Rebuilt Offensive Line
Chicago’s offensive line woes have become something of a national punchline in recent years. Sick of the snickers, not to mention the sacks, the Bears made wholesale changes up front.
The Bears start two rookies on the right side. Guard Kyle Long was the team’s first-round pick, while tackle Jordan Mills came in the fifth round.
On the left side, both starters are free-agent acquisitions. Guard Matt Slauson comes from the New York Jets, and tackle Jermon Bushrod protected Drew Brees’ blind side in New Orleans. Only center Roberto Garza remains in place from last season.
Thus far the changes have worked. Cutler has been sacked just three times in the first three weeks. Last season the Bears line allowed 44 sacks, so they’ve stemmed the bleeding quite well.
Still, the Lions have arguably the best defensive line in the league. Ndamukong Suh remains the highest-rated defensive tackle according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and his 17 QB hurries are almost lapping the field so far.
Ziggy Ansah is making quite an impact at right defensive end. I chronicled his progress earlier this week; he keeps getting better every game. On the other side, Willie Young takes over for the injured Jason Jones.
Willie Young ranks fifth amongst defensive ends at Pro Football Focus. Take away the penalty factors, however, and Young would rank third. That ties into the earlier point about avoiding penalties, but I digress…
With Nick Fairley getting healthier, the Lions present a real stern challenge to the line.
One way other teams have found success in stressing the Bears offensive line is by spreading it out. I looked at all the negative plays against the Bears offense this year (sacks, turnovers, tackles for loss) and spacing was a common denominator.
Here’s an example from their Week 1 meeting with Cincinnati. The Bengals are set up in a Wide 9 alignment, with the ends playing outside the boundary shoulder of each offensive tackle. This picture should look very familiar to Lions fans.
Off the snap, the defensive ends both press the edge and get their inside shoulders into the outside shoulders of the offensive tackles. This puts them in a position of power, as the offensive tackles have lost the ability to straighten their arms and control leverage. Meanwhile, the defensive tackles have both attacked the outside shoulders of the guards.
The result of this is that the Bengals have created one-on-one matchups for each of their four linemen. With right end Michael Johnson already turning past Bushrod on the edge, there is nobody to help. Center Roberto Garza is a bouncer at a roadhouse which closed hours ago. The spacing here is key.
This play finishes with Johnson disrupting Cutler's throwing motion, creating an interception.
Johnson is physically similar to Ansah, tall and speedy but not lacking strength either. His quickness eats up Bushrod, and that is not a new development; while with the Saints last year, Bushrod allowed the second-most hurries of any tackle with 45, according to Pro Football Focus.
From the other side, the rookie Mills has shown early struggles in pass protection too. These are nothing new, as this scouting report from Bleacher Report’s own Alex Dunlap illuminates.
A similar play to the Cincinnati interception occurred in Chicago’s game with Minnesota. The Vikings lined up in a Wide 9, but they brought a fifth pass-rusher by blitzing a linebacker.
Once again, this isolates one offensive lineman per defensive pass-rusher. Jared Allen executes a pretty yank-and-push move to easily separate from Bushrod, who has no help on the talented defensive end. Allen strips the ball from Cutler, resulting in a touchdown for the Vikings.
This is precisely the reason why Jim Schwartz wants so much individual talent on his defensive line. The Lions are tailored to win isolation matchups up front. We've seen Suh dominate despite facing double-teams this season. Imagine what he can do with spacing concepts singling him out against a greenhorn rookie like Kyle Long!
The Bears line is indeed improved, but by isolating the parts instead of allowing them to band together the Lions can find success. It's important for the defensive line to stay disciplined against the run. It is also imperative the players do not commit the stupid penalties for which they are becoming increasingly renowned.