How the Unbeaten Chicago Bears Can Keep Rolling vs. Lions

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How the Unbeaten Chicago Bears Can Keep Rolling vs. Lions
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Chicago Bears will look to become 4-0 for the first time since 2006 and only the second time since 1991 when they travel to Detroit to take on the Lions in Week 4. 

To stay unbeaten on Sunday, Chicago will have to use the same winning principles that have fueled the team's surprising start to the 2013 season.

The offense under coach Marc Trestman has been balanced, decisive and in control. Quarterback Jay Cutler is being protected, and as a result, he is saving his best throws for the game's biggest moments. Even the defense and special teams have been especially Bears-like, even with a new coaching staff in place. 

The challenge now is to continue these positive trends throughout the entire season. 

The Bears have been the NFL's version of a tease in recent years, winning at a frantic pace to start seasons only to have playoff hopes crumble down the stretch. The 2012 version started 7-1 but finished outside the postseason at 10-6, while the 2011 team began 7-3 but limped to the finish line at 8-8. 

A 3-0 start in Chicago does have historical significance, however, as the last two Bears teams to start the first three weeks without a loss went on to play in the NFC Championship Game (2006, 2010). 

Here's how the Bears take can another step forward in Detroit and get to 4-0 on the early season:

 

Continuing Balance on Offense

Balance in this sense comes in two forms. There's balance in terms of play-calling and balance in whom Cutler targets when he passes. So far in 2013, the Bears have enjoyed uncommon harmony in both areas. 

Trestman's return to a more balanced game plan has been obvious through three games. While the Bears aren't racking up a ridiculous amount of plays (Chicago's 187 offensive plays rank 22nd in NFL), the offense has stayed true to a more even ratio of pass to run. 

The Bears are currently throwing the football on roughly 55 percent of their offensive plays, which ranks 25th in the NFL. Overall, only seven teams are running the football at a higher percentage through three games.

Defining Balance: NFL Pass Percentages in 2013
Team Rank Pass Percentage
Bears 25 55.62
Jets 26 52.34
Colts 27 52.08
Raiders 28 52.0
Eagles 29 51.76
Panthers 30 48.0
Titans 31 47.47
Seahawks 32 44.95

Source: Team Rankings

The results haven't netted a huge uptick in yards—Chicago is averaging 3.8 yards per carry, and its 315 rushing yards are good for only 17th in the NFL—but the balance has helped the offense score the football more frequently (the Bears are third in the NFL in scoring average) and hold it longer. 

Cutler is also helping out the offensive balance by becoming more adept at spreading the football around.

A season ago, Brandon Marshall and his 118 catches represented 41 percent of Chicago's total completions. No other receiver was even close to matching Marshall's usage percentage. Reggie Wayne was a distant second. 

In 2013, Cutler has found Marshall on 20 of his 68 completions, which equates to just 29 percent. Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett have also seen plenty of the football, as all three have 12 or more catches to start this season. 

Both shifts toward balance—in play-calling and over Cutler's targets—are a product of Trestman's guidance on a new-look offense. He'll want both to continue in Detroit and for the rest of this season.

 

Protecting Jay Cutler

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
The Bears spent offseason resources in both free agency and the draft to fix an offensive line that had continually let Cutler down. Four of the five linemen are new starters, including signings Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson on the left side and rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills on the right. 

So far, so good. 

Cutler has been sacked just three times in three games, and his current sack percentage of 2.9 would blow away any of his previous numbers since arriving in Chicago. For further context, consider that he was sacked on 8.1 percent of his dropbacks in 2012 and a career-high 10.7 percent in 2010. 

Positive Protection: Jay Cutler Since Arriving in Chicago
Sacks Sack Percentage
2009 35 5.9
2010 52 10.7
2011 23 6.8
2012 38 8.1
2013 3 2.9

Source: Pro Football Reference

While the new faces have made a tangible impact, so has Trestman's reliance on a quick, decisive passing game that is designed to get the football out of the quarterback's hands quickly. Gone are the seven-step drops. In are fast-moving and rhythm-based options that keep Cutler upright against any kind of pressure.

This has to be considered a battle-tested group, too. 

The Bears have faced two really good fronts already in the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers, so the fast start from the entire protection unit can't be labeled a sham. The Bengals have one of the best front fours in football, and the Steelers are still one of the best blitzing teams. Yet the two teams were able to get Cutler on the ground just twice over the two games. 

Protecting Cutler will come into focus again in Week 4, as arguably the best front four in all of football will present the Bears offensive line with another test. The Lions sacked Cutler six times last season, including five times during the first meeting. 

 

Keeping Matt Forte Well-Fed

Forte, despite totaling more than 1,300 yards from scrimmage in each of his first five NFL seasons, remains one of the game's most underrated players. Part of that lack of recognition has come from Chicago's unwillingness to feature him in the past, but Trestman isn't falling into that trend this season. 

Through three games, he is averaging more attempts (18.3) than at any time since his rookie season, and his 18 receptions are tied for the league lead among running backs. 

The result has been a coming-out party of sorts for Forte, whose 363 yards from scrimmage are the fourth most in the NFL this season. Only LeSean McCoy, DeMarco Murray and Jamaal Charles have more in 2013. 

If history holds, he could rise in those rankings. He has rushed for more career yards (814) and scored more touchdowns (five) against the Lions than any other team. He has also averaged nearly five yards a carry and over 11 per reception in 10 games vs. Detroit. 

 

Ride the Wave from Defense, Special Teams

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
The Bears defense hasn't been stingy in terms of points (24.7, 19th in NFL) or yards (383, 25th) per game, and the pass rush has struggled to get pressure without bringing extra blitzers (only five total sacks). 

However, the defensive unit is still as opportunistic as ever, and the scoring touch hasn't left despite Trestman replacing Lovie Smith. The Bears currently lead the NFL in turnovers forced with 11 and defensive touchdowns with three. 

The special teams have also awakened in Chicago, in large part due to Devin Hester's recommitment on kick returns. His 308 kick-return yards are No. 1 in the NFL, which in turn have helped the Bears to average a starting field position of the 36.1-yard line (second best). 

On the road against an upstart division rival, the Bears might need a play each from the defense and special teams. Through three games, Chicago has received those plays in bunches. 

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