How the Unbeaten Chicago Bears Can Keep Rolling vs. Lions
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).
LM: #Bears are 3-0 for third time in 22 seasons; advanced to NFC title game on both previous occasions in ’06 & ’10.— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) September 25, 2013
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.
Source: Team Rankings
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
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.
Source: Pro Football Reference
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
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
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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