The 6-2 Lions head to Soldier Field on Sunday afternoon to renew their longtime NFC North rivalry with the 5-3 Chicago Bears. Detroit comes in well rested, fresh off of their Week 9 bye, while the Bears have had a short week to prepare after defeating the Eagles in primetime last Monday night.
This will mark the second meeting between these rivals this season after the Lions defeated Chicago on Monday Night Football in Week 5 before a deafening sellout crowd at Ford Field. The impact of the audience and overall hype in the city of Detroit was palpable that night, and it was made obvious by the numerous false-start penalties committed by the Bears' offensive line induced by the volume level. It will surely be a different environment when the teams rematch Sunday on Chicago’s home turf.
Yardage-wise, that MNF game was split almost even, but Detroit’s ability to come up with big scoring plays on offense—notably a Calvin Johnson 73-yard touchdown reception and a Jahvid Best 88-yard scamper—ultimately made the difference.
Sidelined for the third consecutive week recovering from concussion symptoms, Best will not be present for this one. That leaves the Lions running game in the hands of Maurice Morris, Kieland Williams and the newly re-acquired Kevin Smith, whom the Lions added over their bye week. The Motown offense has failed to produce on the ground effectively without the speedy Best, and a stout Bears run D will likely continue that trend.
Chicago QB Jay Cutler has looked solid but not extraordinary over the past couple of weeks, and is known for making mistakes when the pocket collapses around him and his decision-making is rushed.
Enter Ndamukong Suh and the Detroit defensive front. This group, stacked with young talent, has combined for 24 sacks this season, ranking them fourth in the NFL in that department. Expect Cutler to be hit often in this one, a fate which typically leads to mistakes for the up-and-down signal caller.
Though Detroit’s front four have developed into a group widely regarded as one of the best in the league, they have in fact allowed an average of 138 rushing yards per game, which puts them at 28th in the league in that category. That fact, combined with the Bears' dual-threat monster back Matt Forte, should strike some fear into the heart of Detroit fans.
The Lions must be sure to account for Forte at all times, in both the passing and running game, or they will no doubt see his total yardage from scrimmage run into the triple digits. The Bears' lack of weapons elsewhere, however, should allow the Lions to keep track of the halfback without much worry of getting burned by other members of the offense.
Amidst improvements in various aspects and positions thus far in the 2011 season, the clear reason for Motown’s success has been the continued development and cohesiveness of Lions QB Matthew Stafford and his freak wideout, Calvin “Megatron” Johnson. The duo have combined for an astounding 11 touchdown hookups already this season, leaving all others in their wake (seven other tandems are tied in second place at six touchdowns).
The Bears are ranked 24th against the pass thus far in 2011, and their secondary had absolutely nothing to say regarding CJ after he torched them for 130 yards and the touchdown mentioned earlier in mid-October. All signs point to a similar output on Sunday.
Regardless of how many numbers you crunch or tape you watch, this game will likely come down to one thing and one thing only: toughness up front. Whichever team controls the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball will put their team in good position to win in a matchup where the more time the quarterbacks have, the more likely they are to pick the opposing defense apart.
If Cutler spends most of his time running away from Suh and company, then the Lions should be able to force some mistakes and take advantage. If Stafford does not have time to find his weapons down the field, then Detroit will be in trouble, as his check-down options out of the backfield are undeniably below par without Best in the lineup.
Anticipate a close battle that will come down to the wire, similar to last year’s game in Chicago between these two. So long as the Lions don’t get flagged for legal plays like that they did in that game (search “Suh hit on Cutler” on YouTube) they will likely be able to pull it out due in large part to the stamina advantage they should have from a week of rest.