Jay Cutler and the Bears host the Lions with first place in the NFC North on the line
The Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears kick off the second half of their schedules with a key NFC North matchup at Soldier Field on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on FOX. This game will help break up the three-way tie for first in the division, as Matthew Stafford and the Lions (5-3) are in search of the season sweep over the Bears (5-3).
This also is an important game as each team will be looking to take advantage of Aaron Rodgers’ injury (broken collarbone, out a minimum of three weeks) by either keeping pace with the Packers (5-3) or taking the lead in their division outright. The Detroit-Chicago rivalry dates back to 1930 with the Bears leading the all-time series 96-66-5. While the Lions are looking for the season sweep in 2013, the Bears have won seven of the past nine meetings, which goes back to when Stafford made his NFL debut after being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.
3 Things to Watch
After sustaining a groin injury in the Week 7 loss to Washington, Jay Cutler was initially expected to miss between three to four weeks. Someone apparently forgot to tell him this, however, as Cutler returned to practice on Thursday and is expected to get the start at home against Detroit. Josh McCown filled in admirably for Cutler in the Bears’ unexpected win over Green Bay at Lambeau Field this past Monday night, throwing for 272 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. However, first-year head coach Marc Trestman said all along that as long as Cutler was medically cleared to play he would be the starter. If anything, this gives Cutler a chance to redeem himself for his worst performance of the season when he turned the ball over four times (3 INTs, fumble) in the 40-32 loss in Detroit back in Week 4. Turnovers were a huge part of this game, as the teams combined for a total of seven. Cutler’s four miscues resulted in 17 points for the Lions and helped put the Bears behind by 21 entering the fourth quarter. Cutler has an 8:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the four wins he has been a part of this season. In losses that ratio changes to 4:6. It’s rather simplistic, but the Bears need Cutler to be at the top of his game despite his injury-induced layoff and to protect the football on Sunday. If Cutler falters against the Lions a second time then Trestman may have an unintended quarterback controversy on his hands, at least from a media perspective.
Reggie Bush and Matt Forté are versatile running backs that can make plays after taking a handoff or as a receiver out of the backfield. They are both among the top 10 in the NFL in yards from scrimmage and total touches, meaning they are pivotal to their respective team’s offensive game plan. This was clearly the case back in Week 4 when each posted more than 100 total yards and a rushing touchdown. Bush was the star on the ground, rushing for a season-high 139 yards on 18 carries (7.7 ypc), including a 37-yard touchdown run. Forté finished with fewer yards (95), but his highlight play was a 53-yard TD run and he was productive when he ran it, averaging nearly seven yards per carry. Both also were targeted six times in the passing game. Each defense is allowing more than 100 yards rushing per game with the Bears ranking near the bottom of the league at 127.5 yards per contest. Forté is coming off a 125-yard effort on Monday night against a Green Bay defense that is a top-five unit against the run. The Lions and the Bears both need their dynamic backs to produce to help open up the playbook and take some of the pressure off of the quarterbacks and the passing game. Whichever back “wins” the yardage battle on Sunday could very well end up with the W by game’s end too.
Who Roars Loudest on D?
Statistically speaking, these two defenses are very similar. They are separated by 0.1 yards per game in total defense and less than four points per game in scoring defense. The Lions have fared better against the run (108.5 ypg) than the Bears (127.5) with the Monsters of the Midway having the advantage (253.6 to 272.5 ypg) versus the pass. Chicago actually outgained Detroit (417 to 387) on offense in their first meeting back in Week 4, but the Lions made the most of four Cutler turnovers and sacked him three times to help secure the victory. Pressuring the quarterback has actually been a problem for both defenses this season. Entering the Monday night game against Green Bay, Chicago had a total of nine sacks in seven games. That was before the Bears racked up five sacks against the Packers, including one in the first quarter by Shea McCllelin that broke Aaron Rodgers’ collarbone. No doubt Ndamukong Suh and company would love to get their hands on Cutler again, but the Lions also need to find a way to do a better job in pass defense. When he wasn’t getting sacked, Cutler carved up the Lions’ secondary with 22 completions to his wide receivers and tight end for 295 yards and two touchdowns. On the other side, the Bears have been hit by hard on injuries to its front seven and a patchwork defensive line and inexperienced linebacking corps needs to improve its run defense. The Bears beat the Packers on Monday night despite surrendering 190 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 28 carries. Between pressuring the pocket and learning from past mistakes, keep an eye out on Sunday to which defense makes the most noise on the field.
Detroit Key Player: Calvin Johnson, WR
It pretty much goes without saying that Johnson is “key” to Detroit’s offensive success. After all not only is he the NFL’s single-season receiving leader (1,964 yards), he came eight yards shy of breaking the single-game mark with 329 yards on 14 catches in Week 8. Megatron is indisputably the best wide receiver in the league and he is quickly securing his place as one of the greatest to ever play the position. That said, his career numbers against Chicago don’t exactly stand out. In 12 games, Johnson has recorded 57 catches for 845 yards and five touchdowns against the Bears. That’s less than an average of five receptions per game and only 70.4 yards per contest, including just two 100-yard efforts in those 12 games. Johnson was held to just four catches for 44 yards in the first meeting, which is one of the reasons why quarterback Matthew Stafford completed 23 of 35 passes for 242 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Chicago has a pair of All-Pro cornerbacks in Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, but Johnson has shown on more than one occasion he can take his game to another level. One of those types of efforts against the Bears would no doubt go a long way towards securing the season sweep and at least a share of first place in the NFC North.
Chicago Key Player: Khaseem Greene, LB
With Nick Roach leaving via free agency, Brian Urlacher retiring and Lance Briggs entering his 11th season, the Bears knew they had to add some new blood to their linebacking corps. The changes started with the additions of D.J. Williams and James Anderson in free agency followed by the selections of Jon Bostic (second round) and Greene (fourth) in April’s draft. The plan was to bring the former Florida and Rutgers standouts along slowly, but that changed after Williams was lost for the season in Week 6 due to a torn pectoral muscle followed by Briggs sustaining a shoulder injury a week later. Bostic and Greene were thrust into the starting lineup and, as can be expected, the rookies have experienced their share of growing pains. Greene is especially important because he is filling in for Briggs at weak-side linebacker. Briggs led the Bears with 13 tackles in the first game against the Lions and Greene needs to be just as active and involved on Sunday while also showing he’s a quick study. Greene and Bostic were drafted in hopes they would develop into the next great Bear linebackers. Unfortunately, injuries have thrust them both into the fire earlier than expected, meaning the future is now for the duo.
In one play on Monday night, the outlook of the NFC North changed entirely when Aaron Rodgers was driven into the Lambeau Field turf by Shea McCllelin. Not only did Chicago’s win over Green Bay create a three-way tie for first place in the division, it opened up at least a three-week window for the Bears and Lions to try and separate themselves from a Rodgers-less Packers team. So needless to say, this could be a season-defining game for these two teams.
Both teams are enjoying modest one-game winning streaks, but the Bears appear to have the momentum following their big Monday night victory at Lambeau Field, while the Lions are coming off of their bye. Chicago also will have Jay Cutler back under center for the first time since injuring his groin in Week 7. Cutler played poorly in the Week 4 meeting with the Lions, and after backup Josh McCown led the team to victory over the Packers, he no doubt wants to show everyone why he’s the No. 1 signal-caller in the Windy City.
The Lions are among the most explosive offenses in the NFL led by the trio of Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush, but the defense remains a question mark and has been very up and down, especially in the secondary. The Lions’ Week 4 victory was due in large part to Cutler’s four turnovers and I don’t see a repeat on Sunday. First-year head coach Marc Trestman leans on running back Matt Forté early to help ease Cutler back into the flow, but the quarterback makes some key throws late to help the Bears earn a season split against the Lions and stake their claim as the top team in the NFC North.
Chicago 31, Detroit 27