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NFL Preview - Detroit (6-2) at Chicago (5-3)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Though it's only been a month since the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears last faced one another, both of these NFC North inhabitants will have a somewhat different look when they square off Sunday at Soldier Field in a key divisional showdown that could have sizeable ramifications down the road.
Detroit's 24-13 victory over the Bears back on Oct. 10 capped off a sizzling 5-0 start for the up-and-coming Lions, though they've cooled off a bit in the weeks that followed that rousing performance. Chicago, on the other hand, has taken off since that bitter defeat, with the defending NFC North champions winning three straight times in the wake of that game to vault themselves squarely back in the mix of the conference playoff picture.
Vast improvement on defense has helped trigger Chicago's turnaround, with the veteran unit having yielded just 298.7 total yards and mere 67.3 rushing yards over the course of the win streak. In Monday's 30-24 triumph at Philadelphia, the Bears held an Eagles offense that came in No. 1 in the NFL in total yards to a season-low 330 on the night.
The Lions piled up 395 total yards and a whopping 181 yards on the ground in their 11-point verdict over the Bears back in Week 5, with speedy running back Jahvid Best amassing a career-best 163 rushing yards on only 12 carries and ripping off a back-breaking 88-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
Best won't be available for the rematch, however, after still feeling the effects from a concussion the 2010 first-round pick sustained in a 25-19 loss to NFC West-leading San Francisco the week afterward. That result was the first of back-to-back defeats that threw a bit of cold water on Detroit's red-hot beginning to the season.
The Lions were able to bounce back in a big way, though, getting three touchdown passes from standout quarterback Matthew Stafford and a stifling defensive display in a 45-10 road rout of the Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos prior to the team's Week 9 bye.
"After starting 5-0, you're going to have some rough spots over the course of a 16-game season and we did," said Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz. "But to come on the road, get back on track, finish the second quarter of the season 2-2, I think there's a lot of positives there. We have a long way to go and I think our guys know that. But it was good to come back and sort of be ourselves."
Detroit's formidable defense sacked Tebow seven times in that game and was a force as well in the earlier meeting between these teams, accumulating three takedowns of Jay Cutler and relentlessly harassing the Chicago signal-caller all throughout the contest.
Cutler's protection has been significantly better as of late, however. After surrendering a troubling 18 sacks over the season's first five weeks, the Bears' offensive line has allowed just three over the club's three-game surge. Cutler wasn't sacked at all by the Eagles on Monday.
"Our offensive line has made improvements almost weekly...not almost weekly, they have weekly, they've made improvements," said Bears head coach Lovie Smith. Jay can make all the throws, he's as good as there is once he has time and we've been giving him that time to make the throws."
The Lions have lost in each of their three visits to Soldier Field, but are 4-0 away from home thus far in 2011 and will be bringing a franchise-record run of six consecutive road wins into Sunday's tilt.
Chicago leads the all-time series with Detroit, which dates back to the 1930 season, by a 93-65-5 count and had won the last six bouts between the storied rivals before its previously-mentioned 24-13 loss at Ford Field last month. The Bears put together home-and-home sweeps of the Lions in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and earned a controversial 19-14 decision over Detroit at Soldier Field in last year's season opener, in which a potential go-ahead touchdown catch by Detroit's Calvin Johnson in the final seconds was overturned on replay. The Lions' last win in Chicago was a 16-7 triumph in 2007 under then-head coach Rod Marinelli, who now works as the Bears' defensive coordinator.
Smith is 10-5 against the Lions during his tenure as the Bears' head coach, while Detroit's win in Week 5 gave Schwartz his first victory over both Chicago and Smith in five lifetime tries.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
Though Best unquestionably had a huge impact in Detroit's Week 5 win over the Bears and the speedy running back's injury takes away one of the Lions' most explosive players, don't expect the team to deviate too much from the usual game plan this week. Detroit has been a pass-oriented outfit throughout this season, with a finally-healthy Stafford (2179 passing yards, 19 TD, 4 INT) getting the opportunity to blossom into the elite quarterback the 2009 No. 1 overall pick was projected to be. The 23-year-old has produced a stellar 19- to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio in skillfully directing an offense that's third in the NFL in scoring (29.9 ppg) and averages over 260 passing yards per game (10th overall). It also helps to have a wide receiver the caliber of Johnson (47 receptions, 804 yards, 11 TD) to throw to, as the freakishly- athletic big target leads the league in touchdown receptions and has compiled over 100 receiving yards in four straight games, a streak that began when he burned Chicago for 130 yards and a score on five catches back in October. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew (41 receptions, 2 TD) has become a steady secondary outlet for Stafford, while rookie receiver Titus Young (19 receptions, 1 TD) has shown flashes of big-play ability during his brief pro career. The Lions will again a try to offset Best's absence with a backfield combination of veteran Maurice Morris (128 rushing yards, 1 TD, 8 receptions) and Keiland Williams (118 rushing yards, 1 TD), who teamed up for just 83 yards on 24 carries against the Broncos in Week 8, and the team brought back 2009 leading rusher Kevin Smith on Monday to add to the mix.
Detroit may be hard-pressed to duplicate its earlier rushing success against the Bears this time around, as Chicago's seasoned defense has been smothering enemy ground attacks during its current streak. With the accomplished linebacker duo of Brian Urlacher (52 tackles, 3 INT, 5 PD) and Lance Briggs (60 tackles, 1 INT) again spearheading the charge, the Bears permitted a scant 83 rushing yards total in victories over Minnesota and Tampa Bay before keeping Philadelphia's league-leading rushing offense well below its season average on Monday. Urlacher was all over the field against the Eagles, registering 11 tackles (10 solo) and two passes defensed, while Briggs has been playing at a level worthy of securing a seventh career Pro Bowl nod at year's end. Though Chicago enters the week ranked just 26th in pass defense (264.3 ypg), it's come up with five interceptions over the past two weeks and valued nickel back D.J. Moore (35 tackles, 3 INT, 6 PD) had a pick of Stafford in the Week 5 loss. Veteran Charles Tillman (54 tackles, 6 TD) is the team's best cover man and will likely be asked to shadow Johnson in one of this game's individual matchups to watch.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Chicago hasn't only improved in keeping Cutler (1910 passing yards, 11 TD, 6 INT) upright since it last faced the Lions, but a running game that was often dormant early on in the season has also recently come to life. Do-everything back Matt Forte (805 rushing yards, 41 receptions, 3 total TD) has averaged 137.2 rushing yards and nearly 23 carries over the last five contests and delivered four 100-yard efforts over the span, which includes a 22-attempt, 116-yard showing against Detroit in Week 5 and a 133-yard outburst against the Eagles on Monday. The Bears' offensive centerpiece is also the team's leader in catches and receiving yards (436) and tops the NFL with an impressive 1,241 yards from scrimmage. Cutler's done his part as well by making sound decisions in the pocket, having not thrown an interception in three of the past four games, and a receiving corps that's generally been inconsistent has been boosted by the return of slot man Earl Bennett (8 receptions, 1 TD) from a chest injury as well as better production out of enigmatic ex-Lion Roy Williams (16 receptions, 1 TD). Bennett posted team bests of five catches and 95 yards with a touchdown last week in his first appearance back from a five-game absence, while Williams has topped 45 receiving yards in three straight weeks.
A Detroit defense that's limited foes to just 18.4 yards per game (6th overall) is headlined by the fearsome front four of tackles Ndamukong Suh (24 tackles, 3 sacks) and Corey Williams (18 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and ends Cliff Avril (17 tackles, 5 sacks) and Kyle Vanden Bosch (18 tackles, 5 sacks), a crew that has accounted for 14 1/2 of the team's strong total of 24 sacks. Their ability to consistently create pressure is a major reason why the Lions stand fifth in the league against the pass (193.6 ypg) and snared 11 interceptions, as has the solid play of cornerbacks Chris Houston (41 tackles, 4 INT, 10 PD) and Eric Wright (36 tackles, 2 INT, 5 PD). Houston had a 100-yard interception return in the club's thrashing of the Broncos two weeks back, with Avril scoring as well on a fumble recovery off one of his two sacks. Stopping the run has been a season-long issue, however, as the Lions have given up the third-most rushing yards in the league (137.6 ypg) as well as a substandard average of 5.2 yards per carry, and Denver put up 195 yards on the ground in Detroit's most recent time out. Middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch (52 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) and weakside starter DeAndre Levy (63 tackles), who recorded 13 tackles in the team's earlier win over Chicago, will be in charge of preventing Forte from another big day.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Detroit's heavy pass rush was a critical factor in its Week 5 victory, as well as a primary reason why its defense has been one of the league leaders in takeaways this season. Chicago's reworked offensive line has definitely held up better in the games that followed its last matchup with the Lions, and was able to successfully keep Philadelphia's talented linemen at bay on Monday. A repeat performance may be necessary, however, if the Bears are to earn a split of this series.
One way the Bears might be able to neutralize Detroit's formidable rush is to continue to feed Forte the football. Chicago is 3-1 when its invaluable running back gains over 100 yards on the ground this season, and reaching that mark again is clearly within reach considering the Lions' problems against the run as of late. Though Detroit still defeated the Bears despite Forte's 116 yards last month, the task would be far easier if the defense can hold Chicago's clear-cut best weapon in check.
The Lions will need to find a way to replace Best's production that was essential to their earlier win over the Bears, though that will be tough when factoring in Chicago's improvements in run defense over the past few weeks and the drop-off in talent that substitutes such as Morris and a just-off-the- street Kevin Smith will bring. While Detroit does have a quarterback capable of beating teams on his own in Stafford, the conditions that will exist at Soldier Field in mid-November aren't quite as conducive to airing it out compared to the indoor environment of Ford Field.
It's unfair to say the Lions have regressed since their soaring start, as both of their losses have been to a pair of legitimate playoff contenders in San Francisco and Atlanta, but there's little question that the Bears are a better team now than the last time they faced Detroit. Chicago's defense has been performing at an extremely high level and won't have to deal with Best's speed and shiftiness out of the backfield, while Forte could be set up for another highly productive afternoon against the Lions' rather submissive run defense. While Detroit has proven it can beat quality opponents on the road and possesses two definite x-factors in Johnson and its outstanding pass rush, the Bears' better balance on offense and sound defensive play could ultimately win out provided they're able to properly take care of the football.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 26, Lions 20
11/11 15:55:13 ET