3TFO: Bears @ Lions, Week 17
It’s the last week of the NFL season, and that means divisional games and playoff pushes. The NFC North may already be decided, but a wildcard spot is still up for grabs and the Bears are squarely in the mix for it. For the Bears to claim that last spot they will need to beat the Lions and then have the Packers defeat the Vikings in Minnesota. When the season started this matchup looked like it could feature two playoff teams. That was before injuries and a string of close losses took their toll on the Lions. The up and coming team that made the playoffs last year has crumbled into the 4-11 mess that resembles the last decade of Detroit football.
The last time these two teams met, in Week 6, the result was an ugly 13-7 win for the Bears. The game was a microcosm for both teams’ seasons looking back at it. The Bears had trouble consistently moving the ball through the air, but relied on a staunch, opportunistic defense to pull out the game. The Lions were able to rack up yards, but ultimately turned it over too many times and couldn’t finish their comeback. Taking too much from the last meeting though, may prove unwise as both teams have suffered injuries to key players. I believe this time around the game will come down to these three keys.
Make Stafford Go Elsewhere
Matthew Stafford has made it fairly obvious where he feels comfortable throwing the ball the past few weeks. With Ryan Broyles, Titus Young, and Nate Burleson all on IR, the targets have been piling up for Calvin Johnson. In the Past three games Johnson has been targeted 45 times, a pace that would lead to 240 targets over the course of a season. Unsurprisingly, Johnson has had at least 10 catches and 100 yards in all three games, and a combined grade of +5.6. For this production to continue though, Johnson will have to be on his ‘A’ game.
Johnson came away from his last meeting with the Bears with only three catches on 12 targets, with his longest reception being only 16 yards. The main reason for this was the exceptional physical play of Charles Tillman. Tillman may need a little more help this time around though, as he has been slowed lately with a rib injury and is fresh off one of his worst games of the season at the hands of Larry Fitzgerald. The Bears are able to, and should, provide him with linebacker and safety help given the lack of receiving threats on the Lions. If they can hold Johnson to the same numbers as their last matchup, it will be a long day for the Lions’ offense.
Disruption From the Middle
The loss of Nick Fairley is a huge blow for the Lions in this contest. Fairley was developing into one of the best 4-3 defensive tackles in the game, and his matchup would have been most favorable. That being said, Sammie Lee Hill has flashed some very impressive ability this season despite his spot playing time. For the Lions to stop the Bears’ offense they will need pressure from Hill and Ndamukong Suh, and they are both certainly capable. Suh and Hill rank third and 16th respectively in Pass Rushing Productivity among defensive tackles, very favorable rankings compared to their counterparts.
The Bears’ offensive line has been much maligned this season, and it has only worsened with the injuries it has sustained. James Brown and Chris Spencer will be the starting guards Sunday, and neither were opening-day starters. Brown and Spencer have Pass Blocking Efficiencies of 93.6 and 94.9 respectively, both well below average. This matchup is one the Lions can win, and they will need to win handily to make up for other defensive shortcomings..
Take Pressure Off Cutler
Much of the talk in Chicago ever since the loss to Green Bay has centered on Lovie Smith and Jay Cutler. The pressure that is on both to win this game and make the playoffs is enormous. That is why one of the keys for Mike Tice and the Bears in this game is to take the pressure off Cutler and not try to have him ‘win’ the game. I say that because the game figures to be a low-scoring affair, and the Bears can’t afford to give points away. In the last contest it was the Lions who gave away points and it ultimately cost them.
For the Bears to move the ball they will need to have success in their ground game, and success with short passes. Injuries to their offensive line and Matt Forte could make a tall task. They do have a good matchup though. While I highlighted Suh and Hill’s pass rushing prowess, both have been burned this season on the ground, and both have negative grades against the run. The Lions have PFF’s 29th ranked run defense (18th in terms of yardage) and will be without Fairley. Much of that ranking also comes from the subpar play of the Lions’ linebackers this year. Stephen Tulloch was a revelation last year for the Lions on their run to the playoffs, but this year has been a different story. Tulloch has the fourth-worst Tackling Efficiency among middle linebackers, and has given up 77% of his passes in coverage. Even if Forte is unable to go, the Bears must take advantage of the Lions poor run defense.
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