3TFO: Bears @ Lions, Week 4
The first matchup of the year between the Lions and the Bears has the NFC North lead hanging in the balance. The 2-1 Lions come home to face the 3-0 Bears after back-to-back road games. The Bears would take a commanding two-game divisional lead with a win, while a Lions victory would prove they are squarely back in the playoff conversation after a disappointing 2012.
You would have to go back to Week 5 of the 2011 season to find the last time the Lions beat the Bears, as the Lions lost both contests last season by a combined 8 points. There is reason to be optimistic though in Detroit. Matthew Stafford (+5.5) comes in as the sixth-highest graded quarterback this season, while Ndamukong Suh (+12.1) is PFF’s highest graded defensive tackle and is off to his best season yet. Even though they’re 2-1 there are also plenty of reasons to be apprehensive. So far the three teams Detroit has faced have one combined win. Neither of the Lions wins was in convincing fashion.
The Bears have also defeated two winless teams, but have looked arguably better doing it. The Bears have averaged over 30 points per game against quality defenses like the Steelers and the Bengals. All eyes have been on the Bears’ new offensive line that has afforded Jay Cutler (+6.7) the time to be our fourth-highest graded quarterback. It is worrisome though that the aging defense has conceded over 20 points in all three games, but a dominant performance on Sunday could erase those doubts.
Success vs. Bears Secondary
Lost in the Bears’ offensive success this season has been the regression of their pass defense. The big plays are still there, but the consistency is not. The Bears have let up over 80 yards more per game through the air than they did last season, as Tim Jennings has been the only positively graded player in the secondary, at +2.5.
Charles Tillman and Major Wright have been the main culprits. Tillman has given up 167 yards on the season and has the 12th-worst yards per coverage snap among cornerbacks. He’s also yet to have a pass defensed outside of his two interceptions in Week 1. After two weeks Wright looked like he could have been headed to the bench soon. The Bears safety allowed two big plays to A.J. Green in Week 1 and was beaten multiple times by Kyle Rudolph in Week 2, before redeeming himself with a pick-six in Week 3. Even after the interception, Wright has still allowed a quarterback rating against of 118.8.
This is great news for Stafford who has never really played well against the Bears. His combined grade in his six career games against the Bears is -6.2 and he’s graded positively only twice. He’ll have to take advantage of open throws downfield better than he has so far this season, however. On targets that traveled farther than 20 yards downfield, Stafford is just two of nine for 60 yards and no touchdowns.
Toughest Test Yet?
The Bears’ offensive line has faced two of the better 4-3 fronts in the league with the Vikings and the Bengals. This Sunday they may very well be facing the league’s best 4-3 front. If Ziggy Ansah and Willie Young continue their high level of play, no team can match them position for position.
Much has been made of the Bears’ offensive line yielding three sacks all season. The troubling thing is that while the sacks are down, the pressures haven’t declined at all. In fact, the Bears Pass Blocking Efficiency as a unit is actually worse than it was last season — 75.7 in 2012 compared to 73.8 this season. This suggests that some measure of luck and sample size has factored into that low sack total.
For the Bears to continue their success in keeping Cutler upright they’ll have to stop the 7th- and 12th-ranked 4-3 ends (Young/Ansah) in terms of PRP and the first and 11th-ranked defensive tackles (Suh/Fairley). The scary thing is that Nick Fairley (-1.0), PFF’s fifth-highest graded defensive tackle in 2012, has been a sleeping giant so far with a shoulder injury. The question isn’t if, but when he’ll put together a dominant performance. Look for the Bears to try to neutralize the pressure with extra blockers, which they’ve used 92 times in 113 drop-backs this season.
Can Collins Step Up?
The Bears learned this week that they’ll be without PFF’s 84th best player for the rest of the season after Henry Melton tore his ACL. If there is any silver lining to that news it’s that it would be almost impossible for his replacements to be playing worse than Melton was through three weeks. The franchise-tagged defensive tackle had a grade of -6.4, which was the worst of any defensive tackle by some margin. He had just two pressures in 74 pass rushes and wasn’t even interested in trying to defend the run most of the time.
Fourth-year defensive tackle Nate Collins appears primed to replace him, and his play has certainly earned it. This offseason I wrote about how impressed I was with him in his 247 snaps in 2012 for our Secret Superstar series. In 89 snaps this season Collins has doubled Melton’s pressure total while also maintaining a solid +0.4 run defense grade. It remains to be seen how he’ll adjust to a higher volume of snaps, but if his play so far is any indicator Bears fans have little reason to be concerned.
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