Bears

Bears thinking Super Bowl, but worried about Lions

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Bears thinking Super Bowl, but worried about Lions

Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010
Posted: 10:40 a.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com

This time a year ago, the Bears were standing at 4-7 after a humiliation at the hands of Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings, the fourth in a string of losses that buried their season. The talk at that time was about playing for pride, because there wasn't much else to play for at that point.

Now they stand 8-3 after the fourth in a string of wins and, even if they don't want to utter the words, they are playing for a Super Bowl.

And they have been truly playing for one a lot longer than most outsiders were aware. Now they are being asked about games with Roman numerals and no one is laughing when they answer honestly.

"We've bottled up a lot of our emotions for a long time, and some of us get real excited -- we're 8-3 right now -- when people ask us questions about how we feel about ourselves," said linebacker Lance Briggs. "We want to jump out and tell you how we feel.

"But at the same time, you want to stay humble and you want to stay the course because we could get into the playoffs and have home-field advantage all the way through and lose the championship and never make it to the Super Bowl, you know. Then, to me, all would be lost."

What should concern the Bears

If the Bears are going to "lose" their 2010 Super Bowl, losing to the Detroit Lions would be a precipitous first step. And they know it.

"We've got to get past the Lions first and I think everyone in the locker room understands that," said quarterback Jay Cutler, going through one of the best stretches of his career.

While critics have continued to point to the first Detroit game as one the Bears were handed via a dubious call by an official, the Bears see a game that they dominated and could done so even more thoroughly.

"You look at the film and we left a lot of stuff out there," Cutler said. "We left a lot of points on the board, missed some big opportunities. We did really good things, did third downs well, red zone, limited the turnovers. If we do those things and keep improving on the little things, we're going to be in good shape."

The requisite cliche for division-rival games is that you can throw out the records. In this case, however, you might be better served to just push them a little off to the side and not entirely ignore them.

The win-loss record is one thing. Bears 8-3, Lions 2-9 and losers of 18 straight division games. The last time they won an NFC North game was in Chicago in 2007.

But while the Bears' offense has begun to look both competent and cohesive over the past four weeks, the Detroit one has been suspiciously more productive over this season as a whole than the Bears'.

The Lions have more substantially more passing first downs than the Bears (142-115); they complete a higher percentage of their passes (60.3-59.8); their quarterbacks have been sacked less than half as many times (20) as the Bears' (41).

Quarterback issues

Those numbers have not been put up for the most part by franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford but by backup Shaun Hill. Now both are injured and Drew Stanton will start, and Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli saw things in Stanton while Marinelli was Lions head coach that he would prefer not to see this Sunday.

"I know him," Marinelli said. "He's highly competitive. He's a great competitor. You treat him a little bit like No. 7 Michael Vick in Philly, in terms of, he can run. Once he gets out of the pocket, his accuracy goes up. Very impressed, because he's really developing as a pocket passer.

"You watch the New York Giant game, in the second half. He did a really nice job. And we know what he can do with his legs. He can extend plays."

The Lions return kickoffs on average (27.5 yards) farther than the Bears (26.5) and have a KOR TD, which the Bears do not. They have a rookie defensive tackle (Ndamukong Suh) with more sacks (eight) than any Bears defensive lineman.

No team scores touchdowns on a higher percentage (71) of their red-zone possessions than the Lions, who have come away with points on 87.4 of their red-zone opportunities.

The Bears have had four more red-zone possessions (35-31) than the Lions but score touchdowns only 45.7 percent of the time (24th). Simply put, if the Lions get close, they can be expected to draw blood.
Lions tamed
What the Lions do not do, however, is stop many people and they have, in fact, allowed more than 100 more points (282) than the Bears (172). They also allow 4.6 yards per rush vs. the Bears' 3.6.

Detroit allows an average of 128.6 rushing yards per game (26th) and the Bears have righted their season by rushing for more than 100 yards in each of the last four games, all wins, and averaged 34 carries and 125 yards per game.

The Lions' difficulties on defense are mildly surprising because of the upgrades Detroit made in an aggressive offseason of rebuilding the defensive line in particular: trading for tackle Cory Redding, signing free agent end Kyle Vanden Bosch and drafted Ndamukong Suh, a leading candidate for defensive rookie of the year with 8 sacks already, including one of Cutler in the opener.

"The thing that's impressive about these guys is they're relentless," said offensive coordinator Mike Martz. "The front is very impressive. The interior two guys are playing better than they have all year. They just get better. It's an impressive group to watch. It really is. They're better now obviously than what we played in the opener."

And one more thing ...

This is the NFL where "any given Sunday" lives. If the Cleveland Browns can ambush and annihilate the New England Patriots; if the Cincinnati Bengals can beat the Baltimore Ravens; then the Detroit Lions can ruin a Sunday afternoon for the Bears.

But not this one.

If the Lions are allowed to stay in this game into halftime and begin to believe they can win, the danger quotient for the Bears increases exponentially. But the Bears of the last four games have played with a purpose on offense behind a viable running game that has built confidence in their offensive line and quarterback.

A fifth straight game for Mike Martz calling more than 25 running plays will be a fifth straight Bears win.

Bears 30, Lions 10

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider, and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

As the Bears begin to form an identity, special teams need to catch up

As the Bears begin to form an identity, special teams need to catch up

If you squint, you can start to see the Bears forming an identity. The offense, at its best, will control the game with Jordan Howard and an offensive line that’s improving with cohesion over the last few weeks. The defense will stop the run, rarely blow assignments and — at least last week — force a few turnovers. 

Those can be the makings of a team that's at least competitive on a week-to-week basis. But they also leave out a critical segment of this group: Special teams. And that unit is obscuring whatever vision of an identity that may be coming into focus. 

Jeff Rodgers’ special teams unit ranks 29th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings, and is below average in all five categories the advanced statistics site tracks: field goals/extra points, kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts and punt returns. 

Had the Bears’ just merely "fine," for lack of a better term, on special teams Sunday, they would’ve controlled a win over the Baltimore Ravens from start to finish. But a 96-yard kickoff return (after the Bears went up 17-3) and a 77-yard punt return (which, after a two-point conversion, tied the game in the fourth quarter) were the Ravens’ only touchdowns of the game; they otherwise managed three field goals. 

Rodgers didn’t find much fault with the way the Bears covered Bobby Rainey’s kickoff return — he would’ve been down at the 23-yard line had the officiating crew ruled that Josh Bellamy got a hand on him as he was tumbling over. But the Bears players on the field (and, it should be said, a number of Ravens) stopped after Rainey hit the turf; he got up and dashed into the end zone for a momentum-shifting score. 

“A lot of our players stopped, all their players stopped,” Rodgers said. “There were players from both teams who came on to the field from the sideline. So there’s a lot of people on that particular play who thought the play was over.”

That return touchdown could be chalked up to an officiating-aided fluke, but Michael Campanaro’s punt return score was inexcusable given the situation of the game (up eight with just under two minutes left). The Bears checked into a max protect formation, and no players were able to wriggle free and get downfield toward Campanaro (Cre’von LeBlanc, who replaced an injured Sherrick McManis, was knocked to the turf). Rodgers said O’Donnell’s booming punt wasn’t the issue — it didn’t need to be directed out of bounds, he said — and instead pointed to a lack of execution by the other 10 players on the field. And not having McManis isn’t an excuse here. 

“We expect everybody to play at the standard at which that position plays,” Rodgers said. “I don’t put that touchdown on one guy getting hurt, but you’d always like to have your best players on the field.”

In isolation, the special teams mistakes the Bears have made this year can be explained — beyond these two returns, Marcus Cooper slowing up before the end zone was baffling, yet sort of fluky. But while the Bears’ arrow is pointing up on defense and, at the least, isn’t pointing down on offense, these special teams mistakes collective form a bad narrative. 

“We take those players, we practice it, and like all mistakes, you admit them and then you fix them,” coach John Fox said, “and then hope to God you don’t do it again.”

Even in a controlled gameplan, Mitchell Trubisky's playmaking ability shines through

Even in a controlled gameplan, Mitchell Trubisky's playmaking ability shines through

While the Bears praised Mitchell Trubisky’s operation of a controlled gameplan in his second NFL start, they’re not losing sight of the special kind of athleticism and playmaking ability the rookie quarterback possesses. Two plays in particular stand out — plays that led to anywhere from a five-to-10 point swing in the game. 

Trubisky’s 18-yard third down completion to Kendall Wright in overtime seems to looks better every time you watch it on film. Trubisky was pressured by two Baltimore Ravens pass rushers, but managed to wriggle free and slide to his right, only to find linebacker C.J. Mosley waiting in front of him. The blend of athleticism and aggressiveness Trubisky displayed in firing high over the middle toward Wright — who made a specular play of his own — is one of the many reasons why the Bears are so excited about him. 

“To be able to throw that ball with both hands in the air and changing your arm angle – that’s why you draft a kid second,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “Because of things like that.”

But there was another instinctual, athletic play Trubisky made that was just as impressive, and just as important. Cody Whitehair’s snapping issues cropped up at the Bears’ 13-yard line, with the center sailing a snap over Trubisky’s head and toward the end zone. 

If Baltimore recovered that ball, it would’ve tied the game; had Trubisky simply fell on the ball, it very well could’ve led to a safety that would’ve brought the Ravens within five points about a minute after the Bears took a 17-3 lead. Instead, Trubisky picked up the ball, scrambled to his right and threw the ball away — one of six throwaways he had on Sunday. 

“(That) was a critical, critical play at that time,” Loggains said. 

This isn't to say that two plays — only one of which gained yards — are enough to say the Bears' offense is in a good place. It's still a group that necessitates a controlled gameplan, similar to the one they used with Mike Glennon. But the difference: Trubisky can make plays. 

Briefly, on Whitehair

Since we’re on the subject of another poor snap by Whitehair, here’s what Loggains had to say on that topic: 

“He’s gotten better. We still had one too many. The thing and point I want to make with Cody Whitehair is, obviously wants to talk about the snap, but you’re talking about two weeks in a row of completely dominating. We’re an outside zone team that ran 25 snaps of inside zone because of what they were playing. It changed our game plan and Cody’s a big part of that. The last two weeks we’ve been able to move those guys inside. He’s a really good football player. 

“We’re going to battle through these snap issues. We’re cutting them down. He’s more accurate. He did have the one that obviously is unacceptable and no one owns that more than Cody Whitehair does. But he is a really good football player and let’s not lose sight of the 79 snaps where he really helped the team run the football and you can’t do that without a Cody Whitehair at center.”

Loggains has a point here — if Whitehair were struggling in the run game, against the defensive looks the Ravens were showing, the Bears wouldn’t have been able to run the ball 50 times with the kind of success they had. But the poor snaps nonetheless are ugly and have to be eliminated — imagine the uproar over them if Trubisky didn’t make that play in Baltimore. The Bears' offense won't always be good enough to overcome those kind of self-inflicted mistakes. 

Loggains and coach John Fox have praised Whitehair’s attention to the problem, and as long as Hroniss Grasu is still limited with a hand injury, Whitehair will have some time to work through these issues. One final thought: Who would’ve expected, back in May, that Whitehair would have the problems with snaps, and not Trubisky?