With the season slowly slipping away from the Detroit Lions, they need to come up big this week against their rivals, the Chicago Bears. The Bears' playoff chances are hanging by a thread, but their two-game winning streak has them still technically in the race. The Bears have been a huge disappointment this season, with a struggling offense and a defense that has had some embarrassing performances. The Lions have had a fair amount of struggles of their own, but let's look at some ways they'll be able to take advantage of some of the Bears' shortcomings.
There is something wrong with the Bears' offense, but it's hard to tell what. They have three very talented receiving options in Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Martellus Bennett. They have a top-tier running back in Matt Forte. Their offensive line isn't great, but Football Outsiders has them in the top half of the league in run blocking and pass protection. Jay Cutler isn't lighting teams up, but his passer rating of 93.0 is as good as Russell Wilson (and much better than Matthew Stafford).
Yet, despite all of this talent, the Bears rank 19th in points per game, averaging just 21.5 points a week. The Bears offense is just not anywhere near the sum of its parts (sound familiar?). Yet, if we dig a little deeper, we can find out why this talented group is not performing up to expectations.
One big issue has been left guard. In their brutal loss to the New England Patriots, starting left guard Matt Slauson tore his pectoral muscle and is now gone for the season. The Bears used backup center Brian de la Puente to replace Slauson. Let's see how that has gone:
I'll go with: not well.
As you can see on the second play, the Bears have had to use extra resources to make up for Puente's struggles, sometimes using a running back in pass protection and often offering help from the center position.
But Puente's troubles are only likely to get worse when dealing with someone like this:
Ndamukong Suh alone should be able to create a lot of pressure in this game and stymie the Bears' rushing attack. Making the Bears' offense one-dimensional is exactly the blueprint to beat them.
The days of the Bears' dominant defense are long gone. However, this group isn't quite as bad as you'd think. Granted, they gave up 50+ points to the Patriots and Green Bay Packers in back-to-back weeks, but even with those games included, the Bears rank 12th in run defense (by yards) and 29th in pass defense. Okay, so they're still not very good, but the notion that the Lions' struggling offense will run over the Bears' defense is a bit too presumptuous.
But where the Bears really struggle is defending the pass. In the past four weeks, the Bears have allowed five receivers to hit the 100-yard mark (including one tight end). The Bears are especially susceptible to giving up the big play. They have allowed the fourth-most pass plays of 40+ yards (11) and the third-most plays of 20+ yards (42). When a defense continually allows big plays on defense, you look for poor safety play. And you find exactly that with the Bears.
Now, it's hard to completely blame the safety on this play, but the cornerback clearly expected help from the one-high defender. The safety, Brock Vereen, is distracted by the seam route up the middle of the field, which Aaron Rodgers cleverly stares down. As soon as he has frozen the safety, he knows Jordy Nelson is wide open. Nelson makes the easy catch, jukes Vereen and scores.
Just one series later, it was Ryan Mundy who was victimized:
Again, we see the cornerback release coverage of Nelson to the safety. However, Mundy, too, is distracted by the seam route and leaves Nelson by himself for another easy touchdown.
So what do we take from this? Multiple vertical routes put pressure on the safeties to make a decision on their coverage. If this Packers game is any sign, the safeties are not very good at making that decision. The Lions will need to utilize their players who can stretch the field and challenge this weakness. Of course, developing deep routes necessitates good pass protection from the offensive line, which hasn't exactly been the Lions' forte this year. But if they can buy Stafford some time, we may see a few big splash plays from him on Thursday.