By Ashley Dunkak
Even in a league renowned for parity, some games mean more than others.
For the Detroit Lions, this Sunday’s contest at Ford Field falls into that category. In a matchup against the undefeated Chicago Bears, the Lions can surpass last season’s win total and deal a strike against a disdained division rival.
“There’s no love lost,” longtime Detroit center Dominic Raiola said. “Everything’s turned up.”
Traditionally, even when they Lions play poorly over the course of a season, they put up a heck of a fight against the Bears. Sunday’s game should be no different. On 97.1 The Ticket, Schwartz outlined the Lions’ strategy against Chicago.
Detroit lost wide receiver Nate Burleson for an undetermined amount of time when Burleson broke both bones in his left forearm during a 2:25 a.m. car crash Monday night, so the Lions will be a bit short-handed on offense. They will count on everyone to step up and pick up the slack as the organization has not been vocal about trading for another receiver.
Even though losing Burleson means more playing time for less experienced players, the offense needs to be seamless and precise. The Bears will take advantage of bad decisions. They lead the league in turnovers forced with 12, and they also top the charts for turnover margin at plus-6. Essentially, Chicago makes few mistakes and makes others make lots of them.
“When we’ve played well against these guys, we haven’t turned the ball over,” Schwartz said. “When we’ve turned the ball over, it’s very difficult to beat them.”
Forever led by the indomitable Brian Urlacher, who retired this season. the Bears defense looks a little different. Besides Urlacher’s absence, defensive tackle Henry Melton is out for the year after tearing his ACL, and cornerback Charles Tillman is day-to-day with a groin injury.
All that aside, Schwartz said Chicago’s defense is still plenty strong enough to warrant concern, even without Urlacher.
“When you think of the Bears, you think of Brian Urlacher in that middle linebacker position,” Schwartz said. “He’s been there so long, he made such an impact, not just on that team but around the league with the way he played things. People tried to copy it and things like that. It will be strange – it is strange watching their defense without him back there.
“But there’s still plenty of other guys to be concerned with,” Schwartz continued. “[Linebacker] Lance Briggs is still playing at a high level, Julius Peppers, [Corey] Wootton, their other defensive end, [Shea] McClellin. They have three defensive ends that are all productive, that play well, and it’s not just [Charles] Tillman. I think all four of their guys in the secondary – both corners and both safeties – all have interceptions and I think three pick sixes, so there’s plenty of other good players on that defense, and they’ve been very opportunistic.”
Whether or not Detroit running back Reggie Bush will play after a knee injury two weeks ago is still up in the air, but against such a tough defense, it would certainly help to have Bush back, perhaps even as a decoy if nothing else. In addition, the revamped offensive line will have another tough test, but if they can give quarterback Matthew Stafford a decent amount of time, the Lions’ attack can still be a powerful one, even without Burleson, who had 116 receiving yards against Washington.
So much is always made of the Bears defense that it is often easy to overlook Chicago’s offense. To do that, Schwartz says, is a big mistake, especially with quarterback Jay Cutler benefiting from better protection and dual-threat running back Matt Forte carving up defenses all over the league. Getting pressure on Cutler is key, but the precursor to that is limiting Forte.
“He runs the ball very well, catches the ball out of the backfield, he’s a real weapon for them,” Schwartz said. “I talked about the quarterback throwing the ball quick. He can only throw the ball quick if they have third down and short, third down and medium. It’s hard to throw it quick when it’s third down and 14 or second and long and those situations. So our key to being able to stop Cutler is also being able to take Matt Forte away from their offense and be able to get some pressure on the quarterback.”
Schwartz recognizes Forte as one of the best dual-threat running backs in the league. Indeed, Forte has logged 225 yards on 55 carries and snagged 18 of 20 passes thrown at him for 138 yards. Schwartz emphasized the importance of stopping the run at Arizona and at Washington, and he says Chicago is no different.
“A lot of those screen passes and checkdowns and things like that are just an extension of their run game,” Schwartz said. “But if we do that well, if we can get the run game stopped, it plays to our strengths, it lets our guys up front rush a little bit more. It all goes hand in hand.
“[Forte's] a really a skilled running back and can do a lot of things for them, and he’s also a very good pass protector,” Schwartz added. “They’ve used him a lot in protection. They have a lot more seven-man protection this year than they’ve shown in the past, so he’s a big key to the game.”
The Lions faced Arizona’s fearsome returner Patrick Peterson two weeks ago, and Sunday they will try to contain another of the game’s best special teams players – Devin Hester.
Allowing Hester to get loose for a touchdown in the return game would certainly be a staggering blow for Detroit, and so as much as the Lions need to focus on avoiding turnovers and containing Forte, Hester still merits plenty of attention.
“it’s a little bit of a different scheme, but they still have Devin Hester, and he’s one of the best dual returners of all time,” Schwartz said.