The dominant story of Sunday afternoon will be whether or not Jay Cutler is 100 percent after missing only one game with a torn groin muscle, but the real story to pay attention to will be the battle between the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions for the top spot in the NFC North.
So how can the Bears pick up a victory over a team that ran roughshod over them six weeks ago?
Here are our five keys to the game:
The Offense Must Show Shotgun Early and Often
If there is one overarching concern about the health of Cutler, it’s a question of whether or not he can handle the three and five step drops that are required of quarterbacks when they are under center. He looked decently healthy when he practiced with the team this week, but doing those moves and doing the actual moves that he will have to do in the game itself are two different animals.
With that in mind, the Bears would be smart to continue incorporating a good amount of shotgun formations to help Cutler out. They have done that quite a bit overall this season in Marc Trestman’s offense, but if there is going to be any adjustment made because of Cutler’s groin, the shotgun would be a good place to start.
Where the Bears place Cutler at the snap is going to be especially critical against a Lions team that feasts on quarterbacks. With guys like N’Damukong Suh leading the charge, the Lions have one of the most fearsome pass rushing units in the league, and even though the Bears’ offensive line has been largely good this season, all it takes is one good hit for Detroit to potentially knock Cutler back out of the game on Sunday.
With that in mind, setting him back in the shotgun is the smartest move to make, since it not only gives him more time to survey the field before getting rid of the ball, but also so that he can limit the number of cuts and moves he has to make on a groin that may not be at 100 percent.
Marshall, Jeffery Must Keep Up Their Blocking Game
For those who are familiar with Pro Football Focus’ grading system, it won’t come as a surprise when it’s stated that Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are the best downfield blocking tandem among NFL wide receivers. They are constantly pushing around cornerbacks and safeties as they set up running lanes not only for each other, but also for guys like Matt Forte and Earl Bennett.
That ability to block downfield is going to be especially critical against the Lions. With so much of their defensive attention predicated on getting to the quarterback, the Lions are a team especially vulnerable to screen passes and quick slants, and getting blocking downfield from wide receivers could result in some big gains for the Bears both in the running and passing games.
Can the Pass Rush Thrive Without McClellin?
A week after he racked up three sacks against the Green Bay Packers, the Bears will likely be without Shea McCellin against the Lions on Sunday as he recovers from a hamstring injury that he suffered during practice on Thursday.
This loss is not exactly going to hurt the Bears against the Lions’ running game, as McClellin is arguably the worst defensive end in the league when facing running plays. Teams routinely will set up their formations to deliberately run it at McClellin’s side of the line, and his inability to shed blocks even against tight ends has been a source of consternation for fans and coaches alike.
Against the pass though, the loss of McClellin will be especially painful. Obviously, one game does not a season make, but it appeared as though he was finally getting used to throwing a second move against offensive linemen instead of just settling for one and hoping that it would work, and losing him to a hamstring injury would only set those efforts back.
As for replacing him, that job will fall mostly to David Bass. The team could move Corey Wootton back to the end slot and try to plug in somebody else at defensive tackle, but after working with him for a while at the three-technique, it would seem silly to toss all that work out and shift Wootton out. With that in mind, it’s going to be crucial for Bass to get around the edge and try to get pressure on Matthew Stafford.
With a combination of great blocking and quick throws, the Lions have given up only 10 sacks this season, the fewest in the NFL. If the Bears are going to buck that trend and actually get to Stafford, then it will have to be guys like Bass and Julius Peppers who will have to do the job.
Safeties Must Keep Bush in Check
We wrote earlier this week about the difficulties that safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte have been having recently against the running game, and they will be in for a huge test this week against Reggie Bush.
Last week against the Packers, both Conte and Wright had a couple of bad plays against the run, with Conte’s error being the biggest one in allowing Eddie Lacy to unleash a 56-yard run. On that play, Conte cut in towards the line of scrimmage to try to head Lacy off, but if he had instead cut away from the line of scrimmage, he would have had a much better angle to try to stop the Packers’ running back.
Against an elusive guy like Bush, the safeties are going to have to make sure that they not only get into the correct gaps should they be tasked with coming up to the line on run prevention, but they also will have to be sure footed and smart in tackling in the open field. Too often this season both players have overrun ball carriers, leaving linebackers to try to clean up the messes that Conte and Wright have created. They absolutely cannot do that against the Lions, or it will be a long day for the Bears’ defense.
Tillman vs. Johnson: Who Will Win the Walking Wounded War?
Despite coming off of a bye week, Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson was limited in practice all week with a knee injury. He is listed as probable on the Lions’ injury report, but the injury is one he’s been suffering from nearly all season, and it doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon.
Meanwhile, the Bears have been dealing with a series of injuries to cornerback Charles Tillman, with a knee injury being the latest one to hamper him. Fortunately for Chicago, Tillman was a full participant in practice on both Thursday and Friday (he would have been limited if the team had practiced Wednesday) and he is also listed as probable on the team’s injury report.
With both players hobbled with injuries, the question becomes which guy will actually be able to fare better? Obviously, Johnson still has the potential to go off for a big day, as he did in Week 8 against the Dallas Cowboys when he caught 14 passes for 329 yards and a touchdown, but Tillman is still a crafty veteran who has enjoyed a good amount of success against Johnson in his career, so the matchup could very well be a toss-up on Sunday.
That being said, Tillman is going to be critical in stopping the Lions’ best receiving threat. With Nate Burleson still a week away and with Ryan Broyles out for the year with an injury, Detroit is running low on options to throw to, and it will be up to Tillman to make sure that Stafford doesn’t have an easy day in this game.