By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
The Chicago Bears are deep in it now, the half way point of the season has come and gone and they are in a good place, a division-winning place.
With the latter eight games of 2018 beginning this week as the 5-3 Bears host the 3-5 Detroit Lions, the added pressure of expectations of reaching the playoffs arrive along with the possibilities of taking control of the NFC North.
All season so far, dating all the way back to coach Matt Nagy’s first press conference, the Bears have tried to downplay expectations for this season. Fast forward to week 10 and the Bears can no longer downplay their situation as they begin a critical stretch of three straight division games in 12 days.
This week against the Lions is perhaps the Bears’ best opportunity for a win in that truncated stretch, which continues with a looming (and now prime-time) affair against the Vikings the following Sunday and a rematch on Thanksgiving against the Lions in Detroit.
It will not be an easy November for the Bears, but some good news came this week when both edge rusher Khalil Mack and wide receiver Allen Robinson returned as full participants in practice on Wednesday. These two players will be huge additions for the team with their play on the field, if they continued their run in street clothes it’d be much more of a waste going into these divisional games.
Nationally, the Bears are garnering mixed opinions, in particular with the offense.
Many believe the defense can be legitimate but questions arise such as “who has Chicago really beaten?” are making the talking heads skittish to give praise. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky has maintained as a controversial topic in year two of his career, with some believing the Bears made a terrible mistake in drafting him over the likes of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson.
Trubisky has the ability to start the process of changing his perception if he is able to put together strong play during this critical stretch in the season.
Here are the four goals for the Bears to conquer the desperate Lions with playoff implications on the line.
“Go Deep, Young Man, Go Deep” — As you can see by the statistical breakdown, the Bears are a high scoring team with a top ten rushing attack.
A sizable chunk of the rushing attack has come from Trubisky, which is fine as long as he is smart with sliding and staying out of harm’s way. The problem area statistically for the offense is the pass yards per game, which ranks 21st in the league.
The ineptitude of the Jets and Bills to put up points was very apparent in the past two weeks, and even though the Lions have struggled in this area as well, the Bears cannot continue to succeed without creating some big plays down the field from the offense. There is far too much upside to putting the ball up in the air in today’s NFL.
Last week, one of the biggest plays for the Bears offense came from a pass interference call on a deep ball to wide receiver Taylor Gabriel. Throwing deep down field has too much upside for the Bears to shy away from it even if Trubisky has struggled with accuracy. Trubisky and Nagy must find ways to gain some chunk plays and start making it a reliable aspect of the offense, this will go a long way towards scoring points and winning at home against a division rival.
More Andrew Siciliano and Red Zone — If the Bears are able to complete the first goal then they should be able to reach the red zone often and the Bears have been a good team when they can get into that part of the field.
In total, the Bears have reached the red zone 29 times and scored on 19 of those opportunities, which has Chicago tied for the 10th best rating in the league as well as the 9th best red zone scoring percentage at 65.5%. The Bears have done an excellent job of scoring points and this Lions team comes in desperate for a victory or their playoff chances will be in serious jeopardy, if not eliminated entirely.
The offense has to expect to be in a shootout against Matthew Stafford and the Lions since the veteran Detroit quarterback has had an excellent track record against the Bears in recent seasons. If the Bears’ offense is doing their part for a victory it will mean that the offense will continue to do what it has done in prior weeks, which is be an efficient team in the red zone.
Keep the Lions Rush Attack Famished — The Lions have been one of the worst rushing teams in the league in recent years.
Earlier in September, the Lions broke a streak that lasted 70 games in which they did not have a 100 yard rusher, a staggering streak that almost seems impossible but even with the record-breaking performance of rookie running back Kerryon Johnson and a good offensive line this season, the Lions are only 20th in rushing yards a game. The Lions have won big twice this year when they rushed each time for over a 100 yards, their only other victory came when the Packers missed 13 points in kicks.
The Bears’ run defense is suffocating and has done an excellent job making opposing offenses one dimensional, they have to continue this trend. Stafford can be a lethal passer regardless, but when the Lions are a balanced with their attack, it raises the level of play for the entire team. The first step in shutting down the Lions is by not giving up any free yards in the run game.
10? Make it 11 — Matthew Stafford’s reputation as a gunslinger precedes him, but the Lions passing offense hasn’t even been its usual self so far this season. Throughout his career Stafford has consistently been at the top of the league in passing yards, but it has been a different story this year as he sits 16th.
The Lions are just ahead of the Bears in passing offense, currently ranking 20th best in the league. To make matters worse, the Lions traded away their best receiver in Golden Tate to the Eagles before the trade deadline. Stafford doesn’t have the stable of weapons that he has become accustomed too.
A silver lining in Detroit has been the offensive line, or had been. After entering their game last week against the Minnesota Vikings giving up only 13 sacks, the Vikings were able to collect 10 sacks alone in that game and pushed the Lions to 15th in the league in sacks given up after being one of the league’s best.
Tied for fifth in the NFL sacks with 24, the Bears are incidentally tied with the Lions in that category but only the Bears are likely getting a big addition this week in Khalil Mack’s return.
If the Bears can get after Stafford and not allow him to have time for accurate downfield throws, then the Bears should end the Sunday with a big division win.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR