Published November 20, 2014
Lovie Smith's teams always seem to have opportunistic defenses but his latest group is taking it to another level and will get a chance to show off its acumen on national television.
Smith's NFC North-leading Chicago Bears welcome division rival Detroit to Soldier Field for Monday Night Football.
The Bears are a perfect 2-0 in the Windy City this season and have had plenty of rest after dismantling Jacksonville, 41-3, in Week 5.
Chicago has been led by its aforementioned defense, becoming the first team in NFL history with five interception-return touchdowns in their first five games.
The Bears "D," which allows an NFL-low 14.2 points per game, has returned an interception for a touchdown in each of its past three games and star linebacker Lance Briggs, along with cornerback Charles Tillman are the first set of teammates in NFL history to each have a pick-six in consecutive contests.
"I just know that we need to keep it going," Smith said. "Taking the ball away is a part of a good defensive game for us. We can't wait for them to turn the ball over. We have to go and get it. I think it's just a mindset. We have guys that have been around here a long time."
It will be Matthew Stafford's job to navigate that minefield, eight days after possibly saving the Lions season in a 26-23 overtime win at Philadelphia.
The venerable Jason Hanson tied that game with a field goal in regulation and won it in overtime. Hanson went 4-for-4 and also added two extra points to move past John Carney into third place on the NFL's all-time scoring list.
"I think it was a big step for us as a team, playing team football today and it was a lot of spirit and guys picking each other up," Lions coach Jim Schwartz told the team's website. "I think that's a good sign of things to come for this team."
Stafford was off for much of the game, but he led the team on three scoring drives in the fourth quarter and the game-winner in overtime. He finished the game 22-for-45 with 311 yards, one touchdown and one interception for the Lions, who won for the first time since opening the season with a win over St. Louis. Stafford also ran in a score.
"It's huge because we really needed this," said Detroit defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. "We just needed to play well and get back on track."
Calvin Johnson was also quiet for much of the game, but he finished the contest with six catches for 135 yards while Nate Burleson caught a score for Detroit, which snapped a six-game losing streak to Philadelphia and won despite accumulating 16 penalties.
"Every guy in that locker room never stops fighting and that's what got us the win," said Stafford. "We can't make it this hard on ourselves every week. We understand that. But at the same time, a win is a win in the NFL and they don't always come easy."
The last time Chicago was on the field back on Oct. 7 in Jacksonville, Jay Cutler had two touchdown passes and the Bears defense returned a pair of interceptions into the end zone as Chicago crushed the Jags.
Cutler went 23-for-39 with 292 yards and an interception, while Brandon Marshall had 12 catches for 144 yards and a score for the Bears, who have won their past three games. Matt Forte finished the game with 107 yards on 22 carries and also had two catches for 20 yards.
"I thought he played well like he's been playing," Smith said of Cutler. "Jay's put two good weeks together back-to-back like our offense has. Jay's as good as anyone out there, simple as that."
This is one of the oldest rivalries in football with the Bears holding a 94-65-5 all-time edge, including seven of the past eight. The last time the teams met in the Second City on Nov. 13 of last year they got into a big skirmish Stafford ripped off D.J. Moore's helmet during a Tim Jennings interception return.
"There's always going to be bad blood," Jennings told the Bears' website. "Just the fact that we're Chicago and they're Detroit, and they're in our division and we know we have to go through one another to get to that championship that we need to get to, there's always going to be bad blood with them."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Obviously ball security will be paramount in this game and Stafford will need to keep the sharks at bay, even if it means playing dink-and-dunk all night.
Johnson's presence outside the numbers spooks most opposing defensive coordinators and the Lions, who average an NFC-best 419.6 yards per game, have probably seen more cover-2 than other NFL team so far this season.
They'll get more of the same against Chicago but only magnified since the Bears, who give up just 291.2 yards per game, bring so many ball hawks to the dance. Julius Peppers and Brian Urlacher are the big names with the big reputations but Briggs and Tillman have been the big producers. Meanwhile, defensive lineman Isreal Idonije and Henry Melton along with Jennings have also been extremely effective so far this season.
The problem for Detroit is that it lacks a competent running game so moving the ball through the air is a necessity for this team to have a chance.
The Lions have plenty of weapons. Johnson's main co-stars are fellow receiver Burleson and tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who have combined for 82 catches through five games.
Defensively, Detroit has an excellent front seven but the defensive backfield is shaky at best and the team re-signed cornerback Alphonso Smith on Thursday in an effort to shore up a position that's presently depleted by injuries.
Smith was a 10-game starter for Detroit in 2010 and led the team with five interceptions that season, then compiled 27 tackles and three picks over 11 games (1 start) last year. He was released by the Lions during final cuts following this preseason.
Detroit entered the week with only Chris Houston and rookie Jonte Green as the club's only healthy cornerbacks, with Jacob Lacey (concussion) and 2012 third- round pick Bill Bentley (shoulder) both injured during Sunday's 26-23 overtime win at Philadelphia. Having free safety Louis Delmas back from knee injury helps, however.
Delmas had one of the Lions' two interceptions against the Eagles after the club had gone without a pick in its first four games.
"Turnover ratio is well-documented as being part of success," Schwartz said. "But I think we need to worry about executing schemes, making plays, those kind of things. And when you do, you'll take care of the football and also you'll have a chance to get the football."
The trends point toward Chicago here. The Bears are an impressive 8-2 on Monday night under Smith and have outscored Detroit by over 14 points per game during a four-game home winning streak in the series.
Stafford, however, won his only MNF start vs. the Bears on Oct. 10, 2011. One of the most talented quarterbacks in the NFL, Stafford has been pedestrian so far this season, compiling a mediocre 79.2 passer rating. He did, however, show some of the old zip in the fourth quarter against Philadelphia last Sunday. For the Lions to have a shot here, the Georgia product will need to make big plays minus the turnovers and that might not be untenable against this Bears defense.
"Our division took a step up," Smith said when talking about the competition in the NFC North. "None of that really matters for us. We like the position we're in. Detroit, this week ... I'm sure they've been waiting for this game for a long time."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 24, Lions 14