Posted October 23, 2012

Bears bend, refuse to break in win over mistake-prone Lions

Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions

Brian Urlacher and Chicago’s defense reclaimed the league lead in forced turnovers vs. Detroit. (US PRESSWIRE)

The Chicago Bears are 5-1 and in first place in the NFC North. The Detroit Lions are 2-4 and in last.

At the risk of oversimplifying why all that is true, it basically boils down to this: The Lions make mistakes, and the Bears force other teams to make mistakes.

Sure, a lot of the Lions’ wounds were self-induced in Monday’s 13-7 loss to Chicago — Detroit receivers dropped several passes, with even Calvin Johnson letting a potential big-gainer slip through his hands early; Mikel Leshoure, Joique Bell and Stefan Logan all fumbled, with at least two being relatively unforced; and Matthew Stafford again struggled to find his release point, misfiring on more than one occasion.

But this is sort of how Chicago lives most weeks. The Bears have this rope-a-dope strategy down pat — they’ll let a team get its yards, pick up a few first downs even, but they’re always waiting for their next opportunity to rip the momentum away.

Three times in the second half Monday, Detroit ventured into the Chicago red zone. All three possessions ended with a turnover.

Leshoure let one slip away near the 20, then Bell fumbled diving for the goal line. Later, in the closing moments of the fourth quarter, with the Lions in desperation mode, Stafford rolled right on a 4th-and-goal and fired an interception.

The Bears entered this game having forced 17 turnovers on the season, one off the league lead. With some help from a confusingly inept Detroit offense, they retook their place atop that throne.

“Good team defense, we got some takeaways when we had to,” Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher said. “Same thing we’ve been doing all year long.”

Urlacher also briefly credited the Bears’ Cover-2 scheme to Monday’s success, and it’s not the first time the Lions have seen that look this year. Step one to taking the Lions’ offense out of its groove, after all, is to limit Calvin Johnson.

Like the opposing defensive coordinators before him, ex-Lions coach Rod Marinelli did that by using a cornerback in tight man coverage and placing safety help over the top. That CB Charles Tillman barely required the safety help in holding Johnson to three catches for 34 yards only made Marinelli’s job easier.

Tillman even broke up a fade pass to Johnson in the end zone, one play before Bell put the ball on the deck.

Bend … bend … bend … but never break.

“It’s amazing, it really is,” Bears QB Jay Cutler said of his defense’s play.

Letting the Lions hang around is a dangerous proposition, as the Eagles found out last week when they blew a 10-point lead late and lost in overtime.

Unlike in that game, though, the Lions could not get out of their own way long enough to muster more than a single scoring drive. With another frustrating offensive effort will come more questions about Stafford’s apparent regression, as well as criticism for guys like Brandon Pettigrew and Titus Young, who were expected to help ease Johnson’s burden in 2012.

The Lions will face another elite defensive unit next week when Seattle visits Ford Field, and a loss there might totally bury Detroit’s dwindling playoff hopes.

Right now, there’s little doubt that the Lions are playing like the fourth-best team in the NFC North. There is also no getting around the fact that Chicago deserves to be where it is in the standings.

The lone blemish on the Bears’ record is a 23-10 Week 2 loss to Green Bay, in which Jay Cutler’s offensive line deserted him. Aside from that, Monday’s six-point win — which was only that close in the end because of a very late Stafford TD pass to rookie Ryan Broyles — stands as Chicago’s slimmest margin of victory.

Cutler did not have a banner night Monday, especially after he briefly left the game because of a vicious sack by Ndamukong Suh. He did, however, hit Brandon Marshall six times with one of those connections resulting in a touchdown.

More importantly, given what occurred when Detroit was on the field, Cutler took care of the football, even though he was on the receiving end of five sacks.

“We fought through a little bit,” Cutler said. “But the defense was playing so well, we just hoped we could ride it out.”

If only Stafford’s offense had done the same. The Lions defense, despite failing to force any turnovers, played another solid game — perhaps opening the eyes of those who still think Detroit’s main issue is stopping the other team.

That effort was not enough to overcome a minus-four turnover differential, a stat that can be pinned almost entirely on Detroit’s offense.

But the Lions were not the first team to walk away flustered by Chicago’s defensive effort … and it’s hard to imagine that they’ll be the last.

“They’re so fast to the ball, and the (defensive backs) are playing well,” Cutler said. “I’m just glad we don’t have to play ‘em.”

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