Here are five things to watch when the Bears open their season against the Lions on Sunday.
How Brian Urlacher fares against the Lions' tight ends: One of the best ways to test the limits of the Tampa 2 variation of Cover 2 is to attack the deep middle of the field and throw in the deep zone between the safeties, which is most often Urlacher’s responsibility. So Urlacher, who possesses the athleticism to consistently defend such tactics, plays an important role in coverage against Lions tight ends Tony Scheffler (known as a dangerous receiver) and Brandon Pettigrew. Look for Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan to move around the tight ends to find ideal matchups. Also, count on the Lions sending multiple vertical routes Urlacher’s way to force him -- while he’s dropping in coverage -- to try to read the eyes of Matthew Stafford and react. The Bears can’t afford for Urlacher to guess wrong.
Can Zack Bowman handle Calvin Johnson?: How Bowman fares against Johnson should go a long way toward deciding the game. Obviously, the Bears will deploy some coverages designed to give Bowman help on Johnson. But Bowman needs to hold his own when he’s the primary defender against Johnson. Johnson worked over Bowman in the first meeting between these teams last year, racking up more than 100 yards receiving in the first half, before the Bears put Charles Tilllman exclusively on the receiver. Bowman says he’s learned plenty from his times lining up against Johnson. Still, the receiver averaged seven catches for nearly 110 yards in two games last season against the Bears.
The Bears return men against the Lions’ coverage teams: The Bears’ ball boy might need to limber up prior to this matchup because there’s a good chance he could be sprinting up the sideline alongside Johnny Knox again on a long kickoff return. The simple fact is the Bears are loaded in the return game. Knox made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner in 2009. Manning led the league in kickoff return average in 2008, and punt returner Devin Hester is just two return touchdowns away from tying the all-time record. The winds at Soldier Field will likely make it impossible to kick the ball through the end zone consistently. So squib kicks aren’t out of the question for the Lions. It would be wise for them to angle the ball towards out of bounds on punts to keep it away from Hester.
How Lance Briggs defends against running back Jahvid Best: It’s not often said, but Briggs, the weak side linebacker, is one of the key components to success in the Bears’ scheme. On any given run play, the strong side linebacker (Pisa Tinoisamoa) and middle linebacker (Urlacher) deal with potential blocks from tight ends, fullbacks and offensive linemen, which frees up the weak side linebacker (Briggs) to make plays. Because of the requirements of the system, teammates taking on blocks will often spill the running back (Best) toward Briggs, who needs to tackle well against the Lions. Briggs missed some open-field tackles in the preseason, but can’t make such miscues against Best, who is considered a threat to go the distance on any play because of his speed.
Bears right tackle Frank Omiyale vs. Lions defensive end Cliff Avril: The matchup between Bears left tackle Chris Williams and Lions defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch gets all the publicity. But the battle between Omiyale and Avril is equally important to the Bears’ success. Frankly, Omiyale isn’t as athletic as teams want their right tackles to be; especially in a system such as Mike Martz’s. So lining up Omiyale across from Avril gives cause for concern. A quick and athletic pass rusher, Avril made 10.5 sacks over the last two seasons and might be a mismatch for the plodding Omiyale. The Bears will likely devote extra protection to Williams’ side to help with Vanden Bosch, but they might actually need it on Omiyale’s side.