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Lions vs. Bears preview


When: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Soldier Field, Chicago TV: Fox

The Chicago Bears' brass spewed plenty of tough talk after Lovie Smith’s firing about plans to close the gap on the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North.

But while Chicago was talking grand plans, the rest of the division was actually executing them, which is how we’ve come into Sunday’s matchup at Soldier Field with the last-place Bears hosting the NFC North-leading Detroit Lions.

ESPN Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and Lions reporter Michael Rothstein break down the matchup:

Wright: Looking at all the playoff scenarios, it’s clear all the Lions need to worry about is winning Sunday against the Bears. That has to be a refreshing feeling considering all this franchise has been through. What is the mood in the locker room, how confident is this team headed into such a crucial stretch, and do you feel the Lions are catching fire at just the right time?

Rothstein: That's all the Lions have been talking about, Michael. You ask a playoff question, you’re pretty much getting an answer about focusing on Chicago or beating Chicago. Personally, I was hoping there would be a Lions player this week who would answer every question with just the word "Chicago." That could have been entertaining. It all starts with coach Jim Caldwell, though. He won’t talk about the playoffs with anybody, not even his family. Considering how much the Lions have really bought into all of his motivational messages this season, it isn’t surprising they have continued doing that. As far as catching fire, Detroit’s defense has been consistent all season. The offense seems to vary depending on the opponent. Facing the Bears could be a good thing for the Lions since Chicago’s defense is one of the worst in the league.

The last time Detroit faced Chicago, the Bears seemed to be in a bit of a downward spiral. How has it gotten worse over the past four weeks?

Wright: Oh, Mike, let me count the ways. Instead of this being a "downward spiral," it’s now just a cliff with essentially everyone -- from team president Ted Phillips to the equipment staff -- trying desperately to prevent the inevitable tumble off the edge. Two nationally televised embarrassments in a row at Soldier Field in losses to Dallas and New Orleans. Do you realize nearly 11,000 fans didn’t show up for the club’s dismal showing against the Saints? Mike, you know it’s bad when you have a nationally televised game on tap, yet all the coverage throughout the week focuses on offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer’s tearful admission that he was the anonymous source for a report by the NFL Network, and the ensuing fallout from that. Right now, do you think the media in Chicago is talking about Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson or Ndamukong Suh? Nope. All the questions and speculation going into this game concern the futures of general manager Phil Emery, the coaching staff and whether ownership can stomach enough of this futility to resist cleaning house before the conclusion of the regular season. Mike, it’s bad. Very bad. It’s worse than anything I’ve ever covered, and the feeling I get is this team has thrown in the towel and is simply anticipating what appears to be the inevitable. I don't think news this week of the team naming quarterback Jimmy Clausen the starter over Jay Cutler eases the drama.

When the Lions first hired Caldwell, there was skepticism about his abilities as a head coach. There is no doubting Caldwell now, in my opinion. How different is the players' belief in Caldwell as this team’s leader compared to how they felt with Jim Schwartz?

Rothstein: I will readily admit I was one of Caldwell's biggest doubters, even at his opening news conference when I asked him about having a losing record in college and being out in Indy after three seasons. But he has really been the perfect coach for this team. His calmness has been the biggest factor in why Detroit has been able to continually come from behind this season and why Detroit is 10-4 with two games to go. The players, as mentioned, really buy into everything he’s saying and also appreciate his coaching style and that of his defensive coordinator, Teryl Austin. Austin often implements in-game adjustments from his players based on what they are seeing on the field, and it’s worked. Last week is a good example, as Minnesota scored 14 points early and didn’t score again the rest of the game. That has been huge for the Lions.

The Bears essentially abandoned the run against Detroit on Thanksgiving, and there are other games this season where they have done that, too. Does Chicago try to run on Detroit a second time, or do you expect more of the same Sunday?

Wright: The last time these teams met, Chicago knew running the ball against the Lions would prove to be an exercise in futility. So the Bears tried to attack Detroit the same way the Patriots did with the short passing attack. They figured short passes to Matt Forte would be an extension of the rushing attack. The game plan seemed to work at first, before Detroit turned a 14-3 deficit into a 24-14 lead at intermission on the strength of a trio of touchdowns on three consecutive possessions. Forte finished with five attempts -- which tied a career low -- for 6 yards. If the Bears attack similarly in this contest, you can count on the Detroit Lions engineering a blowout. As good as Detroit’s run defense is, the Bears would render play-action totally ineffective if they abandon the run. So Chicago likely will start off the game trying to run the ball. But as you predicted, the Bears will abandon the rushing attack at some point. It’s just a matter of time in this game.

Mike, you cover a team with so many interesting storylines. What is the latest with the right tackle situation? Can you give me the lowdown on undrafted rookie Cornelius Lucas, since he might be the next man up at that position with LaAdrian Waddle suffering a knee injury against Minnesota?

Rothstein: I don’t quite have the storylines you have, Michael. Caldwell essentially ruled Waddle out of Sunday’s game against Chicago, and Lucas is going to be the guy. He has had some struggles this season, but Lucas considers his best game of the season the only other one he started -- against the Bears on Thanksgiving. He was responsible for no quarterback sacks and no quarterback hurries in that game. Lucas might have been an undrafted free agent, but his size and foot speed make him a player with a lot of potential in the future. There is a reason Detroit coveted him in the UDFA market. It will be interesting to see him go up against Willie Young on Sunday, because Young is having his own breakout season and could really take advantage of Lucas if he isn’t careful. It could be one of the most hidden matchups to watch if Chicago has a chance at an upset.

Typically, it’s been the Lions in the role of spoiler throughout the recent history of this rivalry. Yet that is what the Bears are playing for this week. Is that a big motivation for them, or are the other issues taking over?

Wright: Self-preservation takes precedence over playing the spoiler role in this outing, my man. By and large, a good portion of the coaching staff believes it is on the way out. In fact, multiple coaches on that staff have told me as much. But they have also said it’s important for them to go out and conduct themselves as professionals, because when it’s all said and done, most if not all will be seeking employment elsewhere once ownership finally makes the decision to clean house. The Bears started the season losing three in a row at Soldier Field, and it appears this team is destined to end the season the same way. So I’m sure the Bears want to finish out with a victory in their last game of the season at Soldier Field. But honestly, I think spoiling Detroit’s season is the furthest thing from this team’s thinking at this point.