Questions still abound when it comes to the Chicago Bears' offense, but their defense can be summed up very nicely with one matching stat: Chicago's defense has allowed five touchdowns, and scored the same amount. The 4-1 Bears made NFL history with five pick-sixes in their first five games. Cornerback Charles Tillman and linebacker Lance Briggs managed that feat in two straight games, the first two teammates to ever to so in NFL annals.
Only the New York Giants and New England Patriots have more takeaways than Chicago's 17, and it's clearly a point of emphasis in a Lovie Smith defense that has been in effect in the Windy City since Smith took the head coaching position in 2004. What used to be an allegedly vanilla Cover-2 and Tampa-2 defense has become a multi-front monster that can live up to any defense in the Bears' long and violent history.
For the Detroit Lions, who have six takeaways to their seven turnovers, what the Bears do to opposing offenses is obviously a subject of some concern. However, when putting together his overall game plan for the Monday night matchup with the Bears at Chicago's Soldier Field, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz hypothesized that focusing too much on that potential pitfall could lead to other problems.
"You have to worry about going and doing your job," he said late last week. "I think they have done a good job with turnovers. It's been a combination of a lot of things. They've gotten the lead in some games, and it makes it hard to catch up and when you do they're a good pass rush team. Forced fumbles, sacks, interceptions; they've done a really good job of putting the ball in the end zone with their defense. Obviously it's something that has made a difference in their games, but I think we have to take an approach of worry about us rather than worrying too much about an opponent."
Worrying about his own offense is most likely Job One for Schwartz, because quarterback Matthew Stafford has been struggling with uncharacteristic mechanical issues all season, and the resulting erratic play is measured in Stafford's 2012 stats. In 2011, Stafford threw 41 touchdown passes, but he has just four in five games this year, and the rocket-armed quarterback is down in yards per attempt from 7.60 to 6.85.
Especially vexing for the Lions faithful is the fact that Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson haven't been consistently connecting where it counts the most -- Megatron has three games with over 100 receiving yards, but just one touchdown so far. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has been moving Johnson around in the formation to give him more opportunities, but with Tillman on Johnson most likely whereever he goes tonight, that could be a tougher go. Johnson has averaged less than 80 yards per game in his career against the Bears.
If you ask Lovie Smith, the lack of end zone connections to date just means that Stafford and Johnson could be ready to unleash hell on some unsuspecting defense in the near future.
"No, I can stop you right there," Smith said last Friday when asked if the Bears thought they had an advantage in that area. "No, not really. When you combine everything that's happened and I know that you have to do it, I'm talking about your stats. Well, this is how many touchdowns a player has got in this many games. They can just look at it on an individual basis and you look at who you're dealing with. I mean, those are two excellent football players. It's just about this game for us. We've seen them put up great numbers so we're going to go on that. If you're preparing for someone, you want to know what they're capable of doing, and both of these players are capable of doing great things."
Detroit's defense will have to deal with a Chicago offense that can be inconsistent, but has scored 41 points in two different games this season -- the season opener against the Indianapolis Colts, and the team's most recent game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. In between, there has been a mixed bag -- from the disastrous 23-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers in which quarterback Jay Cutler spent most of the evening running for his life, to the 34-18 win over the Dallas Cowboys in which Tony Romo threw two pick-sixes and the Bears grabbed just two touchdowns on offense.
The nucleus of Cutler, running back Matt Forte, and receiver Brandon Marshall does appear to be hitting its stride, a fact that Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham knows all too well. Cornerback Chris Houston will have the challenge of Marshall one-on-one.
"Well, Brandon's an exceptional receiver," Cunningham said last Thursday. "He's a lot like Calvin. He's got that size, Randy Moss kind of guy downfield. What he used to do, he'd catch a short one and have great run after the catch success. Chris is really into a zone right now and I hope he keeps that up. He's, you know, he's that silent leader. He doesn't yell or say much on the field, but apparently he says a lot in their group meetings with the DBs and the confidence that he has gained. You know, when he came here they kind of ran him out at Atlanta because he couldn't find the ball and he couldn't do this and he's finding the ball and doing most of the things we're asking him to do. I'm really proud of the way he's playing. I hope he keeps it up."
The biggest advantage the Bears have in this game is on special teams -- the Lions may have the worst return coverage unit in the NFL, and Chicago's been well-known for success in that area.
On the other hand, as the always-quotable Cunningham noted, Detroit certainly has the edge in baseball bragging rights, with the Tigers awaiting the winner of the San Francisco-St. Louis NCLS to start the World Series this week.
"I get a report at home every once in a while," Cunningham said of the city's baseball team. "The best of luck to them. What a great thing they're doing. They've got some good players. Hopefully they'll win the whole thing. We're all really proud of them, I sure am. I saw them play about six months ago, I thought they were going to be pretty good. I didn't know they were going to be that good. But good luck to them."
On a more serious note (well, sort of), Cunningham talked about the return of safety Louis Delmas to the Lions' defense last week, and how that allowed Detroit to be more aggressive in is 26-23 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. In his 2012 debut after recovering from a knee injury, Delmas amassed seven tackles with two for negative yardage, an interception, and a pass deflection.
"You know what? I'm trying to figure out how to say this and answer this question because all I see is the gold teeth that he wears during the game and that Darth Vader look that he gives," Cunningham said of his young star. "I think he called me "old" in the newspaper, and he said, "but if you give Gun enough bullets he's going to shoot every one of them.' Well, he was the big bullet we needed. He has exceptional speed and I knew if we could bring him, Vick would notice it and every time he came close to the box, interior of the offensive line, defensive line, Vick looked up. And when I saw him look up I said, 'We're going to keep bringing him.' It really, it helped us with the front. It helped us in every area.
"He has the best suddenness out of the secondary other than maybe Ed Reed. And Amari [Spievey] has stepped up and is playing as well because he's got his partner back. You know, hopefully those two will help us."
If the Lions want their city to enjoy a special sports two-fer of success this week, they'll need all the help they can get.