Saturday, October 20, 2012
Civil tone hovers over contentious rivalry
By Michael C. Wright
The on-field incidents belie the weeklong muzzle job performed by the players in the buildup to a showdown on ESPN's "Monday Night Football" between the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions at Soldier Field.
While the teams claimed mutual respect, it's clear they're not fond of one another, a sentiment expected to manifest itself on the field like it has so many other times in recent meetings.
Ndamukong Suh snapped off Jay Cutler's helmet last November in a game that featured $62,500 in fines.
"Just because games are chippy doesn't mean the teams don't respect each other and don't want the emphasis to be the play on the field," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "There are a lot of great players that are going to play in this game on both sides of the ball, and I think these guys know each other very well. The schemes are well known. We have a good idea what they're going to do. They have a good idea what we're going to do. The more you know somebody, probably the better opportunity there is for guys to push and shove a little bit."
There has been opportunity aplenty in this series for sure.
Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh snapped off Jay Cutler's helmet during a 37-13 Bears win at Soldier Field in November. That was a game in which six players received fines totaling $62,500, including quarterback Matthew Stafford ($7,500) and cornerback D.J. Moore ($15,000) who were involved in an incident that led to an on-field brawl between the teams. Officials also flagged Lance Briggs for a crushing hit on Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, but the linebacker didn't receive a fine.
During the first meeting between the teams last season -- a 24-13 Lions win at Ford Field on Oct. 10 -- former Bears safety Brandon Meriweather received a $25,000 fine for a vicious hit on receiver Nate Burleson, while cornerback Charles Tillman was docked $7,500 for a horse-collar tackle on Jahvid Best.
Rewind to two years ago, and there's the incident in which Suh shoved Cutler hard in the back during a 24-20 Bears win, drawing a $15,000 fine from the league.
"They're a tough defense, they play hard," Cutler said. "They tackle hard, they rush the passer hard. They do everything full speed, so it's a challenge. With anybody in our division, we're not going to like them and they're not going to like us."
But Bears coach Lovie Smith made it clear that respect is there.
"With today's technology, you don't have to remind guys [about] an awful lot," Smith said. "It's not like I have to bring out the George Halas pep talk to get them ready to play Detroit. We realize what's at stake. We know about the rivalry we have with them, but it's still going to be decided on the football field."
Both teams believe the first way to tip the ultimate decision in their favor early is to make the opposing offense one dimensional by shutting down the run game. Detroit's rushing attack ranks No. 19 (99.8 yards per game). By taking that away, the Bears believe they can put the Lions in pass mode, thus making them predictable.
Once that happens, the Bears' front four of Henry Melton, Stephen Paea, Israel Idonije and Julius Peppers is typically at their best. Rarely blitzing, the Bears generate plenty of pressure with the front four, which has racked up 16 of the club's 18 sacks (tied for fourth in the NFL).
"We want to make them one dimensional, like we've said all season," Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "One dimensional is better than being on your heels trying to guess what they're going to do."
But even if Chicago accomplishes the feat of putting Detroit into pass-first mode, the club knows that no lead is safe against the Lions. In addition to contending with Johnson, who has racked up 211 yards and a touchdown on 12 catches in his last two games against the Bears and will likely be matched with Tillman, the Bears have to deal with the fact the Lions rank No. 2 in the NFL in fourth-quarter scoring (73 points), generating 947 yards of total offense in final frame of games.
Smith likes Chicago's chances with Tillman covering Johnson.
"As we talk about corners, most of them being under 6 feet, you need a few with some height to be able to match up," Smith said. "Charles has played [Johnson] a few times. So we feel good about matching up with big receivers."
The Bears feature a big, dominating receiver of their own with Brandon Marshall, who could pose a major matchup problem against Detroit's battered secondary, which currently is down to just two healthy cornerbacks. Schwartz admitted that "any time you add weapons to an already good quarterback, it makes them more formidable."
Stafford, meanwhile, called the Cutler-Marshall combination "a dangerous combo" that is "really sparking [Chicago's] offense."
In Stafford-Johnson and Cutler-Marshall, the matchup features two of the best quarterback-receiver combinations in the NFL.
"The two [No. 1] receivers you're going to see on the field on Monday night are about as good as you're going to see in the league this year," Smith said. "That should be worth coming to the game just to watch the two of these guys play."
Obviously, the matchup features other stars such as Detroit's defensive line led by Suh, Nick Fairley, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril as well as Chicago's third-ranked defense, and Bears running back Matt Forte, who is coming off his first 100-yard outing of the season.
What's more is the familiarity between the teams, which tends to make the matchup more of a physical affair.
"Teams know what we're doing," Urlacher said. "They know we're in Cover 2, but for some reason they can't move the ball on us when we're in Cover 2. Teams aren't patient enough to move the ball in Cover 2. They get greedy. They want the big play, and we're patient enough to run to the football every play."
As expected, Stafford did his best to deny the Bears' bulletin-board material headed into Monday night's game, calling the matchup "an exciting one."
"Monday Night Football brings a little bit of added emotion as well," Stafford admitted. "I think both of these teams have a lot of respect for each other and what we can do on the field. We're rivals. They know what we're going to do; they know what we're going to do. It's just [about] going out there and executing, and that's what makes it physical and intense."