NFC North: 2012 By the bye

By the bye: Chicago Bears

October, 11, 2012
Reviewing the Chicago Bears at their bye:

Record: 4-1

Five-game capsule: The Bears are in excellent position after rebounding from a Week 2 debacle at Lambeau Field. Their defense leads the NFL in takeaways (17) and touchdowns (five), getting elite performances from stalwarts (two touchdown returns apiece for linebacker Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman) and relative newcomers (five combined sacks for defensive ends Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin) alike. Quarterback Jay Cutler has settled after throwing four interceptions and taking seven sacks in Week 2, limiting himself to two interceptions and five sacks over the next three games. Importantly, he has worked hard to keep receiver Brandon Marshall (35 receptions, 496 yards) involved in the offense. In short, the Bears have the look of the championship-caliber team they envisioned this summer.

[+] EnlargeTim Jennings
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastTim Jennings has had a surprisingly strong start to the season, leading the NFL in both interceptions and pass breakups.
MVP: Briggs and Tillman deserve the attention they've received, and defensive tackle Henry Melton (4.5 sacks) has had a nice start. But the Bears' best player over five games has been cornerback Tim Jennings, who has made teams pay dearly for targeting him over Tillman. Opponents have thrown his way an NFL-high 46 times, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), and he has responded with a league-leading four interceptions and 14 total pass breakups. Those plays have left opposing quarterbacks with a 23.4 passer rating on throws in his direction, the second-lowest rating against a qualified cornerback in the NFL. (Via PFF.) Jennings has locked down one of the few question marks the Bears had on their defense.

Biggest surprise: For as much attention as left tackle J'Marcus Webb has received since the start of training camp, culminating in the now-infamous events of Week 2, he hasn't been half-bad during the Bears' three-game winning streak. Webb gave up a sack to Dallas Cowboys pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware, but otherwise he has done what you'd hope for from a left tackle: Not drawn attention with his play. He has committed a modest two penalties, one false start and one for holding, and has rebounded admirably from the public embarrassment of his performance against the Green Bay Packers.

Stat to note: Offensive coordinator Mike Tice's background is in the power running game, but the most notable aspect of his scheme so far has been the frequency of deep shots down the field. Cutler has thrown 21 passes that traveled more than 20 yards downfield, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the second-highest total in the league. He has completed 10 of them, including four for touchdowns. For comparison, consider that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford have combined for 25 such throws.

Bonus stat to note: As productive as Marshall has been over the first five games, would you believe he is behind the pace set by former Bears receiver Marty Booker in 2002? Through five games that season, Booker had caught 37 passes for 566 yards. He finished the year with 97 receptions for 1,189 yards.

Looking ahead: The Bears will return from their bye with a Monday night game (Oct. 22) against the Lions, but they won't have another division game until Week 12 against the Minnesota Vikings. That schedule quirk, which leaves them playing NFC North opponents in four of their final six games, will make the final month of the season awfully interesting.

Bye the by series: Last week's post on the Detroit Lions.

By the bye: Detroit Lions

October, 4, 2012
Reviewing the Detroit Lions at their bye:

Record: 1-3

Four-game capsule: The Lions opened the season with a signature fourth-quarter comeback to defeat the St. Louis Rams, but have fallen short in three subsequent attempts. Their offense has been neutered by a simple but effective deep-zone defense, their defense ranks No. 29 in the NFL with three takeaways and their special teams have been atrocious. The Lions are the first team in NFL history to allow a kickoff and punt return for touchdowns in consecutive games.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiIn comparison to last season, Matthew Stafford and the Lions' offense has sputtered through four games.
MVP: The Lions' bye arrived a bit early for such designations, and it's hard to look past receiver Calvin Johnson, who ranks third in the NFL in receiving yards (423) and fourth in catches (29). That's a pace for 1,692 receiving yards over 16 games. But if you're interested in an outside-the-box observation: Linebacker DeAndre Levy might be having his best NFL season. He was particularly effective in Week 2 against San Francisco, recording 10 solo tackles, and has quietly made impact plays throughout the first quarter of the season. Pro Football Focus has charted him with 14 "stops," which constitute a play that causes an offensive failure. That ranks 10th among NFL 4-3 outside linebackers. He has also done a nice job limiting yardage after receptions where he appeared to be the primary man in coverage. Opponents are averaging 7.5 yards per catch against him, according to PFF, the fifth-best mark among 4-3 outside linebackers.

Biggest surprise: It makes perfect sense for opponents to employ a deep zone defense, rather than man-to-man, against Johnson and the rest of the Lions' passing game. It's more difficult to accept that the Lions haven't found an antidote or alternative. Can the NFL's most prolific passing attack of 2011 really be that vulnerable? Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan is a smart man and will figure it out. But through four games, according to Linehan, opponents have used traditional man-to-man on only five of 296 snaps. The approach has revealed two issues that must be corrected. First, the Lions' running game is way behind the curve. Whether it's due to poor blocking or substandard talent in the backfield, there is no way the Lions should be averaging 3.6 yards per carry against deep zones. Second, their red-zone offense hasn't had a counter for teams that blanket Johnson, leading to an NFL-high 13 field goal attempts by Jason Hanson. Johnson has only been targeted twice in the end zone in four games after getting an average of more than one per game in 2011.

Stat to note: Quarterback Matthew Stafford has completed only 16.7 percent (two of 12) of passes that traveled at least 21 yards past the line of scrimmage. Neither completion was a touchdown. Last season, Stafford threw nine touchdowns on such passes and completed 42.7 percent of them (27 of 64) overall. That's the best illustration I have of their diminished downfield production.

Looking ahead: In eight of the past 12 seasons, at least one team with a 1-3 or worse record through four games has made the playoffs. But the odds are against the Lions overcoming this early hole and making the playoffs. Over that stretch, the ratio has been about one in every seven teams (14.7 percent) with a similar record making the playoffs.