Bears game plan vs. Lions head scratching

Two major game-plan gaffes contributed to the Chicago Bears’ seventh loss of the season yesterday: ignoring Matt Forte on offense and single covering Calvin Johnson on defense.

The Chicago Bears ran the ball eight times in yesterday’s 34-17 loss to the Detroit Lions. It was the fewest carries by the Bears in a single contest since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

The Lions boast the league’s best run defense, giving up fewer than 70 yards per game this season, so no one expected the Bears to pile up 150 or more yards on the ground. Yet giving the ball to Matt Forte just five times for six yards, the lowest single-game carry and yardage totals of any game during his career in which he’s played from start to finish, no one expected that.

“It’s hard,” said Jay Cutler. “I think we went into the game thinking some of these shorter passes would be an extension of our run game, some longer handoffs. It worked early on.”

The Bears ran three short screens on the first drive of the game, which was capped for a score on a bubble screen to Alshon Jeffery. Putting the ball into the hands of Jeffery and Brandon Marshall out wide, with a blocker in front, was Marc Trestman’s strategy to supplement a between-the-tackles run game.

“That’s how we looked at it, is using those to get outside, to get them running sideline to sideline and it started well for us,” said Trestman. “We just couldn’t sustain it.”

The Lions quickly caught on to Chicago’s bubble-screen attack and Trestman could not adjust. After going up 14-3 in the first quarter, the Bears scored just three points the remainder of the game.

Chicago entered the second half down by 10 points. On the opening drive of the third quarter, the Bears executed a 13-play, 63-yard drive that resulted in a 35-yard Robbie Gould field goal. None of those 13 plays were runs.

In fact, 38 of Chicago’s 39 offensive plays in the second half were pass plays. Very rarely do one-dimensional attacks work in the NFL, and even more rarely do they work with Cutler at quarterback. Yet Trestman absolutely gave up on the run game, seemingly before the opening kickoff, and the Lions took advantage.

“It’s difficult on any quarterback to throw the ball that much, especially under a pass rush like [Detroit’s],” said Trestman. “I thought he did a good job of standing in there. He did the best he could. We didn’t have enough to get it done.”

Trestman makes a good point: the Lions’ pass rush was extremely disruptive yesterday. They sacked Cutler three times in the second half and pressured him a whopping 16 times in the game. Yet somehow, Trestman felt the best course of action was to keep dropping Cutler in the pocket.

The Lions are good against the run but Forte is an elite running back and the engine of the offense. Giving him 11 total touches – five carries, six catches – in a divisional contest the Bears had to win to save their season is baffling.

That said, the decision to ignore Forte may not be as confusing as defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s choice to single cover Lions receiver Calvin Johnson one-on-one with a rookie for most of the game. By mirroring Megatron with Kyle Fuller – who is dealing with hip, hand and knee injuries – the best receiver in the game posted 11 catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns.

“I kind of had a good idea of what they would do today,” Johnson said. “They played a little three [coverage], they mixed it up with a couple different coverages, but for the most part the Bears are who they are. They are going to play what they play and that’s just how they’ve been historically.”

Historically, the Bears have always had the luxury of placing Charles Tillman on an island against Johnson. Tillman was one of the best cornerbacks in the game at limiting Megatron. Tucker tried to copy that strategy with Fuller, who was not up to the task due to a combination of injuries and inexperience.

Yet Tucker kept dialing up single man against Johnson, instead of bracketing him with a safety over the top and forcing Detroit’s other playmakers to beat him. With Bears linebackers biting hard on every play that even remotely looks like a run, the deep middle portion of the field was wide open all day. Johnson repeatedly ran skinny posts, eating up Fuller’s cushion and making easy catches over the middle.

“[Johnson] was singled up a lot and when that happens you know he’s going to match up pretty well,” Lions head coach Jim Caldwell said. “That was a good young corner playing against him. Obviously, I think that had a lot to do with it.”

The Bears were out-coached on both sides of the ball yesterday, which has been an all-too-common theme this season. Until Chicago’s staff can learn how to make in-game adjustments, results won’t be any different going forward.

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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.

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