Three linebackers who have started at least one game this year did not practice fully this week, leaving the position in a state of flux.
But only Pisa Tinoisamoa (sprained knee) is expected to be out Sunday, while Lance Briggs (toe) and Hunter Hillenmeyer (ribs) should play. Even better news is that Nick Roach played extremely well last week. Roach started on the strong side, in place of Tinoisamoa, but he moved to the middle when Hillenmeyer was injured.
As fast as Roach is, he wasn't quite fast enough to catch Seahawks quarterback Seneca Wallace as he scampered across his own end zone toward the sideline before he hurried a throw in the direction of tight end John Carlson.
While Roach failed to record the sack midway through the third quarter, which would have gotten the Bears a safety, the play turned out OK. Wallace's rushed throw was intercepted by Lance Briggs at the Seattle 14-yard line, and even though the offense stalled, the Bears came away with a 37-yard Robbie Gould field goal and a 17-13 lead.
"I tell you what," Roach said, "I'm glad that I didn't get to him because we ended up with three points instead of two. I dived, (but) he's pretty fast, too."
Briggs got the spotlight on that play, but Roach said the four-time Pro Bowler acknowledged his part in the big play.
"We shared the moment," Roach said. "We were both happy about it. After I got up off the ground, I was glad to see that somebody (from our team) caught it."
Roach finished third on the team with six tackles, including three solos, and he also had two tackles for loss and two pass breakups.
The linebacker room has already had to contend with more than its share of injuries this season. Brian Urlacher's season-ending dislocated wrist made a starter out of Hillenmeyer, and Tinoisamoa's sprained knee elevated Roach to the first team. Both injuries occurred in the season-opening loss, but the Bears are 2-0 since then.
"That's the type of room we have and the type of players we have in here," said Briggs, whose play has been brilliant all season.
Last year Roach played his way ahead of Hillenmeyer into the No. 1 job on the strong side midway through the season, and he wound up starting nine games. But both opened this season as backups when free agent Tinoisamoa won the strong-side job in preseason. Roach missed significant time with a concussion, and Hillenmeyer was moved to the middle behind Urlacher.
Although Roach is undersized for a linebacker at 6-foot-1 and 234 pounds, size isn't as important in the Bears' scheme as some of his physical traits. He was also an Academic All-Big 10 player at Northwestern, which doesn't hurt, especially at middle linebacker, where he's responsible for calling defensive signals and making adjustments.
"He's a Northwestern grad, I'll throw that in there to start off with," coach Lovie Smith said. "Just being able to handle all the checks and things like that is big. He got a couple (practice) reps at (middle linebacker) but not a lot of time when you're third on the depth chart after Brian and Hunter.
"But Nick has a lot of quickness. He can slip blocks, he's a good pass rusher, and he's good in pass coverage. All things we ask our linebackers to do, Nick does a good job of."
Roach downplays the cerebral part of the middle linebacker job, pointing out that on the Bears' veteran defense, most of the players know their roles in all situations, and Briggs helps out with adjustments.
"It's not that hard because we have guys who know even before I make the call, what's going to come," Roach said. "That takes a lot of the pressure off the Mike (middle linebacker)."
"Of course I would expect Nick to say that," Smith said, who added that the position switch involves much more than the added mental responsibility. "It's tough moving in from the Sam (strong-side) position. You see plays totally different. Our Sam linebacker's outside, a little wider (and out) in space. As the middle linebacker, you're making all the calls, seeing everything from a different point of view. But Nick has done it well."
SERIES HISTORY: 159th meeting. Bears lead series 89-64-5 and have won six of the last eight games.
Maybe the most impressive aspect of the wideout crew is its youthfulness. Devin Hester is the old man at 26, and he's only in his third year of playing wide receiver in the NFL. Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox are both 22, and Bennett didn't catch a pass last season as a rookie.
But the coaching staff didn't lose faith in Bennett, especially considering his progress in the off-season learning the playbook and getting comfortable in the scheme.
"Earl had a history," Smith said. "We had watched him quite a bit at Vanderbilt. We knew he had good hands. We knew he would work as hard as anyone to become the best possible player he could be, and that's what he's done."
Bennett has been pigeonholed by some as a possession receiver, unable to stretch the field, but he's already caught three passes of more than 20 yards.
"That's what he did in college," wide receivers coach Darryl Drake said. "You don't become the all-time leading receiver in SEC history in three years if you don't have the ability to do that. And that's what he's got. Sometimes you can't force feed a baby. You have to let it grow, and Earl has grown."
Bennett was asked to learn all three of the wide receiver positions in the Bears' offense last season, which slowed his development.
Knox has been asked to focus on just one.
"We're not moving Johnny around," Drake said. "He's locked in at one spot. He doesn't have to do a whole lot, but at the same time he does have exceptional quickness and a great deal of ability. We're just trying to take advantage of the things that he can do — not asking him to do too much — where he can go out and perform and play free. He doesn't have to think, (he can just) react, and he's been able to do that so far."
Those three have averaged a combined 14.5 yards per catch, even though opposing defenses have focused on taking the long ball out of Cutler's repertoire. But the Bears Big Three have made up for it by tacking on yards after the catch.
"They've done a great job of that," Cutler said. "I try to get the ball in their hands as quickly as possible and let them do their thing. They've done a great job of breaking tackles and making people miss, but they know when to get down, so they're not out there sacrificing their bodies. They're doing a good job for us."
Better than almost anybody expected.
There is no question the Lions feel a renewed sense of confidence now that they have finally snapped their losing streak, which stretched to 19 games and tied for second-worst in NFL history.
"I think that's obvious," coach Jim Schwartz said. "It does make it easier for everybody to come to work, not just the players."
Now the Lions are just playing the Chicago Bears on Sunday. They aren't trying to throw any monkeys off their backs. They aren't trying to avoid NFL infamy. They are just trying to get back to .500.
But that doesn't mean the Lions can take a deep breath and lose their edge. They beat the Washington Redskins, a team in disarray, and had to hold on to do it, 19-14. It's not like they won the Super Bowl in a blowout, despite the perhaps over-the-top celebration afterward.
"You want to temper that a little bit," Schwartz said. "We talked about the 24-hour rule: Put a loss behind you, put a win behind you, come back to work on Wednesday. I think the guys did that."
The Lions haven't won much over the past nine years, and when they have, they haven't handled it well. Only five times since 2001 have the Lions followed a victory with another within a season. And now the Lions face three tough games: at Chicago, Pittsburgh, at Green Bay.
The big storyline with the Bears is Rod Marinelli. After he led the Lions to the NFL's first 0-16 season last year, he was fired. He was soon hired by Bears coach Lovie Smith, a close friend with whom he once worked in Tampa Bay, to coach the Chicago defensive line.
But another big storyline is quarterback Jay Cutler. The Lions were interested in trading for him before the draft, but the Broncos sent him to the Bears instead and the Lions ended up drafting a Cutler-like quarterback, Matthew Stafford, first overall. Cutler threw four interceptions in his Bears debut. But in his last two games, he is 48-for-65 for 483 yards, with five touchdowns against one interception.
"He's got a skill set that's classic for a quarterback," Schwartz said. "He's got a quick release. He's got a really strong arm, and he's got a good understanding. You put all that stuff together and he can get really hot. We've seen that happen before. Our job is to keep them from playing ahead and keep them from being able to keep us off balance. If they have to play from behind, it makes it a little bit harder on their quarterback, as we saw from our quarterback the first couple weeks."
It appears that the dynamic has changed in Chicago. Running back Matt Forte is averaging only 2.5 yards per carry, with 150 yards on 59 carries. The Bears have not scored a rushing touchdown. But the Lions are not fooled.
"They can run the football," Schwartz said. "They haven't got it going yet. We need to make sure they don't get it started this week. Forte is averaging two-and-a-half yards a carry. When 2009 is said and done, he's not going to average 2.5 a carry. He's too good a player for that. They rely on running the football. They have been a little bit one-dimensional, but that's not their objective and we need to make sure that it doesn't start this week."
SERIES HISTORY: 159th meeting. Bears lead, 89-64-5. Lions have lost last two meetings overall and six of the last eight. Lions have lost three of the past four meetings at Soldier Field.
We're three games into the season, not three days into training camp. But some position battles are still raging for the Lions.
At cornerback, Will James has replaced Phillip Buchanon in the starting lineup. Buchanon got into the doghouse after pulling out of the opener at New Orleans right before the game because of a neck injury. He struggled the next week against Minnesota, then was benched for James against Washington. The coaches seemed pleased with James' performance against the Redskins.
At linebacker, rookie DeAndre Levy replaced veteran Ernie Sims against the Redskins. Sims had started 50 straight games, and he has a shoulder injury. But Levy has been so good and Sims has struggled recently, leading to speculation that Levy could overtake Sims. Sims returned to practice Wednesday and could play Sunday at Chicago.
At left guard, Manny Ramirez has started the past two games. Daniel Loper, who started the opener, has been inactive. Part of the equation are some nagging injuries that have slowed Loper, but Ramirez has been good and could have a hold on the job now.
The Lions brought back veteran defensive tackle Chuck Darby, presumably because rookie defensive tackle Sammie Hill is hurt. Hill suffered an ankle injury Sunday against Washington. He did it early in the game and returned, but he did not practice Wednesday. The Lions released cornerback Marcus McCauley to make room for Darby on the roster.