It sounded like a good idea: Is Jay Cutler looking forward to playing in a domed stadium Thursday against the Lions at Ford Field? He had his most prolific game in his six seasons with the Bears — 381 yards and a 109.6 passer rating — in his only other game indoors this season, a 27-13 victory over the Falcons at the Georgia Dome.
“The Falcons’ defense and this defense are pretty different,” Cutler said.
He’s right about that. But that droll dose of reality can’t obscure the paradox that Cutler faces in the Bears’ must-win game against the Lions: The environs of Ford Field’s domed stadium provide the perfect conditions he thrives in. But the noise factor from a sell-out crowd and the fast track that makes the Lions’ third-ranked defense a half-step quicker present a degree of difficulty he can do without.
That’s one reason this tell-tale game can go in many directions for the Bears. If they can combat the noise and operate with a rare focus and discipline, they have a quarterback and an offense that can keep the Lions on their heels all day and pull off the upset they need to jump-start an improbable push to the playoffs. But if they can’t, it can get ugly in a hurry. And we know just how ugly ugly can be.
This game is the Cutler conundrum in a nutshell. If the guy could block out the distractions and hone a laser focus like the elite quarterbacks do, he’d be worth every penny. But as we know, too often something goes awry.
So it’s no surprise that even though he does his best work indoors and has some of the best weapons in the game, Cutler seems more fearful of the worst-case scenario against the Lions on the fast track of Ford Field.
“We don’t have a lot of track guys,” Cutler said. “We’ve got some big guys. I think that with that front seven, you’d always prefer them outside on grass rather than indoors, home field on the turf.”
As reasonable as that sounds, it also illustrates another knock on Cutler — more than most quarterbacks, he likes the wind at his back and prefers the path of least resistance. Everything has to be in order for him to succeed — tall receivers, an intact offensive line, a quarterback-guru head coach he can relate to and man-to-man defense that creates one-on-one matchups his guys can win.
Maybe it’s too much to ask for a quarterback to embrace the elevated degree of difficulty.
Mississippian Brett Favre in his prime was outstanding in cold weather. Californian Tom Brady has won snow games 59-0 and 36-7 with eight touchdown passes and nary an interception. But the Bears need something in between. Because in situations like this, if the Bears can just handle the noise, playing indoors should be a benefit to Cutler and this offense, no matter who is on the other side.
“It should be,” Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said, “because you don’t have elements in the passing [game] and the ball security. Anytime you take the elements out, it should be better.
“And then we just have to handle the noise. And there will be a couple mistakes because of noise. You have to deal with it and move on. It’s not an excuse. We have to play through it, and teams win in noise. They win in away games, and we need to do it.”
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Lions DT Ndamukong Suh is a dominating force who commands double-teams that open things up for the Lions’ other D-linemen. It’s a great matchup for Bears RG Kyle Long, who struggled against Suh as a rookie. “He’s excited,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said. “He wants to play against people that can bring out the best in him, and he’ll have that opportunity.”
IN THE AIR
Jay Cutler, who operates best in a comfort zone, had his most prolific game of the season the last time he played in a dome — 381 yards, 109.6 rating vs. the Falcons at the Georgia Dome. But this time he’ll be facing a Lions defense that ranks 10th vs. the pass and held Aaron Rodgers to 162 yards — the second-lowest total of his career in a full game — in a 19-7 Lions victory. Against a stout, aggressive defensive line headed by Ndamukong Suh (4 1⁄2 sacks) and Ziggy Ansah (5 1⁄2 sacks), Cutler’s mobility likely will be a key. It’s almost imperative that TE Martellus Bennett and RB Matt Forte play key roles.
ON THE GROUND
The Bears’ struggling offense will be challenged to establish the run against a Lions defense that ranks No. 1 in rushing yards allowed per game (70.7) and per carry (3.1). With a standout defensive line headed by the indomitable Ndamukong Suh, backed by an LB corps headed by DeAndre Levy, the Lions have allowed more than 90 rushing yards just once this season. They are especially tough at home, with no back gaining more than 49 yards (the Bills’ Fred Jackson) and no team more than 76 (Packers). But Bears RB Matt Forte (822 yards, 4.2 per carry, 5 TDs) is as good as the Lions have faced.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
Bears DE Jared Allen loves a fast track and will be going against a below-average offensive line. The Lions have allowed 33 sacks this season. After four teammates combined for 5 sacks vs. the Bucs last week, it’s Allen’s turn. Pressure will be a key against Matthew Stafford, who is prone to errors under pressure but has big-play potential when he escapes the rush.
IN THE AIR
Like the Bears, the Lions are trying to figure out how to ignite their talented but disappointing passing attack. It ranks 10th in yards per game (251.7) but only 22nd in yards per play (7.1). Matthew Stafford, who threw for 4,650 yards and 29 TDs last season, ranks 26th in passer rating (81.0). The once-incomparable Calvin Johnson, who has averaged 1,712 yards and 11 TDs the last three seasons, is struggling (38-578, 15.2, 3 TDs). Golden Tate (72-1,047, 14.5, 3 TDs) has picked up some of the slack. Still, this will be a challenging test for the Bears’ defense, which could be without CB Kyle Fuller (knee).
ON THE GROUND
With DTs Jeremiah Ratliff and Stephen Paea playing well, the Bears’ run defense has been improving steadily this season. The team ranks 12th in rushing yards allowed per game (106.8) and 17th in yards allowed per carry (4.2). If the Bears don’t win the battle here, it’s their own fault. The Lions rank 30th in rushing yards per game (80.8) and 31st in yards per carry (3.3). Joique Bell (141-490, 3.5, 3 TDs) rushed for 53 yards on 17 carries vs. the Bears last year — and that’s when the run defense ranked last. Reggie Bush (53-191, 3.6, 1 TD) is always a threat vs. the Bears, but he has missed the last two games with an ankle injury.
The Bears’ offense has struggled with a full week of rest, even two weeks off. Now it has to step it up against the Lions’ third-ranked defense on a short week. After falling behind 10-0 at home against the beatable Vikings and Buccaneers, the challenge will be much greater against the Lions at Ford Field. The Bears haven’t scored in the first quarter of their last six games. Another slow start could turn into a debacle, which is the last thing coach Marc Trestman and his staff need. “We’ve got to be able to take care of ourselves first,” Trestman said. “We’ve got to stay onside and [avoid] missed assignments.”
A competent — though hardly stellar — effort against the Buccaneers has given the Bears hope that they’ve finally turned the corner on special teams. “We were able to win the special-teams battle,” Marc Trestman said. “Our coverage teams were good. We covered better with a lot of young guys.” In a must-win game on the road, the Bears might need special teams to be more than just competent. Last year at Ford Field, Micheal Spurlock’s 57-yard punt return ignited a 21-0 run in a 40-32 Lions victory. The Lions are no great shakes on special teams this season. Jeremy Ross has a long punt return of 28 yards and long kickoff return of 34.