The Chicago Bears are hoping to build on last week’s 16-13 win against the Carolina Panthers and see Sunday’s test against the NFC North-leading Detroit Lions as a measuring stick. The Bears have shown encouraging improvement on defense over the last month and a half and will get starting quarterback Justin Fields back as well.
Now comes the task of competing with — and perhaps upsetting — a high-quality opponent in the Lions. With kickoff approaching, here’s the inside slant on three notable storylines.
‘Be ready to roll’
The Lions were staring at a potential go-ahead 44-yard field-goal attempt in the final minutes Sunday at SoFi Stadium. Fourth-and-2 from the Chargers 26-yard line and well within range for kicker Riley Patterson. But their coach, Dan Campbell, was staring up at the clock — 1:47 remaining — then across at the opposing sideline, where quarterback Justin Herbert and his offense were waiting for one more opportunity after ripping off five consecutive touchdown drives.
Thus Campbell let his gut guide him, prompting him to keep his special teams troops on the sideline.
For the Lions, it was “go time.” Which just happens to be one of Campbell’s favorite things in football. All or nothing.
With the directive to seize the game, Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson dialed up a pass play with quarterback Jared Goff fully understanding the stakes.
Goff calmly progressed through his first three reads, then worked back to his second option — tight end Sam LaPorta — and fired a dart. Gain of 6. First down. A chance to keep the ball until the game was over.
Goff knew what Campbell was likely to decide when that fourth-down decision presented itself.
“He has big balls,” Goff said. “And he showed it there. It’s a lot of fun when he puts the football in our hands to make the play.”
Sure, that sequence might have been a major gamble. But it was calculated with the Lions using that fourth-down conversion — their fourth of the afternoon and 12th this season — to drain the rest of the clock before letting Patterson seal a 41-38 victory with a 41-yard walk-off field goal.
Said receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown: “I don’t know how many coaches are going to go for that in that situation.”
This is Lions football in 2023, fearless and fun all at once, a first-place formula concocted by the think-big, high-energy coach who wants to keep his team in an aggressive posture at all times. That is perhaps most evident within Campbell’s always-bold fourth-down philosophy.
That 6-yard Goff-to-LaPorta completion registered as the 100th fourth-down attempt by the Lions in Campbell’s two-and-a-half 2 1/2 seasons. They have converted 53 of those.
Campbell explained his fourth-and-2 chutzpah in straightforward fashion, calling it “the right thing to do.”
“I wanted to finish with the ball in our hands,” he said.
It was certainly notable that the Lions were in the middle of a day in which they finished with a season-high 533 yards while putting together seven scoring drives over 10 possessions. The Chargers’ explosive afternoon — with TD drives of 75, 75, 92, 68 and 75 yards on their final five series — also gave Campbell a pretty good feel for the game flow.
So yeah. That fourth-and-2 call in a tie game felt like a no-brainer. “To each his own,” Campbell said. “Some say it’s a boneheaded move and some say it’s not. I made the decision and I stick by that.”
The Lions have been sticking behind Campbell too. And why wouldn’t they during a surge in which they have won 15 times in 19 games dating to Week 9 of last season? Campbell continues supplying his players with a needed confidence that then fuels their collective energy, belief and desire for the big moments.
“We want to make him right,” Goff said. “And it gives us a little bit more motivation to make things work. He trusts us. He’s showing us he has full faith in us to make it work. And in a scenario where the odds may be stacked against us in some way, he’s saying, ‘No, they’re not.’ ”
Don’t forget, the Lions’ first victory this season — on the road against the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs — included a fake punt on fourth-and-2 from the Detroit 17. A direct snap to Jalen Reeves-Maybin worked, extended an eventual touchdown drive and was a signature moment in a one-point win.
Among the Lions’ four fourth-down conversions this past Sunday was a 1-yard Jahmyr Gibbs touchdown run in the second quarter. On the previous drive, the Lions converted fourth-and-5 from the Chargers 28 with a 6-yard David Montgomery run.
The Lions’ first fourth-quarter score, meanwhile, was a 25-yard touchdown pass from Goff to Brock Wright on third-and-1 with the quarterback making an authoritative check out of a running play at the line and then hard-selling a play fake to Montgomery that allowed Wright to slip free down the left hash.
“I told (our guys) all week, ‘We’re going to play aggressive,’ ” Campbell said. “I wanted us to be ready to go. That was part of the message — (setting) our demeanor and the way we were going coach and play. We’re going be aggressive.”
Bears coach Matt Eberflus has had extra time to study the Lions and continues to be impressed with their offensive balance and potency. Eberflus also has seen a team playing with “good energy, good passion and good execution.”
Campbell’s identity is obviously infused into the way his team attacks.
“He’s a high-energy guy,” Eberflus said. “He has a lot of passion, and you can see that (in them). You can see his fingerprints on that football team. You see the way they fight all the way through 60 minutes.”
And in a game’s pivotal moments, Campbell’s aggressiveness is no longer a surprise, even when it does create tense moments. During a radio appearance this week in Detroit, Campbell joked that he has suggested to his family to wear diapers as protection for some of the risks he is bound to take in crucial situations.
“I’ll give them an alert and say ‘Put them on and be ready to roll,’ ” Campbell said.
The Lions themselves, as Goff noted, then take their orders with a heightened belief and the push to make their coach right.
Just for kicks
Bears kicker Cairo Santos was watching live Monday night when the Denver Broncos found themselves in a do-or-die scramble. Trailing the Buffalo Bills by a point in the final minute, the Broncos worked into field-goal range thanks to a pass-interference penalty.
Kicker Wil Lutz was set up for a field-goal try of less than 40 yards with the Broncos intent on running the clock down before the game-deciding kick. But with 29 seconds remaining, the Bills still had two timeouts. So twice after Broncos kneel-downs, the Bills stopped the clock.
Twenty-four seconds remained with the Broncos in position to attempt a 37-yard kick from the middle of the field. But rather than try that with a calm setup out of a timeout, Broncos coach Sean Payton instead called for “Hurricane” — a field-goal try with the clock running down after another Wilson kneel down on the right hash.
During the ensuing frenzy — Payton objected to labeling that transition “chaotic” — the Broncos successfully got their kicking unit onto the field and lined up for a 41-yard attempt. But Lutz pushed the kick wide right, a costly mistake that would have left scars and created a bombardment of questions had the Broncos lost.
The Bills, however, were the more disorganized bunch during that sequence, penalized for having 12 men on the field. And that provided Lutz his redemption moment, a game-winning 36-yard kick as time expired. A no-doubter.
“I knew he was going to make it,” Santos said. “Wil’s a golfer. The second golf shot is always better. He was 5 yards closer too.”
Santos could only shake his head and absorb all that late commotion through a specialist’s lens.
Ideally, he noted, a kicking unit wants to have at least 18 seconds remaining to attempt a hurry-up field goal. Wilson’s final kneel-down came at the 22-second mark.
There is also an emphasis for kicking batteries to assure the field goal is made with time expiring, something the Broncos didn’t quite succeed with. (Lutz’s miss sailed wide right with 4 seconds left.)
Santos also empathized with the elevated degree of difficulty for Lutz in that rushed scenario.
“You don’t have the time to take your normal (prekick) steps,” Santos said. “You just kind of go at an angle that feels right. You practice that to make sure. Because you’re not getting your traditional three- steps-back, two-steps-over set-up for the field goal. So you get yourself a comfortable angle. But it’s still a guess.”
In Santos’ estimation, Lutz’s guess might have been a touch off on his miss. “The hurry-up may have messed with his angle.”
Santos also said he has never tried to influence a coach’s decision on whether to try a hurry-up field goal but is certain most kickers share his preference. “Ideally, you want to have the time to settle in and go through your routine,” he said. “But when you realize your team doesn’t have a timeout, you’re expecting a situation like that could come up and preparing yourself for it.
“We practice that every week during team drills to have that experience and to work off muscle memory.”
Lutz’s kick was the sixth walk-off field goal of Week 10, with five other members of the placekicking fraternity — the Cleveland Browns’ Dustin Hopkins, Houston Texans’ Matt Ammendola, Arizona Cardinals’ Matt Prater, Seattle Seahawks’ Jason Myers and Lions’ Riley Patterson — igniting buzzer-beating fireworks to lift their teams to victory.
“That was fun to watch,” Santos said.
It was an exhilarating week in which 60 field goals were made, including three from Santos in the Bears’ 16-13 Thursday night win against the Panthers.
Santos’ longest was a 54-yard shot in the first quarter that came immediately after his 49-yard make was nullified by a Bears penalty. With eye contact, Santos let special teams coordinator Richard Hightower and coach Matt Eberflus know he was ready for that second try.
Said Hightower: “When I looked across that field and he looked at me and I looked at him and coach looked at him and we all looked at each other? We knew it was going in. He wanted it bad.”
Santos’ reliability in erasing Cody Whitehair’s false-start penalty and securing three points in that moment was not lost on Hightower or the field-goal unit, particularly in a grind game like that. “It’s just one guy having another guy’s back,” Hightower said.
That was Santos’ fourth made field goal this season from 50 yards or longer, the last three coming at Soldier Field. To that end, he is proud of the growth he has made with long-range kicks, an area of emphasis during the offseason.
A missed 56-yarder indoors in Atlanta in Week 11 last season really bothered Santos. “I had the leg strength. And I wanted to hit that one,” he said. “But I knuckle-balled it.”
That kick fluttered just short of the crossbar. Thus Santos spent chunks of his training time this spring and summer dialed in on ball striking, working on the consistency of his steps and focusing on making clean contact on every kick, regardless of distance.
“I can’t say that I’ve picked up a lot of yards (in my range) per se,” he said. “I still have the leg strength I had last year. But I feel like with my long kicks, I’ve been hitting them so solid that they’re going in. … With all my 50-plus kicks this year, I’ve had to hit the ball exactly the way I did. A couple of those were into the wind too and I hit them absolutely perfect.”
Santos is 15-for-16 on field goals this season and has upped his five-season accuracy mark with the Bears to 90.3%. This week, he credited the ultrareliable long-snapping of Patrick Scales for a large part of his success and even recognized ideal surface conditions at Soldier Field.
“It’s pristine. It really is,” Santos said. “They have done a great job there and taken that element out of things so I can focus on just doing my craft.”
Santos also continues using his yearslong studies of wind conditions at Soldier Field as a valuable aid.
“From every time I’ve kicked there, I have a log of the winds,” he said. “It’s the directions the winds are coming from and what that does on the field. So now, a couple days before the game, I’ll check out the forecast. ‘OK, it’s going to be a wind out of the west. We can expect this.’ Then we get to the field and it’s doing exactly that.
“We’re finding patterns at Soldier Field. And in the past, we didn’t think there were patterns there.”
One pattern has emerged for the Bears. Santos continues to be the picture of consistency and a valuable asset.
The measuring stick
Back in the spring, Bears receiver Darnell Mooney was making an appearance on “The St. Brown Brothers” podcast when his computer connection went on the fritz. In the second minute of Mooney’s visit with teammate Equanimeous St. Brown and Lions receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, his camera feed cut off, prompting Amon-Ra to playfully express frustration with the technical difficulties.
“(Bleeping) Bears,” Amon-Ra said, palming his face and chuckling to himself.
“Hey, yo,” Mooney responded. “The Lions are still going to be the Lions. You had one good season, bro.”
Offseason trash talk at its finest.
Mooney’s clapback retraction, however, came Thursday at Halas Hall. Unprompted.
“I know I made a comment about the Lions being the Lions,” Mooney said. “They’re definitely not that team. They’re playing very good ball. Offense, defense, special teams. Kudos to those guys. Obviously we’re trying to get some wins here and hit our stride. So we’ll see.”
What a challenge this will be for the Bears on Sunday, a measuring stick on the road against a high-quality opponent.
The Lions didn’t make the playoffs last season but finished with eight victories in their final 10 games — two of those against the Bears. This season, they’re 7-2 and pushing for a potential bye in the postseason.
The Bears know what they’re facing. “It’s a big test,” Mooney said.
Tight end Cole Kmet agrees.
“Obviously their offense is clicking,” Kmet said. “So you have to be able to match points there. And defensively they’re playing pretty well (too). What we see from them defensively is really a sound group.”
Weird, right? The Lions. Locked in and clicking on all cylinders.
Even Kmet, who grew up in Arlington Heights as a Bears fan and therefore has built-in knowledge of the Lions’ enduring struggles, acknowledged it has been a bit odd this season to realize the Lions are the class of the division and a legitimate championship contender.
“It is,” Kmet said. “I don’t know if I can lie about that. It is (weird). But it’s cool to see, honestly. I mean, to see a team and how it has transformed itself over the past couple of years (is cool).
“I know some dudes over there. They’re loving the culture and what they’ve got going. You look at it and they’re one of the top teams in the NFL.”
Kmet was born in March 1999, five seasons after the Lions won their last division championship. It was the NFC Central back then. And since the NFC North was introduced in 2002, the Lions have enjoyed only five winning seasons and three playoff appearances while suffering 10 or more losses 13 times.
The franchise’s last postseason victory — and the Lions’ only one in the Super Bowl era — came in 1991. For perspective, Kmet’s dad was a senior defensive end at Purdue. Bears coach Matt Eberflus, meanwhile, was in his final season as a linebacker at Toledo.
The Lions are pushing toward their first NFC North title with a balanced and high-powered offense that ranks second in the NFL in total yardage (406.4 per game). They were thumped by the Baltimore Ravens 38-6 in Week 7 but otherwise have played pretty darn well.
The groundswell of belief within a normally pessimistic and tortured fan base has been so significant that Lions players thought they were playing a home game last week at SoFi Stadium during a thrilling 41-38 win over the Los Angeles Chargers. One longtime Lions observer estimated more than 20,000 Lions backers were in attendance with a major outbreak of FOMO spreading through the fan base.
So imagine what the environment at Ford Field will be like. And understand that even the Bears, from afar, are admiring the rise of their division rival and seeing it as a journey they’d like to replicate.
After all, just last season the Lions started 1-6 before their late-season surge. The previous season, the team’s first under coach Dan Campbell, they finished with a 3-13-1 record. And that came after the disastrous 2 1/2-season Matt Patricia era; Patricia won only 13 games before being fired after a lopsided Thanksgiving Day loss to the Houston Texans in his third season in 2020.
So yes, the Lions’ legitimate resurgence is a tale of hope for a Bears team that understands the pangs of unrelenting football woe. “You look at that model and obviously you want to follow that trajectory,” Kmet said.
As it relates to Sunday, the Bears have the chance to measure their improvement against one of the top teams in the conference.
For quarterback Justin Fields, it’s an opportunity to generate new momentum and belief after a four-game injury layoff.
For the Bears offense, it’s an opportunity to take care of the ball and make big plays against a good team in an unfriendly environment.
For Eberflus’ defense, this will be a test of its ability to continue stopping the run and playing well on third down while trying to create more pressure on the quarterback and splash-play opportunities that can swing a close game into an upset.
Said Kmet: “This is a good opportunity for us to go out and finally stack two wins in a row here and get something going.”
Mooney pointed out Thursday that he has never lost at Ford Field, a perfect 2-0 in his career. (He was on injured reserve in Week 17 last season when the Lions administered a 41-10 beatdown.)
Mooney also is expecting at least a few Lions fans to needle him about his spring comments. This time he won’t really have a retort.
“They’re playing good ball,” Mooney said.