The Chicago Bears get to see how they stack up against the best teams in the division, and one of the best in the conference.
And it’s the Detroit Lions.
That might still be a strange thing to get used to considering the Lions’ futility over the past few decades. But general manager Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell have built quite the operation in Detroit. It’s a high-octane offense. They have a star on defense. They’re the class of the NFC North now and for the short term.
The last time the Bears had a mini-bye, their offense couldn’t figure out the Vikings defense, even at home. Now they head to Ford Field to face the 7-2 Lions. It’s Justin Fields’ return to the lineup. It’s another opportunity for newcomer Montez Sweat to make an impact. It’s a huge test for a defense that has played well over the past six weeks. It’s another chance for coach Matt Eberflus to get his first division win.
And nearly every matchup is going against the Bears.
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At a minimum, the Lions provide hope for the Bears. It took them a long time to figure things out, and there’s no guarantee for how long it will last, but only once have the Bears had as much juice as this year’s Lions team in the post-Lovie Smith era — 2018. By Sunday, we’ll know how close they are to trying to pull their own “Lions” or how far away they are from the new division leaders.
Now, on to your questions.
Hey, Kevin, always enjoy reading your work. As C.J. Stroud continues to impress, doesn’t it become more apparent that Poles might not be the best person to make the call on the Bears’ next QB? — Bryan T.
This is going to be a legitimate question to think about moving forward, not just through the lens of the upcoming quarterback decision, but in hindsight. Why didn’t Poles stay at No. 1 and draft Stroud?
That’s probably a separate story, and one day can be analyzed in full, but for the sake of this question, it’s how we move forward in judging Poles as a quarterback evaluator.
Fans of many teams, namely the Carolina Panthers, are probably asking the same question. Stroud is already playing like a top-10 quarterback. He’s in the MVP conversation. And it’s not like he’s on a team full of Pro Bowlers. He has a first-time head coach and first-time play caller and is putting up historic numbers.
A lot of teams missed, especially knowing the Bears’ No. 1 pick was for sale.
Now, Poles is among the GMs who could have had Stroud, who, based on early returns, seems destined for a very good career. But he’s not alone. If anything, this is another reminder of how tricky quarterback evaluations can be. This isn’t Aaron Rodgers falling or Russell Wilson going in the third round. Stroud did go No. 2. But other teams could’ve had him, including the Bears.
(Whether or not he’d be as good in Chicago … well, that’s a hypothetical you’re all welcome to entertain in your free time).
I’m not ready to use that situation as a reason not to trust Poles’ next decision at quarterback. If the Bears think they erred, they should identify what they might have missed in evaluating Stroud — or, if it turns out they’re moving on from Fields, why they felt sticking with Fields was better than going with Stroud. Those are questions for Bears president/CEO Kevin Warren to ask.
But this is an inexact science, and the Bears never get it right.
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We see that all of the top NFC teams like the Eagles, Niners, Cowboys and Lions draft and sign mediocre to above-average QBs but place them with talented rosters around them. With that logic, why is there a narrative to draft a QB and put him in a mediocre offense, when franchise-changing players like Marvin Harrison Jr. and Olu Fashanu (and even Brock Bowers and Joe Alt) are available in our projected draft positions? — Mike S.
None of those teams you mentioned has won a Super Bowl with their current quarterbacks, Mike!
OK, I’m nitpicking, but I do think it’s worth remembering the best team in football has the best quarterback in football, too. And the Eagles’ quarterback was second in MVP voting last season. The 49ers’ quarterback is first in QBR this season, the Cowboys’ quarterback ranks third and the Lions’ quarterback is sixth.
These quarterbacks, while either not high draft picks or, in Goff’s case, someone who didn’t work out and was traded, are all playing at a high level.
We can certainly argue that having great talent around them has allowed that to happen. Play callers also are a major factor.
The Bears tried to create that environment for Fields with the acquisition of receiver DJ Moore and using a top-10 pick on right tackle Darnell Wright. The results haven’t been there consistently this season. Would two of the players you mentioned make the difference? Maybe. But you also worry about running into the Jay Cutler conundrum, where for years the Bears kept adding players around Cutler, and in the end — not all Cutler’s fault — it never worked out.
If Caleb Williams or Drake Maye can be the type of premier quarterback who elevates those around him, you take that quarterback every time. We’ve seen it with Stroud. He’s turned the Texans into a contender.
The teams you mentioned, too, have so much more blue-chip talent than the Bears. Multiple Pro Bowl players. Taking two surefire players as opposed to one and then a quarterback gets them closer, but those teams have the luxury of not spending big resources at quarterback because of how deep their rosters are. The Bears don’t have that. And I’m not sure how close two top-10 picks would get them as opposed to a potential franchise quarterback.
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Do you have any understanding of how the organizational structure works above the coaching staff? Does Poles answer to Warren, or is it like the Hawks where the “president” is focused on business, and both they and the GM report directly to George? — Vince M.
While Warren’s expertise in stadiums certainly played a role in his hiring, and is a major part of his job, he oversees the GM. Chairman George McCaskey did for one season, then they switched the reporting structure back after hiring Warren.
“Ted (Phillips) had told me about his intention to retire and we just felt with all that he was taking on with the stadium and so forth and his impending retirement, that it was best to have the general manager report to me,” McCaskey said in January. “When we assessed Kevin’s strengths as an executive, it just made perfect sense to me to go back to the general manager reporting to the president and CEO.”
What does the kicker situation look like after this year? Is Cairo the long-term guy? If so, what will his salary look like? Is the franchise tag a possibility? — Brendan H.
Santos is in the last year of his contract. If the Bears used the franchise tag on him, it’s an estimated $5.393 million for 2024, per Over the Cap. That would slot Santos as the fourth-highest-paid kicker in the league, per average salary.
He’s kicking at an extremely high level. Santos is 4-for-4 from 50-plus, something he worked on this offseason. He’s missed two kicks all year — one extra point and one field goal. Santos is well-respected in the building. He’s been reliable this season, both on field goals and kickoffs.
Could Santos earn a new contract before the end of the season? It’d be an example of rewarding someone who bounced back, assuming he keeps up his productive season. Ten years ago, Robbie Gould got a late-December contract extension.
Then again, what’s Poles’ philosophy on kickers? Santos has earned his keep this season. He would be one of highest-paid kickers in football if he got a new deal here or the franchise tag. Some teams, understandably, believe they can go find a kicker on the cheap who can perform well. Others, also understandably, don’t want to let go of someone as trustworthy as Santos when so many games come down to a kick.
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Kevin, a technical defensive question that I hope you can ask the coaching staff. … The Bears, seemingly to me, rarely deflect passes at the line of scrimmage (would love to see their rank, at the line of scrimmage, not counting in the secondary). Deflected passes are hugely underrated in my opinion because not only do they count as an incomplete pass, but best case, into an interception. I’m constantly yelling at the TV, “Hands-up” at the snap. — Dave B.
While I wasn’t able to figure out where the Bears rank in the league, their seven passes defensed by defensive linemen actually is tops for the division with the Lions. Justin Jones, the shortest of the pass-rushing D-linemen, leads the team with three. I asked defensive line coach Travis Smith about Jones’ secret to success, and what the longer guys up front can learn from him.
“Justin does have a good awareness,” he said. “Everyone’s working in the pass game to rush, whether it’s create momentum and counter it, or get on the edge and convert where they can get to the quarterback. But he does have a good feel where, OK, he might have not won, or he might have not got there, and when he feels those passing lanes looking at him, he does a great job of playing the eyes of the quarterback where he gets those batted balls. He almost got another one in Washington. He was inches off that ball.
“For the bigger guys, you would think, they’re basketball players. Well, they’ve got to have a feel and awareness for when they don’t win, fronting the quarterback, get those hands up. They’re working so hard to rush and convert and affect the quarterback, too, but that’s a secondary process of it. When I don’t win, how else can I affect the quarterback? Don’t let completions happen. Make sure I bat those balls down. You never know if you tip it, who’s gonna get that thing. That’s something we work at, we talk about. It’s something that hopefully they see Justin do and they can help us affect that more.”
Bears-Lions fun facts
• The Bears lead the all-time series 104-77-5.
• The last time the Bears went to Ford Field was New Year’s Day, a 41-10 loss, their worst against the Lions since 1981.
• Matt Nagy was undefeated at Ford Field. Eberflus, Marc Trestman and John Fox have combined to go 0-6 in Detroit.
• It will be the Bears’ first game against running back David Montgomery, who has 501 rushing yards this season and seven touchdowns. He’s averaging a career-high 4.7 yards per carry.
• Former Bears Kindle Vildor, Michael Schofield, Bruce Irvin and Daurice Fountain are on the Lions’ practice squad.
• This is the sixth time this century the Lions are at least a touchdown favorite against the Bears. They’ve won the previous four.
Game picks: Bears (+7.5) at Lions, noon CT on Fox
Kevin Fishbain: Lions 36, Bears 25
(6-4 straight up, 4-5-1 against the spread)
As well as the Bears defense has played the run and on third down, this isn’t a great matchup when the Lions have so many weapons and a stellar offensive line. This is a game in which the Bears need sacks and takeaways, two things that have eluded them under Eberflus. I’m looking forward to seeing this Bears offensive line and Fields’ return, but if Detroit’s offense has its way, Chicago’s has not shown it can go score for score.
Adam Jahns: Lions 23, Bears 16
The Bears have one of the best run offenses and the Lions have one of the best run defenses. The Lions also have one of the best run offenses, while the Bears have one of the best run defenses. Who will break through or break down first? This should be a hard-nosed game, and the quarterbacks should have opportunities to be the difference in it. The stats say that Jared Goff should win.
Dan Pompei: Lions 41, Bears 10
The only time the Bears played an elite team this season, they lost 41-10 to the Chiefs. The last time the Bears and Lions played, the Bears lost 41-10. And here we go again. The Lions, with help from a highly motivated David Montgomery, could score a lot of points in this one.
Jon Greenberg: Lions 34, Bears 24
I had to go through the 2022 schedule to remember how the Bears lost last year. I knew they did, of course, because Matt Eberflus is 0-8 in the NFC North, but I forgot the Bears lost at home 31-30 in the second week of November on a late 91-yard drive from the Lions. Justin Fields went off, though, with two passing touchdowns, two rushing touchdowns and 314 total yards. On New Year’s Day, however, it was a different story as the Lions scored 31 unanswered points in a home blowout. Fields is back now. Can he propel the Bears to a win over the Lions against heavy odds? Probably not, but I was tired of watching Tyson Bagent play, so it’s nice to have him. (No offense.)
Colton Pouncy (Lions beat writer): Lions 31, Bears 20
The Lions start off slow and overlook an improved Bears team. DJ Moore gets loose for big gains a few times against this Lions secondary, as does Fields in open space. Chicago keeps it close and hangs around, but the Lions ultimately pull away late in the third quarter at home.
(Top photo of Ryan Poles: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)
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