Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo, and Justin Rogers look ahead to this weekend's game with the Bears and the Lions' playoff chances. Detroit News
Allen Park — The formula is simple: If you want to beat the Chicago Bears, you’re going to want to stop the run.
With a rookie quarterback and a good defense, the Bears are built to control the clock by grinding it out on the ground. They do that with the formidable tandem of Jordan Howard and his shifty complement Tarik Cohen.
Howard is the bell cow of the Bears' backfield, a 225-pound bruiser capable of carrying it 25 times a game if needed. The 2016 fifth-round pick out of Indiana is in the midst of duplicating his impressive rookie season and currently ranks fifth in the NFL with 716 rushing yards.
“He’s definitely (powerful),” safety Glover Quin said. “He’s a big guy, coming downhill. He’s a good running back. He’s fast enough to pick up yards, quick enough to make you miss and powerful enough to run you over. He’s the real deal.”
Cohen, in many ways, is Howard’s opposite. He’s diminutive, but NFL standards, checking in at 5-foot-6 and 180 pounds. But the highly productive small school rookie has ported his knack for the big plays to the professional ranks, with a 46-yard touchdown run and 70-yard scoring reception on his resume after nine games.
“Like our coaches have been saying, he’s lightning in the bottle,” defensive tackle Akeem Spence said. “He can stick a foot in the ground, cut it all the way back and it’s a home run. When he’s in the game, we have to be alert for the outside zone, the stretch plays, screens, zones, all of that.”
In two of the Bears’ three victories this season, their offense has topped 200 rushing yards, churning out 222 in an upset of the Steelers and 231 in a road win over the Ravens in Baltimore.
Overall, the Lions have been decent against the run this season. The team is holding opponents to 102.4 yards per game and 4.0 yards per carry, which both rank in the top half of the league. But there’s been a concerning lack of consistency from the unit, with three opponents — the Falcons, Saints and Browns — topping 150 yards on the ground.
“When you play a team that’s able to run the ball on you, it’s not good,” Quin said. “It allows them to control the clock, allows them to control the game, opens up so many more things in their offense when you can’t stop run. We definitely have to be more consistent in that area.”
Despite netting a victory, the Lions are coming off a matchup where they allowed the Browns to run all over them. The 201-yard performance was both the opponent’s best and the Lions’ worst showings of the season.
“I think they did a good job in the run game,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “We did not. …We didn’t tackle. We missed tackles at the point of attack. We missed some fits, and again that goes back to me. Am I doing something wrong as we look at it, and we’ll make sure we get that fixed.”
The struggles against Atlanta were somewhat understandable. The team was missing linebacker Jarrad Davis and safety Tavon Wilson for the contest, two of the team’s better run-stoppers in the second level.
Full-strength two weeks later, the Lions held the Carolina Panthers to 28 yards, one of the finest run-stopping performances you’ll see. But the team lost defensive tackle Haloti Ngata in that loss and have struggled two of the past four games.
“You’re talking about one of the all-time premier run stoppers in the league,” Austin said. “Even in his advanced age, he was still a very, very strong run stopper for us. So, we’re missing him, but that’s part of the NFL. You’re not always going to have your good guys, and the guys that are in there have to step up, and we have to play better.
“It’s not just Haloti. We all have to play better, and I have to do a better job of getting them in position to play better.”
That task starts with bottling up Howard.
“A guy like him, we have to gang tackle,” Spence said. “His yards after contact is off the charts. He makes a lot of guys miss. And the stretch plays are what they’re killing people with and we obviously struggled with that against Atlanta. We have to be on our keys, our ending points, running to the ball and gang tackling.”
If the Lions can keep Howard in check — much like the Green Bay Packers did in a victory over Chicago last week — on top of preventing Cohen from breaking a big play, it will make the Bears one-dimensional.
That’s the Lions’ goal every week, but with a rookie quarterback, it’s even more crucial to coming home with an important division win on the road.
LIONS AT BEARS
Kickoff: 1 Sunday, Soldier Field, Chicago
Records: Lions 5-4, Bears 2-7
Line: Lions by 3