MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA'S FRIDAY FOCUS: Lions big man with surprisingly big words

Posted Sep 27, 2013

Typically soft-spoken Calvin Johnson admits to disliking this week's opponent -- the Chicago Bears -- which could set the tone for the entire team

In a big game – the biggest to date of the Lions' young season – the Lions' big man on offense has some surprisingly big words about the Chicago Bears.

Calvin Johnson, normally soft spoken and inclined to let his actions on the field speak for him, admits to disliking the Bears.

The way Johnson's teammates follow his example, his attitude is a good sign for the Lions as they prepare to face the Bears at Ford Field on Sunday.

Week 4 of the NFL season is too early for a showdown game, but the Lions can tie the Bears for first place in the NFC North with a victory. The Bears are 3-0 and a game ahead of the Lions, who are in second place alone at 2-1.

Some of Johnson's feelings stem from the Bears beating the Lions nine times in 12 games since he came to the Lions in 2007. And some of it is because of the relative success the Bears have had defending him.

Adding to Johnson's desire to win is how the Bears have diminished the home-field advantage with the large number of fans who invade the Lions' domain to support their team.

"It's easy to have a dislike for them," Johnson said after practice Thursday. "It's not hard at all. They're filling up the stadium a lot with a lot of Bears fans. That's one reason we can't stand them.

"But we're going to have a good showing. We've had two good practices so far this week. Guys are focused in.

"We don't like those guys, so it's going to be a good little showdown."

One of the goals the Lions set for this season is to win games against division opponents and win at home. They didn't do either last season. They were 0-6 in NFC North games and 2-6 at home.

The Lions opened the season with a 34-24 win over NFC North rival Minnesota. Beating Chicago would make them 2-0 at home and 2-0 in the division.

It's simple math that beating division teams and winning at home makes the path to winning the division and making the playoffs easier.

"We've got a big divisional game," Johnson said. "We have one (Minnesota) already. It would be great for us if we come in and get another one. It's another game, but it's a divisional game so there's definitely more importance on this one.

"We definitely have to be focused in."

Johnson's comments should not overshadow the approach the Lions have taken to this season. They don't expect to win games on emotion or by talking a good game.

As this week's Friday Focus shows, both teams have advantages that could swing the game in their favor.

The Lions did not play a complete game in victories over Minnesota and Washington, and certainly not in a loss at Arizona two weeks ago. Chicago needed a last-minute pass to beat a strong Cincinnati team in the opener.

The Lions have shown some good things in the first three games. Matthew Stafford has been on his game, and they've generally been good up front on both sides of the ball. The rebuilt offensive line has protected Stafford well, and the front four on defense often has been disruptive, led by Ndamukong Suh in the middle.

But the Bears have been good, as their 3-0 record shows. The defense is as good and oopportunistic as ever, and the offense has improved with Jay Cutler operating behind an offensive line that hasn't made him feel like a pop-up target on a carnival midway.

The Lions are playing with purpose. They have an edge that was lacking all of last season. They know they have to prove themselves every week.

"It's a constant proving ground," said center Dominic Raiola. "Look how easy you get tagged – 'same old Lions.' Every week is a proving ground for us. That's the way we like it. That's how everybody in this locker room feels.

"There's a good vibe around here. We're going to keep it that way."

My prediction for Sunday: Lions 26, Bears 17.

History:

The Bears have a 96-65-5 series lead and a 9-1 record in the last 10 games. The Lions' only victory in that period was 24-13 in a memorable 2011 match-up at Ford Field on Monday Night TV. The Lions are 5-5 against the Bears at Ford Field.

Stats pack:

Bears rankings: Offense (17 rushing, 21 passing, 22 total); Defense (14 rushing, 14 passing, 11 total).

Lions rankings: Offense (26 rushing, 2 passing, 4 total); Defense (15 rushing, 18 passing, 18 total).

Making points: The Lions are tied for 16th in points allowed with 69 and sixth in points scored with 82. The Bears are tied for 19th with 74 points allowed and third in points scored with 95. Both teams have scored nine touchdowns on offense. The Bears have scored three defensive TDs. The Lions have one.

Key Bears stat: Second in the league in turnover differential at plus 6. They've returned three turnovers for TDs.

Key Lions stat: Rookie punter Sam Martin has boomed eight of his 11 punts 50 yards or longer. Martin ranks sixth in the league in both gross punting average (48.5 yards) and net (42.7).

Third-degree:

Third-down conversions are vital. The edge goes to the Bears on offense and to the Lions on defense.

The Bears have converted 44 percent on third down (18-41) to 37 percent for the Lions (12-37). On defense, the Lions have held opponents to a league-best conversion rate of 26 percent (9-34). The Bears have allowed a conversion rate of 45 percent (17-38).

Personnel:

Both teams are dealing with season-ending knee injuries sustained last week that force changes on their defensive lines.

Henry Melton, the Bears' Pro Bowl tackle, and left defensive end Jason Jones of the Lions both are out with knee injuries.

The Lions had a double-dose of bad luck. Wide receiver Nate Burleson is out for an extended period with a broken left arm sustained in a car crash early Tuesday morning.

Ryan Broyles has to step into Burleson's spot, but that leaves open the question who will move up to take Broyles' spot.

On the plus side for the Lions, Reggie Bush is back after missing last week's victory over Washington with a knee injury. Joique Bell proving himself a capable replacement for Bush gives depth at running back.

On defense, Willie Young starts at left end with Jones out. Israel Idonije has yet to make the impact expected when the Lions signed him in the offseason.

For the Bears, Nate Collins, who has never started a game in four NFL seasons, is the likely replacement for Melton. Collins entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent. He previously played for Jacksonville and signed with the Bears in 2012.

Returns:

The Lions haven't gotten anything in punt or kickoff returns. Penalties on punt returns have put them in a negative position too often.

Devin Hester is the premier return specialist of his era. The Lions' cover teams have been strong in the first three games. It's important for Sam Martin to neutralize Hester with directional punts and kickoffs out of the end zone.

Hester gives the Bears a weapon that the Lions cannot match. He has to be defused.