Okay, last thing first:
The one thing I’ve learned over the past two years of doing this preview, is that when the same teams play twice in a season, the results are rarely the same. But the data points to a repeat—and the injury problems for the Lions should be offset by the difference between a season-opening road game, and a midseason sellout. This is a statement game in many respects, and turnovers will likely make the difference. Last time, there were five fumbles (three lost), two picks, and 6 sacks for –42 yards. I see a similarly messy game this time around; how those turnovers and sacks are distributed will be the difference in the outcome. I am tempted to call this a draw, but at this point in the season, I’ll go out on a limb one more time—despite having a limb hacked out from underneath me three times already this season. I hesitantly project a 21-20 Lions victory, if for no other reason than the Lions need it much more than the Bears want it.
Right. At this point, I’m not even going to slap myself on the wrist—the numbers said this game was a push, and that’s pretty much what played out. The one thing I was most confident, about though, was wrong: the Lions played a nearly clean game and lost. Stanton was sacked only twice, for a loss of 20 yards. He threw no interceptions, and the Lions lost no fumbles. Meanwhile, the Lions sacked the Bears 4 times for a loss of 37 yards, and one of those was a sack-fumble inside the Bears' 10 that the Lions recovered. Clearly, the distribution of sacks and turnovers wasn't the difference in the game, as I said it would be.
Here’s where I tip my cap to Mike Martz. The offensive gameplan we saw in Week 1 was Mike Martz football: four wide, spread it out, throw throw throw, lots of yards, lots of picks, a tailback doing more damage through the air than on the ground. Here’s what I projected based on the numbers the Bears have put up all year:
It looks as though the only statistical trend for these two coaches, when facing off against one another, is that both units will play to their means: the 20.2-ppg Bears scored 19 against the 22.4-ppg Lions. Note, however, that that included about thirty minutes of shutout play in between Matt Forte receiving touchdowns. Given the data at hand, I’m inclined to project a repeat performance: 17-21 points, 7.50-8.00 YpA, and 4.0-4.25 YpC. I have medium confidence in this projection.
Here's what actually happened: the Bears scored 24 points, completed 21 of 26 for 9.00 YpA, and carried 28 times for 4.07 YpC. That's not Martz football, that's Bears football. The game plan went like this: run, screen, draw, slant, run, run, draw, screen, slant, run, draw, screen, slant, run, run. They partially neutralized the Lions’ blitzing, and put Cutler in great situations that minimized his opportunity to make mistakes.
Chester Taylor, a misfit toy who’s been paid a lot of money to not really do anything this season, had his coming-out party: 9 carries for 33 yards and a score, plus five catches for 31 yards. Forte, though not as devastating with the long receptions this time, was equally effective: 13 carries for 64 yards and a score, plus two catches for 36 yards. The Bears ruthlessly attacked the Lions’ outside linebackers, who were rendered helpless by Earl Bennett’s speed up the seam, and overmatched on screen by the Bears’ tight ends. Again, Mike Martz has found out how to make the Bears’ talent go, and had a perfect gameplan to attack the Lions’ defense.
This isn’t to say that Gunther didn’t do his job, too. Despite the steady diet of screens and draws, the Lions’ pass rush got to Cutler over and over again; both with well-timed blitzes and great front-four performances. The Bears’ gameplan was to minimize Cutler’s exposure and they still brought him down four times; that is impressive indeed. What we’re left with is what we knew all along: the Lions’ back seven cannot cover anybody
Everyone wants to know why the Lions can’t close out games; look at the opponent’s quarterbacks completing pass after pass after pass in the fourth quarter and you’ll see why. Eventually, the front four can no longer hold back the flood; the dam bursts. This is purely due to lack of talent, and cannot be fixed until the offseason.
Offensively, here’s what I projected:
Given a mild yard-producing advantage for Scott Linehan balanced offenses against Lovie Smith aggressive Tampa 2 defenses, I project the Lions to roughly meet expectations: 17-21 points, 5.50-6.0 YpA, and 3.50-3.75 YpC. I have medium-to-high confidence in this projection.
What the Lions did was move the ball better than they have all year.
They rushed for 4.96 yards per carry. They completed 16 of 24 passes, for 7.42 yards per attempt. On a per-play basis, this was the most balanced, most efficient offensive game the Lions played all year—and they failed to commit a single turnover. Let me tip my hat to Scott Linehan as well; he did a similarly masterful job in tailoring his offense to his quarterback’s strengths. Unfortunately, it only resulted in 20 points. Both teams were taking long, slow, controlled trips across the field—the Lions’ opening drive burned four minutes off the clock and only went 26 yards—so the Lions’ offense only had nine possessions. Part of it is simply missed opportunities; when you get a sack-fumble inside your opponents’ ten-yard-line, you have to score.
What’s funny is, every seasoned Lions observer threw up their hands when the Lions had to settle for a field goal there. The Lions’ radio play-by-play man, Dan Miller, fought to keep the frustration out of his voice as he talked about the importance of getting a touchdown in that situation. Sure enough, it was the difference in the game. This is why I don’t put a lot of stock in the “learning how to win” thing. The Lions don’t need to go to “put the boot on the throat” school, it’s the sum total of made mistakes and unmade plays throughout the game putting them on the wrong side of the ledger at the end.
This team's talent and execution is right there. I fully believe the Lions have made the jump into the Great Middle of the NFL; they can play and compete with anyone. However, their youth, inexperience, and lack of depth push them to the edge of their margin for error. If anything—anything—fluky goes wrong, they simply can’t make up for it. This is why the keep coming close, but can’t hang on. This is why they keep being right there, except for . . . This is why they’re 2-10, and not 6-6.