30 Oct 2007
by Ned Macey
The Lions have been so bad this decade that they warrant a punch line more often than real analysis. This year they quietly ran their record to 4-2 but remained easy to dismiss. Their two losses were horrendous performances against Philadelphia and Washington. The Vikings missed a possible game-winning field goal. They had a somewhat wacky late-game comeback against the Bears. The Buccaneers seemingly handed them the game last week. Now, they beat the Bears when Brian Griese throws three interceptions in the end zone.
At 5-2, however, can we still consider them a fluke? Their DVOA, which considers every play on the season, still sees them comfortably as a below-average team. The two losses are seriously weighing down that number. They are average to above average in all five of their wins, and they just played their two best games of the season.
Chicago, meanwhile, is fully living up the Super Bowl Loser's Curse. Griese has played inconsistently and has been unable to save the season. More importantly, the Bears run defense has struggled all season, which puts too much pressure on an untalented offense. The blame is now shifting to Cedric Benson, the starting running back, but he is only one small problem in team-wide dysfunction.
In the incompetent NFC West or NFC South, the Bears could still hold out hope of a late-season playoff run. The NFC North was the ugly stepsister in recent seasons, but this year, the Lions and Packers are both off to solid starts. The Bears had a home game against the Lions with a chance to get back to .500 and failed to get it done.
Their once-stout defense is no longer a dominant unit. Their defensive line is struggling against the run, as new starter Mark Anderson is more of a pass rusher. Free agent acquisition Anthony Adams is not as good a defensive tackle as the departed Tank Johnson, and they miss depth at that position that was provided by Alfonso Boone. The secondary is struggling with poor coverage from safeties Danieal Manning and Adam Archuleta. The continuing injury to Nathan Vasher has hampered their ability to play more aggressive defenses, leaving them in a zone defense where the Lions could successfully isolate receivers on the safeties.
Of course, a two-deep zone had been wildly successful for Washington against the Lions. The theory is to keep the safeties deep and test offensive coordinator Mike Martz's patience. The Lions did a better job against this scheme last week facing Tampa Bay, but the Bears still had to hope Jon Kitna would self-destruct if the big play was taken away.
The Lions remained patient throughout. They attacked with Kevin Jones on the ground, and like many Bears' opponents, he found open running lanes. Jones topped 100 yards for the first time this season. Jones' return from a Lisfranc injury has done something more important than revitalize the running game. Martz seems to trust Jones more than he trusted Tatum Bell, so his play-calling has become much more balanced.
Still, Jones was hardly consistent, combining a few big runs with a great deal of no-gainers. The real key was the sound play of Kitna. He kept his composure and avoided the crucial mistake. He threw two nearly-intercepted passes on the first drive but made solid throws after that. He did not take unnecessary risks but still played aggressively, hitting a number of passes down the seam in front of the safeties. Most importantly, he neither threw an interception nor fumbled the ball. One would think that is not a rare feat, but Kitna has only done it three times in his 23 games as the Lions starter.
Despite Kitna's improved ball security, the Lions offense continued to stall in the red zone. The threat of the deep pass disappears, and defenses take away the underneath routes. Without the capability to stretch the field vertically, the Lions are neutered. Their overall red zone offense is one of the worst in the league, while they are league-average or better everywhere else.
Chicago's defense's ability to hold in the red zone -- the Lions three times stalled inside the 10-yard line -- left the game in reach. Unfortunately, the Bears offense did not take care of the football. While Kitna struggled to find players in Lions jerseys in the end zone, Griese had no such problems. One week after leading a heroic last-minute drive in Philadelphia, Griese threw interceptions on three of the last four Bears' drives. Two of those were in the end zone, although the last one was more or less meaningless.
Griese's failings were particularly troubling because pass defense is the Lions' presumptive weakness. The secondary is not exactly filled with big names. Philadelphia proved that if you avoided pressure up front, you could find holes in the zone. Griese never found those holes. He averaged fewer than 10 yards per completion, excelling in the dumpoff rather than the downfield strike.
The failure to exploit the Lions secondary highlights the declining fortunes of Muhsin Muhammad. Rarely mentioned in reasons for the Bears' demise, the presumptive number one receiver is on pace for only 38 catches, his lowest total since 1997. Muhammad is 34 years old, and he should be in decline. Bernard Berrian, the second receiver, is not adept at the intermediate routes where Muhammad excelled. As a result, the Bears have no consistent wide receivers.
Speaking of aging players, the Bears offensive line is filled with them. Benson and his 3.1 yards per carry is a convenient scapegoat because we have easily accessible statistics for running backs. Benson has run tentatively at times this season, but he is far from the only cause of the running game's struggles. The offensive line features four players on the wrong side of 30. The Bears struggle in particular running to the left behind John Tait and Ruben Brown.
Benson is truly struggling and not running the ball well. People forget, however, that he was just as successful as Thomas Jones a season ago. The in-house alternative is Adrian Peterson, but he has been just as bad as Benson. Peterson's higher yards per carry are largely a function of the plays he is being asked to run. Almost half of Peterson's yards have come on third down, but many of those are hopeless third-and-long draws. He has only five first downs on 12 third down carries.
The simple truth is that the Bears failed to meaningfully address these problems in the off-season. After a Super Bowl season, it is hard to pull the trigger on a major move. The Bears only addition was their first-round pick, tight end Greg Olsen. They seemed to place faith in the improvement of Rex Grossman or Benson, but the vast majority of the supporting players were old. Those players were likely to decline rather than improve. Now, the team is falling apart, and the holes are readily apparent. They have only a handful of clearly above average offensive players, namely Berrian, center Olin Kreutz, and perhaps Olsen.
The Lions were able to thwart this offense with what any observer must admit is limited defensive talent. The defensive line is their most talented group, but while it played the run well, it hardly dominated on passing downs. Still, Griese made numerous mistakes against the supposedly weak secondary.
That secondary has been highly opportunistic this season. Cornerback Fernando Bryant has finally stayed healthy, and while he is not likely to make the Pro Bowl, he provides stability in an otherwise questionable unit. Keith Smith played well on Sunday, stepping in for the injured Travis Fisher, and he may be the Lions' second-best corner. This group leads the league with 13 interceptions.
The defense emphasizes takeaways, and they also have recovered seven fumbles for a league-leading 20 turnovers. Legitimate questions remain about whether or not this streak is sustainable. The Lions have only faced two above-average offenses according to our DVOA ratings. One of those was a Philadelphia team that put up 56 points. The other was Tampa Bay, who marched the ball up and down the field only to shoot themselves in the foot at crucial time with unforced errors. The Lions neither intercepted a pass nor forced a fumble against the Buccaneers.
The rest of the season is not promising for the defense. They face only three below-average offenses in nine games, and one of them, Arizona, certainly has the weapons to threaten the Lions. Teams have moved the ball well on Detroit all season, but the Lions have saved themselves with their knack for key turnovers. The superior offenses they face going forward are much less likely to make such crucial mistakes. If the defense gives up more points, as expected, the offense must improve in the red zone to win the ensuing shootouts.
While the Lions are unlikely to continue to win games at this rate, they could reach the playoffs with a 4-5 finish. That certainly is possible, if far from a sure thing. They have two games against the Packers, and they still have to play the Chargers, Giants, and Cowboys, all of which will be prohibitive favorites. For a franchise that has not won more than six games since 2000, this conversation alone is the sign of progress.
For a team that has won the past two NFC North crowns and represented the NFC in the Super Bowl a season ago, a 3-5 record is disastrous. The Bears defense is no longer adominant unit, and the offense does not have the talent to compensate. The Bears made their one big move by going to Brian Griese, and that move was the right one. Now they will fight towards becoming relevant again but likely remain on the outside of the playoff picture. They will shortly start to think about having to rebuild for 2008, and the holes that were overlooked last off-season will have to be addressed.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
45 comments, Last at 01 Nov 2007, 7:22am by Matt Saracen - QB1 - Dillon Panthers