I am a hardcore fan of the Detroit Lions. Some sports fans would consider that an introductory statement for a twelve step program designed to help addicts. It has never been sexy to be a fan of the Detroit Lions, at least, not in my lifetime. The Lions have been the poster boy for inferior sports teams. They have been a perennial loser that is the butt of jokes on late night television.
Nobody is more aware of this dysfunction that Lions fans themselves. It has taken a yeoman's dose of hope and courage to keep plugging away during decades of frustration. I know, I have been there for pretty much all of it. The Lions won their last championship a year before I was born.
For those of us who have suffered so long, we have witnessed a hopeful glimpse of the future in the Monday Night Football contest against the Chicago Bears. For the first time, we have seen a little of the vision that Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz share about how to build the Detroit Lions into a championship caliber team.
We have to start with the understanding that the Lions are being built in all three phases of the game: offense, defense, and special teams. There is no desire to create an unbalanced team that is completely dependent on outscoring their opponents in a shootout, or beating the opposition in low scoring defensive battles. The Lions want to be capable of doing it all. That is how you build a team that wins over the long term.
On Monday night, the Lions did not dominate in special teams, but they did make some important plays there. The Detroit special teams units are capable of putting the opposition in poor starting field position on both kickoffs and punts. This was very evident against the Chicago Bears and their All-World return man, Devin Hester. Meanwhile the Lions have their own serious return threat in Stefan Logan. While special teams were not a huge factor in the game, that is a victory against the Bears.
The offense finally showed the running game that the Lions coaches have envisioned. It will probably never be a consistent running game. It is a big play running game. Jahvid Best will have a lot of rushes for two or three yards, then boom, he will take one for 40 yards and leave the defense scratching their head. It will force the defense to respect every play as a run because even one running play could be points for the Lions.
The Lions have been one block from a big run so many times this season that it was becoming ridiculous. The big runs against the Bears were a result of hard work for many games prior to this. Now that tape is out there and other teams know. The Lions will get respect for the running game. It might take three games to get another huge rushing performance from the Lions, but they are starting sooner this year than they did last season. The trend is good.
On the passing side of the offense, nobody can deny that the Lions are capable of scoring on any given play. This is the most explosive Detroit Lions passing offense that we have seen in many years, probably challenged only by the Run 'n' Shoot years. The best part is that the Lions do not need a gimmick offense to score fast now.
They also have the ability to eat the clock with methodical drives down the field, using both rushing and passing. That was the big knock on the Run 'n' Shoot in Detroit. They could not eat the clock and left the Lions defense on the field too much. While the Lions are not dominating the time of possession, they are splitting it almost evenly. That prevents the opposing defense from getting a large advantage in rest. As this offense improves, and they will, the time of possession will move more in favor of the Lions.
This was also a decent game for the Lions in converting third downs into first downs. The Detroit offense was successful on 5 of 11 third down conversions for a 46% success rate. That is better than the Lions season average and shows some progress in making the offense more consistent. While the coaches would certainly like the offense to do even better on third down, it is still steady progress.
The defense was almost exactly what Jim Schwartz expects against the Bears. Chicago was forced to move down the field methodically and convert third downs to sustain drives by avoiding big plays. The Bears were successful on only 4 of 13 third down plays for a 30% conversion rate. If the Lions defense can continue to post such third conversion numbers they will make a lot of stops and keep the Lions in every game.
While Matt Forte had some nice runs against the Lions, they didn't surrender the big explosion play that put points on the board for the Bears. This forces Jay Cutler to make plays to a shaky receiver corps. Only the ability of Cutler to extend plays and make good throws on the run kept the Bears in the game at all.
When the Lions defensive line started to wear down the Bears offensive line, the pressure on Cutler became unavoidable. Small gaps that Cutler was able to sneak through in the first half were closed up later in the game and the pocket seemingly collapsed around Cutler from all directions. This pressure is a direct result of how the Lions defensive line is built.
The arrival of Nick Fairley to the lineup has allowed a nine man defensive line rotation that keeps the Lions fresh and puts continual pressure on the opposing offensive line that wears them down. Late in the game this became hugely evident as the Bears grew increasingly unable to block the Lions pass rush. While the rush was already a factor in the early game, it became dominant in the late game.
Certainly the Lions have a long way to go before they play at the top of their game. Matthew Stafford can improve his accuracy some. The receivers can still get a bit better chemistry with Stafford. The offense can be more consistent in blocking for running plays. The special teams have yet to post a dominant game. The defense can still be better against the run, and the short passing game. The defense can get more turnovers than they did against the Bears. All three phases of the game can work to eliminate penalties.
With all the opportunities that the Lions have to improve, it should be very encouraging to Lions fans that their team is winning despite the problems. When the Lions finally put their top performance on the field for 60 minutes they will be a dominant team. At that moment, Lions fans will be able to drop a tear of joy to see how their team has become one of the very best in the NFL. Maybe even in NFL history. But we are getting much ahead of ourselves there. For now, even a glimpse of the future that we have is quite a marvel to an old time Lions fan that remembers from whence we have come.