A shortened version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press.
On Thanksgiving Day, Matthew Stafford had his finest game in two months in leading the Lions to their best offensive performance since week one.
Stafford posted season highs in completions (34), completion percentage (75.6 percent), and yards (390) as the ice cold Lions’ offense awakened from its season-long slump to score four touchdowns in a satisfying 34-17 win over the hapless Chicago Bears.
The team started poorly (a strip-sack of Stafford set-up the Bears at the Lions’ five-yard line) and Chicago stormed out to a 14-3 lead.
However, the offense responded with a confidence-boosting drive of its own culminating with a beautifully thrown touchdown pass from Stafford to Calvin Johnson. It halted Detroit’s drought of 25 consecutive possessions without a touchdown and was the first of three straight touchdown drives to end the half. Let’s examine the score that broke the proverbial ice.
The Lions face 3rd-and-six from the Bears’ 25-yard line. Chicago shows blitz before the snap, stationing two defenders in the A-Gap. They send five rushers and play Cover 3 on the back-end.
The Lions attempt to stretch the defense both vertically and horizontally with their alignment and route concepts. They attack the seams with both slot receivers (No. 2 receivers) running vertical routes at the numbers, while the outside receivers (No. 1 receivers, closest to the sideline) also go deep. It’s a perfect play call by offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi because in essence, the Lions have four receivers running vertically against just three defenders. In Cover 3, the cornerbacks take away both outside receivers. This leaves the deep safety, in this case rookie Brock Vereen, to defend against two seam routes.
One defender blitzes up the gut while the other falls back to defend the middle of the field. Center Dominic Raiola is responsible for the defender who dropped so he has nobody to block. Instead, running back Joique Bell is called upon to thwart the blitzing defender and slows him down just enough. This gives Stafford time to survey the field and make a decision.
Johnson gets a free release off the line and gets behind the first level defender. Stafford reads Vereen and rookie corner Kyle Fuller (playing right corner on the outside across from brother Corey Fuller) and determines he can fit the ball in between three Bears. In this frame, Stafford is already winding up to throw as Johnson clears the underneath defender.
Vereen actually cheats to Johnson’s side and is in position to make a play on the ball. Fuller (No. 23) comes off his brother to try to defend the pass.
Stafford takes a big hit after the throw but throws a dart to Johnson and puts it on the money. He does a tremendous job of anticipating the throw and trusting his receiver to make a play.
Johnson high-points the football, and although Fuller does his best to rip it away, the decorated Megatron makes a play that fans are accustomed to seeing: he comes down with the football amidst two defenders.
Vereen is unable to make up enough ground and fails to even hit Johnson. It was poor safety play from the rookie and will certainly serve as a teaching point for the youngster.
Stafford continued performing surgery against the Bears’ zone coverages. Here, the Bears play Cover 2 and again send an extra rusher. Credit the game plan from Lombardi, who knew he had to give his beleaguered offensive line help. This is a two-man route with Johnson and Jeremy Ross as the receivers. Bell eventually releases and is Stafford’s check-down.
The Lions use play-action, which momentarily freezes the two linebackers responsible for the short middle. Fullback Jed Collins flattens the blitzing backer, giving Stafford clear vision and an easy window to throw the football.
Bell’s delayed route attracts the attention of the underneath defender, giving Johnson plenty of space in the middle of the field. He comes wide open and Stafford hits him in stride for 20 yards.
The Lions repeatedly gashed the Bears’ zones. Chicago tried disguising their coverages to no avail. Here is another receiver running free, this time it’s Corey Fuller on a post against Cover 3.
The linebacker doesn’t drop deep enough, and with the corner responsible for his deep third on the outside, Fuller easily gets inside leverage. The safety in the deep middle has no shot to make this play and it results in an easy pitch and catch for 21 yards.
Now Ross joins the party. This is 3rd-and-six with the Lions trailing 14-10 in the second quarter. Golden Tate (bottom of the screen on the outside) runs a short in-route at the sticks, while Ross runs a dig. Pre-snap, this looks like the Bears could be in Cover 2, but the safeties rotate at the snap and it becomes Cover 3 again.
The route from Tate attracts the attention of the nickel back (orange box). Ross slips behind him in the soft spot of the zone and Stafford delivers a strike.
Stafford was excellent in this game at staying calm and patient in the pocket, which allowed routes to develop down the field. This play was a great example of his pocket awareness as he stayed poised and found the open receiver with bodies flying around him. Props to the offensive line as well for keeping him clean (Stafford was sacked twice) after an unsteady start.
In the first half alone, Stafford was 22-of-26 passing for 275 yards, five completions of 20 yards or more, and two touchdowns. Let’s look at the final ‘chunk play’ of the explosive opening half for the offense.
With the Lions running their two-minute offense, the Bears went to a Tampa-2 look to try to prevent the big plays. The Tampa-2 defense initially looks like a Cover 2 with two deep safeties stationed near the numbers. However, it becomes a Cover 3.
Named after the Tony Dungy-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the late 1990s, the Tampa-2 calls for the middle linebacker to drop into the vertical seam over the middle, taking away a typical Cover 2 beater like a seam route or a post.
The Bears have middle linebacker Jon Bostic running down the seam. The Lions send Tate and Eric Ebron on post routes, putting Bostic in a bind.
Stafford knows he wants to target Tate so he manipulates Bostic. He looks to his right at Ebron and gives a subtle ball-fake, which causes Bostic to flip his hips and step away from Tate.
This gives Stafford the space he needs to rifle a throw to Tate for 24 yards.
After Tate was targeted just twice in Arizona, coupled with the missed opportunities against the Patriots, the offense was rightfully blasted for two weeks. But the group finally played to its potential and answered the critics on Turkey day, with Stafford and Johnson in particular looking like the record-setting duo of old.
Sure, it was only one game against one of the worst pass defenses in the league, yet it was comforting to see a glimpse of what this offense can do when clicking.
With the defense consistently playing well, the Lions need the offense to build off of last weeks’ impressive performance. If they do, this team will secure a playoff berth.
Credit to NFL Game Rewind for the game film. All Illustrations and GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter for the purpose of reporting, commenting and critiquing.