Allen Park — The last time they played the Chicago Bears, the Detroit Lions left so much meat on the bone.
This Thursday, in the team’s annual Thanksgiving Day game, the Lions get a chance at redemption, against a wounded Bears team with a coaching staff on the ropes. To get that elusive first win, in what is arguably their best remaining chance, the Lions must not waste any opportunity to pick the carcass clean.
“We did some things good the last time we played them and the turnovers killed us,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said this week. “I think some of that is us just trying to be smart when we get down there and give ourselves a chance to possess the ball and then see if we can get it in there.”
In that Week 4 matchup at Solider Field, the Lions drove inside the Bears’ 10-yard line with each of their first three possessions, yet somehow came away with zero points in the 24-14 loss.
Almost anything that could go wrong for the Lions that game, did.
In the opening quarter, a miscommunication led to Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow prematurely snapping the ball to quarterback Jared Goff on first-and-goal from the Chicago 8. Not only did the Lions lose the ball after it ricocheted off Goff’s chest into the arms of Bears defensive lineman Bilal Nichols, they lost Ragnow. It turned out to be his final play of the season due to a severe toe injury.
The Lions also lost one of their best defensive players for the season that afternoon when outside linebacker Romeo Okwara tore his Achilles.
And while it might feel like a distant memory with how well he’s been playing the past month and a half, first-round draft pick Penei Sewell had his worst performance of the season against the Bears. He allowed seven quarterback pressures and two sacks, including one that saw Goff get stripped of the ball on the third of those three first-half red-zone trips.
Of course, that never happens if Goff doesn’t miss wide open receiver Kalif Raymond for a touchdown four plays earlier.
Back to the defense, Detroit’s tackling, which has been a sore spot much of the year, was at its absolute worst against the Bears. The Lions failed to wrap up a ball carrier a staggering 18 times in the contest.
And third-string cornerback and converted safety Bobby Price, making his second start after being prematurely thrust into the starting lineup due to mounting injuries in the secondary, was picked on and picked apart by rookie quarterback Justin Fields, surrendering 149 of the Bears’ 209 passing yards on the day before being permanently replaced by undrafted rookie Jerry Jacobs.
Yet, for all that misfortune, the Lions remained in it until the end. It wasn’t until another turnover in the red zone, with a little more than four minutes remaining, that the Bears able close the door.
Yet as Detroit prepared for the annual divisional rematch, there’s an acknowledgment only so much could be learned from the previous outing. That’s a testament to how much things change during the course of an NFL season.
“You look back on it, but we were a different team then, they were a different team then,” Goff said. “They’ve had some injuries, we’ve had some injuries. We’ve actually had people come back off with (Taylor) Decker coming back and added Josh (Reynolds). So, it’s a little bit different, but at the same time you do look at that and see things you like and see things that you maybe wish you would’ve had up that week and maybe put them in this week.”
Goff’s correct to note the personnel changes have been significant. Chicago recently lost superstar edge rusher Khalil Mack to a season-ending foot injury and Fields won’t play in this one due to a rib injury suffered last week against Baltimore. That paves the way for veteran backup Andy Dalton to step back into the starting role.
For the Lions, Decker’s return from a finger injury that sidelined him the first two months of the season has coincided with the emergence of a dominant ground game. In the past two weeks, a tie with Pittsburgh and narrow loss to the Browns, Detroit has rushed for 397 yards and three touchdowns on 62 carries (6.4 yards per attempt).
“It’s huge,” Goff said, as he looks to return to the lineup after sitting out last Sunday’s game with an oblique injury. “It’s always a quarterback’s best friend is the run game and when we’re rolling like that, you’d like to think that our play action game will become a little bit more explosive than it has been.”
As Campbell noted this week, the Lions did have some success running the ball against Chicago in Week 4, but felt like they had to abandon it after falling behind 21 points early in the second half.
If the Lions can sustain their recent success on the ground, as well as continue to produce turnovers like they have the past two games (three interceptions, two fumble recoveries), they have a very realistic shot of sending the Bears to a sixth straight defeat.
Last Thanksgiving, Detroit’s performance resulted in their coach getting fired. A year later, a victory has the potential to send Chicago’s Matt Nagy packing — notable given the Bears have never fired a coach midseason.
More importantly for the Lions, it would temporarily alleviate the frustrations of a season filled with oh-so-close moments and help the franchise avoid it’s second winless season since the turn of the century.
“Everybody is watching this game and everybody’s got their families at home and they’re all circled around the TV, they just ate or they’re going eat afterwards,” Campbell said. “I think it still rings true that it is special. And yeah, to your point, to be able to get a win on that day — look to get a win, period, is going to be freaking outstanding. But yes, to get it on Thanksgiving would make it that much more special.”