For three and a half quarters the Bears played aggressive football and dominated the Lions on both sides of the ball. On defense, they mixed up pressures, affected Jared Goff and forced turnovers. On offense, they stretched the field horizontally and vertically for chunk gains and touchdowns. It helped them build a 26-14 lead with just over four minutes left in the game.
The Bears looked different over those last four minutes, though. Instead of playing to win, it looked like the Bears were playing not to lose. Extra scrutiny was paid on the team’s second-to-last offensive drive. The team got the ball with just under three minutes to play, up 26-21, with an opportunity to ice the game.
Matt Eberflus said the directive for Luke Getsy and the offense was simple.
Stay in the game with the latest updates on your beloved Chicago sports teams! Sign up here for our All Access Daily newsletter.
“We need the first down,” Eberflus said.
Instead, the Bears went three-and-out and only gained one yard. They ran an inside handoff to Khalil Herbert for no gain on first down. An RPO handoff to Herbert for one-yard followed. Then Justin Fields heaved a deep ball to Tyler Scott on third-and-nine that fell harmlessly incomplete.
The Bears punted. The Lions marched down the field and scored the go-ahead touchdown.
The uninspiring series was a microcosm of what’s now an unsurprising collapse from the Bears. But Eberflus defended the play calling after the game.
First up was the explanation of the first-down inside handoff.
“We’ve been really running that play,” Eberflus said. “Obviously the cutback on the corner was where we wanted it. I thought they blocked it really well on that one.”
Makes sense. The run game has been the team’s strength for the past year and a half, so no reason not to open with a run– especially when you want the Lions to burn timeouts. Consider the opposite, too. If the Bears had opened with a pass that fell incomplete, fans would have been equally incensed.
Then there was the second down RPO:
“(The Lions) played way outside on that one, so we handed it off.”
Again, understandable. Inside handoff didn’t work, so why not put the ball in Fields' hands? He had been the best playmaker up to that point, so give him the opportunity to carry the ball if he got a good look. As it turned out, the way the Lions played it made the correct read a handoff. It went nowhere. Could the Bears have dialed up play action so that Fields would’ve had the ball in his hands no matter what? Sure. But again, there’s the chance to throw an incomplete pass and help the Lions.
Third down felt like the crux of the series. As Eberflus said, the team needed a first down. Getsy dialed up a crossing route to DJ Moore, but the Lions took away Moore, just like they took away Fields one snap prior.
“When the free safety comes down– which he did– to take away the crosser, we’re going to throw it over the top,” Eberflus said. “I thought (Fields) had a nice read there and I thought he just missed it by a step. I thought it was a good ball, just gotta run under the catch.”
To have a go-route to a rookie wide receiver as a secondary read on a gotta-have-it third down play is gutsy. It matched the aggressive nature of the first three quarters. But it was probably the wrong time to get aggressive though. That’s a moment where the Bears need nine yards, not a home run. If Getsy wanted to take a riskier swing, it probably would have made more sense on first or second down, not third down. By playing aggressively earlier in the series, the Bears afford themselves a little runaway to make up for a missed shot on later downs. By pushing it on third down, the Bears play themselves into an all-or-nothing scenario.
Eberflus said he had no problems with any of the play calls after the game. And if Scott doesn’t slow down for an instant on the deep shot, he has a much better chance of reeling in the catch. If he makes the play the Bears have a much better chance of winning, and there’s probably a lot less scrutiny for the playcalling.
But Scott didn’t make the catch and the Bears didn’t win. So we’re left wondering if the Bears could’ve capitalized on a golden opportunity to win a game if they had only pushed a few different buttons.