Last Sunday, they drove to Chicago—and were blown out. In the process, their playoff bus suffered a blowout, too. Now the Lions have to somehow keep pace with the Bears while staying ahead of teams like the Atlanta Falcons.
If the Lions are going to make the playoffs, Matthew Stafford is going to have to metaphorically step up: stop pressing, trust his teammates, rediscover his confidence and complete short passes effectively. However, he's also going to have to literally step up.
As the first half approached its final minute, the Lions had driven all the way to the Bears' six-yard line. With a touchdown here, the Lions could stop the bleeding and have a chance at going into halftime down 20-10. The Lions went with a shotgun spread formation:
As you can see, the play was a resounding failure. Let's break down what happened.
Just before the snap, Stafford makes eye contact with Calvin Johnson. Despite wildly missing Johnson on the play before, Stafford looks as though he is planning on looking Johnson's way.
At the bottom of the screen, Titus Young and Nate Burleson are being loosely covered in obvious man coverage, and the single high safety is showing no signs of coming over to help. The linebackers are shaded heavily over to the strong side.
After the snap, the pocket sets up very nicely. Stafford is still staring at Johnson, while Burleson blows past his man inside. The safety, along with all three linebackers, is preoccupied with Brandon Pettigrew. Maurice Morris stumbled right here, but is about to release in the clear with nobody on him.
Stafford drifts toward Johnson, waiting for the opportunity to pull the trigger.
At this moment, Gosder Cherilus releases his block, as does Stephen Peterman. They seem to have assumed Stafford is safely in the pocket. Instead, Stafford has drifted so far that the Bears defensive linemen now have a clear shot at the wayward quarterback.
Look how deep Stafford is. He started in the shotgun and took a five-step drop from there, putting him ten full yards behind the line of scrimmage. He's on step six right here, just realizing he's wandered into the path of two now-unblocked linemen. Nate Burleson is still filthy open, as is Maurice Morris. Calvin is still locked up, though, and Stafford will be sacked before he can even attempt a desperation heave Johnson's way.
The Lions offense is built, at least in part, on having too many weapons to cover. The old saw "take what the defense gives you" absolutely applies. While forcing it to Calvin Johnson is usually a fine idea, Stafford passed up both a sure touchdown and an excellent safety valve by trying to do so. Meanwhile, by not staying disciplined in the pocket and trusting his protection, Stafford wasted some great work by his teammates, and a golden chance to get back in the game.
Let's take a look at what happens when everything goes right:
It's earlier in the same drive, and nearly the same situation. It's 3rd-and-5, and again the Lions go with a shotgun spread. This time it's Young and Maurice Stovall to Stafford's left. Again, they're being covered in (very) soft man. At the snap, Stafford quickly reads Pettigrew, Stovall and then Young while he takes two steps, hitches and fires.
Stafford has time to step into this throw and rotate through to his shoulders—something he rarely did on Sunday. He gets a lot of zip on the ball, getting it to Young before the corner can catch up to his second move. In fact, if Stafford had led him a little bit, Young could have done some damage after the catch.
Now, this isn't to hang everything on Stafford: he was let down by his receivers several times throughout that drive, and many times throughout that game. But if the Lions are going to make the playoffs, Stafford must step up in the pocket, trust his linemen and receivers to do their job and execute the offense as he's done so well, so often.