In 2013, Detroit finished third in the league in passing (280.1 yards per contest) and 13th in points per game (24.7). Chicago finished second in points per game (27.8) and fifth in passing (267.6).
Both units were expected to ratchet up the production this season, yet through 11 games, the Bears and Lions offenses have been disappointments.
Currently, the Bears rank 19th in points per game (21.5) and 14th in passing yards per contest (246.1). The Lions have the 10th ranked passing offense (251.7) and are 28th in the NFL in scoring (17.9 points per game).
When you consider the talent level on both rosters, it’s hard to fathom how both teams have so completely underachieved. For Chicago, it’s even worse when you consider the two blowout losses to the Patriots and Packers, during which almost all of the offensive production came in garbage time.
The Bears have six Pro Bowlers on offense, a quarterback with a cannon for an arm (Jay Cutler), two of the biggest and most productive wideouts in the game (Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery), and one of the best all-around running backs (Matt Forte). Yet the offense has been shut out in the first half of three of their past five contests.
“I think it’s been disturbing that we haven’t been able to move the ball the way we would like to in games; that’s a fact,” head coach Marc Trestman said today.
The Lions have a quarterback who threw for 29 touchdowns last year and 41 touchdowns just three seasons ago (Matthew Stafford), the best wide receiver in the game (Calvin Johnson), and a lightning-and-thunder running back duo that is two parts of arguably the best backfield in the league (Reggie Bush, Joique Bell and Theo Riddick).
Yet despite an embarrassment of riches on the offensive side of the ball, the Bears and Lions are barely keeping their heads above water.
The Lions are 7-4 but they’ve lost two in a row and would be below .500 if they didn’t have the top-rated defense in the league. Detroit’s record is in no way reflective of the play of the offense.
Stafford (13 touchdowns, 10 interceptions) hasn’t thrown a touchdown in two straight games, both of which featured Megatron out wide, and has one or fewer touchdowns in six of his 11 starts. He hasn’t thrown three or more touchdowns in any game this year and has topped 300 yards passing just twice.
Cutler (22 touchdowns, 12 interceptions) has posted better numbers but his wildly inconsistent play and penchant for drive-killing turnovers is one of the main reasons the Bears are under .500.
So what has gone wrong?
“I don’t know if [the offenses] are similar,” said Trestman. “I know that they’ve had a hard time scoring the last few weeks. We’ve scored the few weeks, not to the extent that we’ve wanted to. You can look at it any way you want. We’re just trying to focus on what we can do better and that is to be more consistent on offense and to use opportunities to make plays. We need to do that from start to finish. We haven’t done that the last couple weeks.”
For both teams, pass protection has been a major issue. Last season, the Lions allowed the second fewest sacks in the league (23) and the Bears allowed the fourth fewest (30). Through 11 games this season, the Lions have already allowed 11 more sacks than they did all of last year (33, fifth most in the NFL) and the Bears have given up 27 sacks, more than all but 11 teams.
The lack of consistent production up front cannot be understated, as it’s impossible for an offense to click on all cylinders when the quarterback is taking a beating. Until the front fives shore up the pocket and keep the signal callers upright, neither the Bears nor the Lions are going to improve their pass rankings.
Injuries to key skill-position players have also taken their toll, particularly in Detroit. Johnson has missed three games and was severely limited in two others due to an ankle injury, while Bush has missed four contests due to injury.
For the Bears, Marshall has been dealing with injuries to both ankles since Week 1, while Jeffery was hampered by a hamstring injury earlier in the year. In addition, all but one of Chicago’s opening day offensive linemen have missed at least one contest, with their best blocker, Matt Slauson, on injured reserve.
The coaching staffs of both teams also deserve much of the blame. For the Lions, Joe Lombardi has appeared overmatched in his first stint as an NFL offensive coordinator. For the Bears, opposing defenses have seemingly figured out Trestman’s offense and he’s been slow to adjust.
Yet for both struggling passing attacks, it comes back to the quarterbacks. A few years ago, Stafford and Cutler shared the cover of Sports Illustrated’s NFL Preview issue with the headline “Where did all the gunslingers go? To the NFC North, that’s where.”
Unfortunately for both offenses, their gunslingers have held them back this season. Cutler leads the league in total turnovers, while Stafford has struggled mightily to finish drives (the Lions have converted just 50 percent of their red-zone trips into touchdowns).
It’s great to have quarterbacks with legitimate NFL arms but both Cutler and Stafford, who have combined for 22 interceptions this season, have made countless mistakes, showing limited field vision and accuracy that comes and goes at a moment’s notice.
On Thanksgiving, these two gunslingers will square off at Ford Field. The passer that can climb out of his funk and put multiple touchdowns on the board will likely lead his team to victory. The other signal caller will go back to the drawing board to figure out how the train got so far off its tracks.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.