Known mostly as the game Gene Steratore and his officiating crew redefined what a catch is, changing the outcome of the entire game and delivering the first big controversy of the regular season, week one’s contest between the Bears and Lions was a division showdown pitting rivals with striking similarities: Two young, hugely-expensive franchise quarterbacks attempting to break through after a poor first season; two dominant defensive lines; two suspect-to-atrocious offensive lines.
Why this game was exciting: This game was exciting as determined by win probability, because the score was within one point for most of the second half, and because the two teams combined for seven turnovers including five fumbles lost (out of seven fumbles total.) That led to wild swings in win probability despite a static and nearly even score.
Turning of the tide: Detroit’s win probability peaked at 85% following a nine yard reception by Matt Forte with 1:25 left in the first half. On the very next play, Forte released out of the backfield into a speed out, Olin Kreutz submarined Julian Peterson with a pretty and perfectly-timed open-field cut block, and Forte ran up the right sideline for 89 yards and a touchdown. Three plays later, Julius Peppers ran under a block by Jeff Backus, turned the corner nearly uncontested, and blindsided Matthew Stafford for a sack-fumble recovered by Tommie Harris. Within little more than one minute of play clock, the Bears surged from 15% win probability to 54% win probability. Stafford would miss the next six weeks including the bye.
Five plays that defined the game:
5. Forte’s 89 yard reception: Whether it was Mike Martz stretching the field vertically through game planning or just an inability by the Lions' strong safety and linebackers to defend underneath patterns, the only thing that could stop passes to Forte was a slippery football. He was targeted seven times and made seven receptions for 151 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning touchdown reception. He burned Peterson on a wheel route and caught a back-shoulder throw in the end zone to put Chicago ahead 19-13 with 1:40 left in the fourth quarter. Following the kickoff the Bears win probability stood at 89%.
Chester Taylor added another 44 yards receiving on three receptions in four targets. Jay Cutler finished 10/11 for 195 yards (52% of his total passing yards) and two touchdowns on passes targeting his running backs, 21.4 AY/A.
4. Third and four, Cutler incomplete pass to Johnny Knox: Knox and Cutler displayed little chemistry in week one. The first of Knox’s seven targets was thrown into quadruple coverage. Peterson tipped the ball high in the air. The pass was then intercepted by undrafted rookie Aaron Berry. Berry was injured later in the game and missed the rest of the season.
Two of Knox’s seven targets fell incomplete because of route confusion. The third-and-four incompletion referenced above was a play in which Knox ran an out and Cutler threw a go. Free safety Louis Delmas had bit underneath, meaning had Knox run deep it would have been one-on-one in or near the end zone. He didn’t and the ball fell incomplete. Cutler finished 3/7 for 52 yards and an interception on targets to Knox, a handy 1.0 AY/A.
3. Fourth-and-one stuff at the Detroit one: This play is both noteworthy because of Lovie Smith’s brave and ultimately correct decision to go for it on fourth and one, and also because of how perfectly it encapsulated the game for both teams. The defensive line dominated. The tackle was awarded to Kyle Vanden Bosch - though second-year linebacker Zack Follett deserves at least partial credit - but the stop started when Ndamukong Suh forced back right tackle Frank Omiyale – disrupting a pull block attempt by right guard Lance Louis – and Corey Williams shed a cut block attempt by Kreutz and closed the interior. That forced Forte wide and allowed Vanden Bosch time to whip around from left end and tackle Forte from behind.
2. Brian Urlacher’s sack: Dominance doesn’t always show itself in the stat book. Nor, for that matter, does a long, failure riddled day on the gridiron. The latter belonged to Jeff Backus, the veteran left tackle trusted to protect Matt Stafford’s blindside. How's that going, Jeff? Having already cost Stafford nearly half a season, Backus managed to outdo himself on this play. Maybe not as measured by gross impact but definitely as measured by gross incompetence.
For most of the game, Backus served as a set piece in a Julius Peppers' highlight reel. Peppers switched over to the defensive left on this play, a rare blitz call by Lovie Smith. Peppers attacked the weakside edge, zipping around Gosder Cherilus and forcing Shaun Hill to step up into the pocket. Simultaneously, Israel Idonije knocked back and passed Backus on the inside with a simple arm over. Idonije drew a block by Jahvid Best, and that last blocker accounted for, a near-straight pass rush lane opened for Urlacher to Hill. Urlacher crushed Hill and notched the sack.
1. Calvin Johnson’s non-catch, catch: See below.
Official interference: Nothing is less exciting to the average football fan than official interference. This game was marred with big swings decided by the referees. The second touchdown scored by Best was initially ruled short. Urlacher fought through a pull block by Rob Sims, contained Best and allowed Chris Harris to strike Best and stop the play short of the end zone. The play was reviewed, and though no evidence that Best broke the goal line was shown, the ruling on the field was reversed.
From a win probability standpoint, that play proved relatively inconsequential. What wasn’t, what was in fact decisive and worth almost 100% win probability by itself, was Calvin Johnson’s tumbling touchdown reception ruled incomplete, challenged and upheld. The particulars of which have been rehashed to death. For our purposes, whether the ruling was correct or not is immaterial. It certainly was not exciting.
Overall, the Lions netted 168 total yards. Another 100 yards were awarded because infractions by the Bears. That is not a recipe for exciting football.
Subjective excitement index: So, in these long few months before the 2011 season (hopefully) starts, is week one’s showdown between the Lions and Bears the kind of thrill-a-minute slobberknocker a football fan should seek out and watch or re-watch? Is it, subjectively speaking, the kind of game that electrifies a football fan’s soul? - whatever that means. No, probably not.
Both offensive lines were badly overmatched and that led to a chaotic game. While scoring and offense hardly determine whether a game is exciting or not, some kind of equality of ability and moreover some kind of variety of ability, the proverbial trading of haymakers, defines a good game. This game was one-sided no matter who had the ball. Both defensive lines dominated their offensive line counterparts. Both teams' ground attack remained grounded. The Lions only managed 13 first downs, three of which were achieved in their final drive. The innate drama of that drive was thwarted by official interference and is, how would you say, nerfed by the fact that we all know how it ended. Apart from the outright dominance displayed by both defensive lines, the game produced few highlights. Receptions and interceptions were dropped or missed. I have seen better organized blocking on an electric football table. Charles Tillman intercepted a pass intended for Calvin Johnson in which Johnson lost his footing and fell down. Of the superstars on display, namely Peppers, Johnson, Suh and arguably Best and Forte, only Peppers and Forte had exciting games; and Forte’s production was more valuable than sensational. There wasn’t a sense of discovery, as Suh was mostly workmanlike, Berry left early because of injury, and Best was contained.
Final Verdict: Exciting only to Bears fans, Lions fans (less so) and fans of dominant defensive line play. Eminently skippable.