DETROIT – In the aftermath of Sunday’s 20-17 loss to the Detroit Lions, Bears coach John Fox made his way through a crowded locker room to seek out offensive linemen Ted Larsen and Charles Leno Jr., whose holding penalties on consecutive plays had nullified long pass completions that had put the Bears within scoring range in the final minute of this game.
What was said between coach and players remained private, but it was perhaps a snapshot of the inner workings of a team that fell to 3-10 and officially out of the playoffs, but has almost mysteriously held together week after frustrating week.
“We were trying to go down and either tie or win the game,” Fox said. “Those are parts of the game, things we have to clean up, get better and learn from hopefully. You don’t see those types of things until you look at the tape, but we’ll evaluate that, correct it and move forward.”
“Things” obviously extended beyond just some issues on an offensive line that had taken generally excellent care of quarterback Matt Barkley through three starts, and of running back Jordan Howard, on track for a 1,200-yard rookie season.
Maybe it means something that the winner were the Lions (9-4), the team that perennially squandered talent and opportunities but now hasn’t given up more than 20 points in seven straight games and has come from behind in eight of their nine victories. They’ve been where the Bears are. Where once they privately expected something to go wrong, now “when we’re in those situations,” said linebacker DeAndre Levy, “we expect to win. It’s not as much hesitation as it once was.”
Maybe this is just what happens to a team beset by youth as much as anything else. In the critical red-zone possession by the Lions just before halftime, the Bears were facing Matthew Stafford with six rookies on the field (linebacker Leonard Floyd, defensive end Jonathan Bullard, linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, cornerbacks Deiondre Hall and Cre’Von LeBlanc and safety Deon Bush) plus cornerback Bryce Callahan and safety Harold Jones-Quartey, in their second years, and not including second-year nose tackle Eddie Goldman, not in when the Bears go nickel personnel.
The Lions did score a go-ahead touchdown on a throw from Stafford to ageless (36) Anquan Boldin when Jones-Quartey fell down in coverage. But the Bears also recovered to be in position to win in the fourth quarter behind a quarterback (Matt Barkley) making his third NFL snap, throwing to a second-year undrafted receiver (Cam Meredith) after taking the snap from a rookie center (Cody Whitehair).
“There’s always going to be a learning process,” said defensive end Akiem Hicks, “whether you’re going from scheme to scheme, or whether you have young guys that haven’t had a lot of snaps in the league.”
This time the loss came less because they weren’t good enough, but because they had again beaten themselves. For the fourth time this season, the Bears had a fourth-quarter lead and lost.
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Which is part of how teams produce 3-10 records, and frustration. Frustration because for a brief time Sunday afternoon in Ford Field, the Bears played like a good football team. Trailing 13-3 with 6 minutes to play in the third quarter, they responded, on successive possessions, by:
- scoring on a 31-yard pass from Barkley to Meredith late in the third quarter. 13-10, Lions.
- Intercepting Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford in the end zone;
- Driving before punting and putting the Lions at the Detroit 9;
- Intercepting Stafford again, this time scoring on the Cre’Von LeBlanc interception and 24-yard return; 17-13 Bears, 7 minutes to play.
From that point on, the blizzard outside Ford Field was matched by one of Bears gaffes inside. The Lions drove down the field, aided by a 15-yard facemask penalty on defensive end Cornelius Washington and a 13-yard pass-interference flag on cornerback Bryce Callahan, scoring on a 9-yard run by Stafford through the middle of missed tackles and bad angles for the clinching score.
“This one hurts,” said linebacker Pernell McPhee. “The offense gave us a good chance to win. [We] just didn’t finish it.”
The offense self-destructed on its own, with the holding penalties that negated a total of 50 passing yards and had taken the Bears to the Detroit 16 and then the 30, only to have it moved farther back. When the final pass bounced off the shoulder pads of receiver Josh Bellamy, with a timeout and time for a tying field goal, little was left to be said.
The Bears indeed had no one, certainly not the officials, to blame for this one but themselves. With a first down at the Detroit 11 on their opening drive, the Bears took consecutive pre-snap penalties, on Larsen for a false start and Barkley for delay of game, and were forced to settle for 3 points instead of 7 in a game that was lost by… 3 points.
The Bears were penalized a total of 139 yards, nearly all with direct impact on the outcome. The Lions on their first touchdown drive picked up 43 yards on two coverage infractions by cornerback Tracy Porter. The Callahan and Washingon flags came on the second Detroit scoring drive.
“I think our margin for error right now is very minimal,” Fox said in something of an understatement.