The Detroit Lions' great equalizers

October, 11, 2011
10/11/11
2:15
AM ET
Jahvid BestLeon Halip/Getty ImagesJahvid Best's 88-yard touchdown gave the Lions an 11-point lead late in the third quarter.
DETROIT -- Make no mistake: The Detroit Lions gave their city a first-in-a-generation scene Monday night.

Michael Buffer bellowed the pregame introductions. Barry Sanders took the field as an honorary captain. A record crowd at Ford Field induced nine false start penalties and later emptied into the streets as if the French Quarter had been transported north. Detroit's burgeoning cadre of celebrity fans, including pop stars Kid Rock and Uncle Kracker, held court in the Lions' postgame locker room.

It's a sight I won't soon forget. Neither will the 67,861 in attendance nor the Lions' still-gestating roster. But to me, the takeaway memory of the Lions' 24-13 victory over the Chicago Bears was the evidence that Monday night won't be a once-in-a-lifetime event.

The Bears matched up well against the Lions, largely stifling their offense and moving the ball decently against their defense. At halftime, the Bears led 10-7. But no matter how the Lions play, they have a critical ingredient that helps any good team navigate dips in efficiency: The ability to score easy touchdowns. In the NFL, that attribute is known as "explosiveness," and for the Lions it is the ultimate equalizer.

The Lions won Monday night largely because of three huge plays:

  1. Receiver Calvin Johnson's 73-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter.
  2. Running back Jahvid Best's 88-yard scoring run in the third quarter.
  3. Best's 43-yard run in the fourth quarter, which put the Lions in position for a game-clinching field goal.

Those three plays totaled 204 yards, or 51.6 percent of the Lions' total offensive output Monday night. They had 191 yards on their other 43 plays, an average of 4.3 yards per pop.

"Our playmakers answered the bell tonight for us," receiver Nate Burleson said. "We knew we were going to need that."

It probably didn't surprise the national television audience when quarterback Matthew Stafford caught the Bears trying to defend Johnson with a single-high safety in the second quarter. Johnson blew past strong safety Chris Harris and free safety Brandon Meriweather was too late providing help.

But Best was another story. He had averaged 3.2 yards per carry over the Lions' first four games and hadn't produced a run longer than 19 yards. Most of us had written off both him and the Lions' running game, but the mistake was forgetting what Best can do when he gets in the open field.

Crushing blocks from right guard Stephen Peterman and right tackle Gosder Cherilus opened a crease at the 12-yard line in the third quarter, and Best said: "I figure if I get in the open field, nobody should catch me. I knew nobody was going to catch me from behind."

It sounds simple, but not every NFL team has one player like a Johnson or Best: Someone who can turn a relatively simple play into a game-changing touchdown.

It's true that the Bears have been vulnerable to the kind of runs Best broke. Entering Week 5, they were allowing 5.3 yards per rush between the tackles, the NFL's third-worst mark. And some of you might like Best to provide more of a consistent threat.

Since joining the Lions last season, Best has five carries that have totaled 229 yards. He has averaged 2.9 yards on his other 238 carries. But what he did Monday night helped win a key NFC North game and, more importantly, will have ramifications for the rest of the season -- even if he never comes close to replicating it.

"When you have a quarterback like we have, when you have a receiver like we have, you're probably not going to be a team that's going to run the ball 40 times a game," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "So we're going to do what it takes to win the game, and we have a lot of explosiveness in our pass game. You saw the way it was able to be effective. We ran the ball well enough to be able to set it up."

Indeed, the Lions' third touchdown came on a play-action fake to Best. That's how tight end Brandon Pettigrew got wide open for an 18-yard touchdown reception. Monday night, Stafford completed all five of his play-action passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Hereafter, Lions opponents who overlook Best, or lose track of him, will do so at their own peril. NFL teams fear players who can score on their own and build game plans around them. The Lions have two great equalizers in their arsenal, and that's the scene I'll remember from Monday night.

"I don't think we proved anything," Stafford said. "We go out … expecting to win every game."

With big-play weapons like Johnson and Best, the Lions have every right to feel that way. I don't know where this magical season will take them. But they've shown us they have the ingredients to continue winning well into January.

Now, wouldn't that be a scene to remember?

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