Heading into Thursday's game in Detroit, the Bears were well aware of their opponent's defensive prowess. The Lions had the league's top-ranked run defense, behind a ferocious, physical line and a strong, smart collection of linebackers. Through their first 11 games, the Lions allowed just 3.1 yards per rush; in only one of those contests did their opponent record more than five rushing first downs.
Chicago's approach was to use their short passing game as an extension of their run game.
"They've got a good defense," quarterback Jay Cutler said. "It's hard. You know, I think we went into the game thinking some of these shorter passes would be an extension of our run game, some longer handoffs. It worked early on and then we had to try and push the ball down the field a little bit."
The Bears, who averaged 24.5 rushes per game heading into the matchup with the Lions, ran the ball only eight times on Thanksgiving. As Cutler mentioned, the team ran several screens, swing passes and other quick throws, which serve a similar purpose as runs. But in terms of actually handing the ball off to running backs, the team did it just eight times, the fewest single-game rushing attempts by the Bears since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
The plan to beat the Lions through the air seemed like a smart one: A week ago, New England carved up the Lions defense with short throws to its backs, receivers and tight ends. However, the Patriots also ran the ball 20 times, gaining 90 yards and scoring two touchdowns on the ground. Bears coach Marc Trestman thought his team could duplicate that performance by having Cutler throw quickly to receivers on the outside. While the strategy worked for a bit, the Lions defense eventually bottled up the Bears offense completely.
"That's how we looked at it, is using those to get outside, to get them running sideline to sideline and it started well for us We just couldn't sustain it," Trestman said. "I don't know if (Detroit) did anything (to adjust to the Bears game plan)."
Rookie Ka'Deem Carey finished the game as the Bears' leading rusher with eight yards on two carries, including the team's longest run of the game, for a grand total of five yards. Starter Kyle Long, who entered the contest in a tie for seventh in the NFL in rushing, had six yards on five carries.
Forte did have six receptions, for 52 yards. Alshon Jeffery, the recipient on many of Cutler's quick throws, made nine catches for 71 yards and two touchdowns – one of which came on a screen after Cutler checked out of a run call. Tight end Martellus Bennett, another frequent target on the short passes, had eight receptions for 109 yards.
Still, after a first quarter where Cutler completed 7-of-8 passes for 67 yards and the two touchdowns, the Chicago offense didn't do much at all. The Bears had six first downs in their first three drives of the game – all in the game's opening 15 minutes – followed by eight total first downs in the team's eight subsequent drives extending deep into the fourth quarter.
The Lions scored 21 unanswered points in the second quarter, causing the Bears to throw more downfield passes. Chicago ran the ball just once after halftime.
"It's difficult on any quarterback to throw the ball that much," Trestman said of Cutler's 48 passing attempts. "We got down by two scores and felt we had to throw it a little bit more by just kicking the ball out and some short throws. We just didn't get it done, we didn't convert, we didn't complete the ones we needed to complete."
During the loss, Forte set the Bears' single-season franchise record for receptions (78) and receiving yards (650) by a running back. But because the team lost, the running back was in little mood to celebrate, especially after he had his fewest carries in a game since December 4, 2011 - a contest he left in the first quarter because of an injury.
"It's just frustrating because as a team, the talent we have on our team, we definitely are underachieving," Forte said about the loss and the team's 5-7 record on the season. "A few guys have to do some soul searching for the rest of the season and plan how they want to play the rest of these games."