Allen Park – The Lions are looking for something to lean on, someone to count on. A promising season could be in peril unless they rediscover what they do best, and do it emphatically.
It may seem early for a defining moment, but it's not. The Lions face the Bears in a Thanksgiving Day clash that's all about rivalry, revelry and a bit of cutlery, or Cutlery. Actually, Lions fans would settle for just a little clarity today.
For a 7-4 team with legitimate playoff aspirations as they head into a monstrous three-game homestretch, it's not exactly clear what the Lions do really well. They're ranked No. 1 in scoring defense (17.3 points) but slipped to third overall in yardage allowed. Their pass rush hasn't recorded a sack in two straight games, road losses to Arizona and New England. And their offense? It's an ugly puzzle, without a touchdown the past two games.
So this is it: Bust Out or Bust.
On the national stage, the Lions need Calvin Johnson to defy aches and age and be Megatron again against a tattered Bears secondary. They need Matthew Stafford to be sharp and loose, not cautious and confused. And they need their touted defense, led by Ndamukong Suh, to punish Jay Cutler as only Jay Cutler can be punished.
In other words, do what good teams do — flex their strength, even when the opponent knows it's coming. Johnson impacts games in multiple ways, and despite his injured ankle, still is capable of dominating. Every week? Maybe not. This week? Certainly.
"There's a lot of opportunity out there from watching the film," Johnson said. "We see that we can make plays out there, and we're going to have to do that in order to win. … We have too many playmakers not to be explosive."
Johnson wasn't being brash, but there was purpose in his words. The Bears lost top cornerback Charles Tillman for the year, and rookie flash Kyle Fuller could be sidelined with a knee injury. Chicago is 31st in the league in points allowed and 29th in passing defense.
At 29, Johnson is at a tricky juncture — past the peak of a Hall of Fame career but still drawing relentless defensive attention. The Patriots double-covered him, holding him to four catches for 58 yards, compounding a frustrating season.
This is a challenge for Johnson, who isn't connecting as well with Stafford in Jim Caldwell's system. He missed three games with an ankle sprain and was slowed in two others, and has 38 catches for 578 yards, well below his 2012 peak — an NFL-record 1,964 yards.
For a while — like when the Lions were 7-2 — it was fine. Golden Tate was compensating superbly and the defense was gnawing people. But now the offensive line is weakened by injury, the running game is non-existent and Stafford admits the offense is struggling to figure out what it does well.
All teams have wounds and deficiencies, just ask the 5-6 Bears. But the Lions have direction-changers in Johnson and Tate, and in their defensive line. Johnson insists he's the "same guy" despite lack of practice time and multiple injuries — knee, fingers, ankle — the past couple seasons. Caldwell, for one, isn't buying the Megatron Deconstruction Theory.
"I think the biggest thing is, you can just take a look, does he still run by people?" Caldwell said. "The answer to that would be yes. Is he still able to lay out and catch the ball, things that he normally does? Yes. I think that's what matters."
It would help if someone besides Tate complemented Johnson. The Lions batted passes around as if they were playing volleyball at New England. Stafford receives harsh scrutiny, rightly so, but incredibly after all these years, the Lions are still hunting for dependable receivers.
Corey Fuller — brother of Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller — let a possible touchdown pass slide through his arms last week, and acknowledges the pressure to produce. He also knows the next Megatron Moment is never far away. Johnson was spectacular with 164 yards in the opener against the Giants but has only two 100-yard efforts in his past 11 games.
"After every game, we sit next to each other on the bus and we can talk about anything," Corey Fuller said. "But he's never throwing any chairs or any fits. He's a professional, and he'll lick his wounds and be better. I feel like anytime Calvin lines up, he has a chance of scoring or doing something Megatron-ish."
The Lions defense also has to get back to being MegaMan-ish. Opponents have started neutralizing the fierce front four with short drops and quick passes. Cutler surely will try it with running back Matt Forte, who leads the Bears with 72 receptions.
Chicago has a trio of dynamic receivers — Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett — and its record is more a reflection of a defense that allowed 50-plus points to New England and Green Bay. But Cutler also has those entertaining give-and-take tendencies, leading the NFL with 18 turnovers (12 interceptions).
The Lions love the Thanksgiving platform, although they haven't exactly shown it. They'd lost nine straight before pummeling the Packers, 40-10, last season.
"The competitor within you, we are human, we do act off emotions," cornerback Rashean Mathis said. "We're not robots. So yeah, the spotlight brings a little extra intensity. But the magnitude of this game speaks for itself. It's enough for us to get up for the game regardless if it was played in the backyard, the alley or the parking lot."
The Lions know it's a short distance from the stage to the alley. To avoid that trip, their best must be their best.