The Detroit Lions (2-1) face off against their heated rivals, the Chicago Bears (3-0), this week in a battle for first place in the NFC North. Though the Bears have won five of the past six in this rivalry, four of those victories were by less than a touchdown. With both teams heading into Sunday with a winning record, I think we can expect another nail-biter. But, first, we must consult the almighty charts.
Lions pass offense (2nd) vs. Bears pass defense (24th)
The Lions pass offense has continued to roll early in 2013. All of Matthew Stafford's numbers are up from 2012: he's completing 4% more of his passes, for 1.6 more yards per attempt, and has a passer rating 20 points higher.
However, there are some reasons to temper expectations. First, the Nate Burleson injury (pizza) is going to hurt this team. Through two weeks, Burleson had more than double the receptions of all other wide receivers on the roster not named Calvin Johnson. The Lions will need the likes of Ryan Broyles, Kris Durham and their tight end crew to step up in his absence.
Also working against the Lions' favor: all three of their opponents, thus far, rank in the bottom seven in pass defense (by yardage). As you can see from the charts, their opponents are also giving up monster numbers in passer rating. The Lions pass offense has yet to be challenged by a true, tough defense. But it looks like it will change this week.
...or not? The Bears have yet to hold any opponent under their passing averages in yardage or passer rating. Opponents haven't had that much trouble moving the ball through the air against Chicago, completing 65.4% of their passes (21st) for 8.8 yards per attempt (29th). The Bears have also forfeited the most passing plays of 20+ yards in the league (18).
Where the Bears excel defensively is disruptive plays. They are tied for third in interceptions (5) and lead the league in forced fumbles (8). This comes as no shock to anyone who has watched the Bears in the last decade.
Player to watch: Charles Tillman's health. Tillman has shut down Johnson in the past two years, holding him below 80 yards in each matchup. Tillman is fighting a groin injury but is expected to play. If he shows any sign of struggle, Johnson will likely take advantage.
Advantage: Lions +2. The Lions also get Reggie Bush back this week, which will be huge in the passing game. The Bears defense, although opportunistic, is not the threat we're used to seeing. They have only managed 5 sacks this season and rank in the bottom half of the league in almost every statistical category. Expect Stafford to move the offense methodically for a large portion of this game.
Lions run offense (26th) vs. Bears run defense (8th)
Well, the running attack optimism was fun while it lasted. The Lions couldn't get it going against the poor Washington Redskins defense last week, which doesn't give me any reason to believe they'll get it going any time soon. The Lions are averaging just 2.9 a carry for the season (28th). Bush's return should help this week, but not a lot. He's only averaging 3.8 a carry.
This is more in tune with the Bears defense we all know. Aside from last week, the Bears have held their opponents at, or below, their season averages. Overall, the Bears are allowing just 3.5 yards per carry (tied for eighth).
Player to watch: Nate Collins. Collins takes over defensive tackle duties after Pro Bowler Henry Melton tore his ACL last week. This appears to be good news for the Lions:
Bears opponents average 2.9 yds/rush with Henry Melton on the field this year. Without him on field, the Bears are allowing 5.9 per rush.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 26, 2013
We'll see what Collins can do with a full week of preparation.
Advantage: Bears +1. It's unlikely that the Lions get things going on the ground this week, but that hasn't really slowed the offense too much through three weeks. What the Lions cannot afford, however, is to turn the ball over on the ground. So no more reckless stretching the ball out for a few extra feet. I'm looking at you, Joique Bell.
Bears pass offense (21st) vs. Lions pass defense (19th)
While not racking up the yardage, Jay Cutler and the Bears passing offense have been extremely effective and efficient. Like Stafford, Cutler's statistics are all up from 2012: He's completing 8.5% more of his passes and his passer rating is up about 13 points.
Overall, the Bears rank 10th in passer rating (94.2). They are fifth in completion percentage (67.3%), but they are just 18th in yards per attempt (6.9). It's fair to conclude that they are a bit of a dink-and-dunk passing offense. The Bears, also, don't really spread the ball around too much, as only five players have recorded a reception (for comparison, the Lions have 11).
I haven't quite figured out the Lions pass defense yet. They've done a decent job holding teams at or below their passer rating, but haven't faced a particularly good passing offense yet. All the bare statistics look good for the Lions. They rank seventh in passer rating allowed (70.8), tied for fifth in pass plays of 20+ yards allowed (8) and have only given up 2 passing touchdown all season.
However, the pass defense isn't really holding up too well to the eye test. We have seen a fair amount of coverage breakdowns from the Lions, but they've yet to face a quarterback who could take advantage. At this point, I remain skeptical of the pass defense, but I can admit that they've outdone my expectations thus far.
Player to watch: Brandon Marshall. While the Bears passing offense isn't known for its vertical threat (only seven plays of 20+ yards, ranking tied for 25th), Marshall certainly gives them that option. Marshall will be the best receiver this defense has faced thus far (I am not including a hobbled Larry Fitzgerald), and he could give the under-performing Lions secondary some trouble.
Advantage: Push. The Bears passing offense isn't exactly electric, but it's been very effective. The Lions have done a good job holding non-dynamic passing offenses in check, but I can see this matchup going both ways. The deciding factor may be pressuring the quarterback. The Bears' new offensive line has given up just 3 sacks on the season, while the Lions have sacked their opponents 6 times.
Bears run offense (18th) vs. Lions run defense (15th)
The Bears haven't been explosive in their running game, but they have been decent, which is good enough to keep the offense balanced and unpredictable. They have attempted 101 passes and 83 rushes, which is incredibly balanced given the state of today's pass-happy league (the Lions, for comparison, have attempted 121 passes and 77 rushes).
Overall, the Bears are averaging a modest 3.8 a carry (22nd) and have 3 rushes of 20+ yards (tied for sixth). Matt Forte is ninth in the league in rushing yards (225) and is averaging a respectable 4.1 a carry. The Bears running attack isn't amazing, but it's good enough to deserve a fair amount of attention.
At this point, your guess is as good as mine when assessing the Lions run defense. They have been all over the place this season. They were fairly good against a run-heavy team like the Minnesota Vikings, but the Redskins ran effectively against them last week, even with Nick Fairley returning to the lineup.
The Lions are ceding 4.5 yards per carry, which puts them at 24th in the league.
Player to watch: Kyle Long. Ndamukong Suh sounded pretty eager to face the rookie offensive guard this week, saying, "I just look forward to and digest whoever I have in front me." Long responded by not responding. I wouldn't be surprised to see the inexperienced Long floating around in Suh's stomach bile on Sunday. That is the weirdest sentence I've ever typed.
Advantage: Bears +1. The young Bears offensive line has held up well thus far. However, the Lions will be their biggest test to date. The Bears have a very balanced offense, which always seems to give the Lions defense fits. I'd be pretty surprised if Forte is held below 80 yards on Sunday.
Home-field advantage. In recent years, the Lions have played the Bears much better at home. In the past three seasons, in fact, the Lions have outscored the Bears at home 68-63, despite losing two of those games. In comparison, the Lions have been outscored 34-69 on the road against the Bears.
The Minnesota comparison. We have a rare common data point just three weeks into the season, as both teams have already played Minnesota at home. The Lions, despite a mistake-heavy first half, handled the Vikings fairly well, delivering a decisive 34-24 beatdown. The Bears, on the other hand, fought tooth-and-nail with the Vikings. Neither team ever led by more than a touchdown, but the Bears came out victorious with a last-second score.
I don't know. I just don't know. Neither of these teams has had a particularly rough schedule yet. The Lions' opponents are just 1-8, while the Bears' opponents are 2-7. And according to my analysis, this matchup is a PUSH. When two teams are as evenly matched as these two are, the game usually comes down to turnovers. This season, the Bears have a +6 turnover ratio while the Lions are +3. Something has to give this week, but when a matchup is this close, I just have to predict a tie. Lions 20, Bears 20.
Fiiiiiiiiiiiiine. Tie goes to the home team. Lions 24, Bears 20.