Every week, the NFL provides a couple of intriguing matchups that dominate the national conversation. Some of these matchups are football-related: Can Andy Dalton and the red-hot Cincinnati Bengals offense keep up their torrid pace against a slightly disappointing, yet undeniably talented Buffalo Bills defense? Others have broader, off-the-field narratives: How high can the New England Patriots run up the score against the Indianapolis Colts in the first post-Deflategate/Ballghazi showdown?
On the second tier of watchability, you find games with serious divisional implications (Giants vs. Eagles) or those that feature two similar teams (Panthers vs. Seahawks). And then, way down at the bottom of the weekend slate, there are games like the one we'll all be watching on Sunday.
Neither the Chicago Bears nor the Detroit Lions are particularly good at anything—the highest-ranked unit by DVOA for either squad at the moment is the Bears' rushing offense, at 17th in the league—but what's interesting about this game (at least to weirdos like me) is that it pits both teams' worst aspects directly against each other. On Sunday, we get to see ... whatever constitutes the opposite of the unstoppable force vs. the immovable object. Can the gentle autumn breeze of the Lions' rushing offense move the small pile of dead leaves that is the Bears' run defense? Who will emerge as the least incompetent in this titanic struggle?
All of us at this site have spent countless words bemoaning the myriad issues with the Lions' run game, so I don't need to go too much into detail here. (For an excellent primer on the topic, read this week's Fanpost by Morgado01, who provides a comprehensive outline of the team's concepts and failures this season.) I'll instead spend this column focusing on the other side of the ball.
The Lions, for better or (mostly) worse, seem committed to employing a zone-based running offense under Joe Lombardi. So far this season, the Bears have faced two zone-heavy teams in the Kansas City Chiefs and the Seattle Seahawks, and given up just more than 5 yards per carry to their running backs. Russell Wilson and Alex Smith accounted for an additional 49 yards and 5.4 per carry, but in fairness to Matthew Stafford, we won't factor that into the discussion. No one is going to confuse the 2015 Lions run game with the Chiefs or the Seahawks—feel free to look at those rankings again—but maybe by studying those teams' successes, we can try to find something, anything, that the Lions can use to have even modest improvements on Sunday.
The Bears defender that stands out negatively the most on tape is rookie NT Eddie Goldman. For what it's worth, Pro Football Focus currently has him ranked as a +0.5 as a run defender (h/t to Alex Reno), so it's possible I'm reading too much into a few plays. But, when teams have success running the zone against the Bears, it often comes at Goldman's expense.
The Chiefs run an inside zone out of the shotgun on this play (admittedly a sad rarity for the Lions). Watch as the C throws Goldman off-balance and the LG buries him. Jamaal Charles hurdles Goldman's corpse to pick up 7 yards, which is actually a bit disappointing; had the RG (Zach Fulton) managed to lay a finger on Bears LB Shea McClellin, this play likely would have gone for much more. Thankfully, we have an example of what that looks like:
Slightly different play call here, as the Seahawks run an inside zone lead with the fullback out of the I-formation. Ego Ferguson (95) does a decent job getting penetration to avoid being driven toward the sideline, but the C/RG double-team puts Goldman damn near the other hashmark by the time the play hits. That leaves this chasm for Thomas Rawls to follow Derrick Coleman through. Along the way, Coleman deposits McClellin somewhere near Mt. Rainier, and Rawls breaks outside for a gain of 20.
Of course, once teams begin hitting the inside zone against a defense, that eventually leads to overcompensation by defensive linemen, which in turn creates cutback lanes for running backs. This isn't specific to the Bears--it's a general goal of the play concept--but it applies to them more than almost anyone this season.
Again, the playside DE gets decent penetration off the snap, but the backside DE (Jeremiah Ratliff) crashes hard inside, giving Charles a pretty easy choice of where to go with the ball. (Note once again that Goldman winds up on the ground.) The result is an 8-yard gain, which isn't lighting the world on fire, but it's an effective, efficient run play. Those are about as common as unicorns in the Lions offense these days.
Here is probably the most extreme example of a cutback against the Bears I could find. It works so well that I'm almost tempted to say it's designed that way. When Rawls takes the ball, no less than six Bears defenders are clogging the targeted run lane (which you can see open for the slightest instant). On the backside, Cooper Helfet is able to carry Jared Allen inside, but most importantly, the defensive back who motioned with Helfet prior to the snap dives inside the tight end, which opens him up to a fantastic backside block from the WR. As a result, Rawls is off to the races.
There's so much that goes into running an effective zone scheme. Offensive linemen need to be comfortable enough with each other to execute combo blocks, and running backs need to be decisive enough to recognize holes when they appear and quick enough to burst through them before they close. As you know, the Lions aren't doing a lot of that well at the moment. However, just as much goes into properly defending a zone run, and the Bears aren't exactly shining in that department, either. I don't know if the Lions run game can show signs of life this week, but at the very least, Sunday should provide as good a chance as any.