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Detroit Lions vs. Chicago Bears preview: On Paper

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A statistical breakdown, preview and prediction between two NFC North rivals.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

After a big win on the road last week, the Detroit Lions return to home with a comfortable two-game lead in the NFC North with just four games remaining. Before facing a gauntlet in the final three games of the season, the Lions must take care of business against the Chicago Bears this week. The Bears are coming off of their third win of the season after defeating the lowly 49ers in a snowy mess of a game.

The Lions enter Week 14 as a 7.5 point favorite, but having lost to the Bears already this year, is the game really going to be that lopsided? Let’s check out the charts.

Lions pass offense (10th in DVOA) vs. Bears pass defense (15th)

The Lions pass offense continues to roll and Matthew Stafford continues to build his resume for an MVP run. The last time Stafford failed to beat a defense’s passer rating allowed average was all the way back in Week 4 against... the Chicago Bears. That and the Titans game remain the only two blemishes to his statline this year. He has been phenomenal the rest of the way.

Detroit ranks sixth in passer rating (100.5), 12th in yards per attempt (7.4) and seventh in completion percentage (67.2). Stafford will likely have Marvin Jones back this week, so there’s potential of an even stronger output than last week.

However, there is one major concern here: Travis Swanson. Swanson appears likely to miss the game due to a concussion, and that means the Lions will have to start a rookie center, which is always a scary proposition. It’s even worse when considering the task at hand with the Bears.

Wait, what’s so scary about this? Only two offenses failed to reach their passer rating averages against the Bears. This is in stark contrast to the Football Outsiders’ DVOA ranking above.

So what is it that scares me about this matchup? The pass rush. Chicago has the seventh most sacks in the league with 30. They have three players with six or more sacks: Willie Young (7.5), Akiem Hicks (6.0) and rising rookie Leonard Floyd (7.0). Though Young is battling an injury, Floyd is really the one that scares me. After suffering a very serious looking injury Floyd returned last week against the 49ers and added two sacks to his resume. Chicago’s pass rush is no joke and against a rookie center, they could feast again.

But the raw statistics tell a different story. Chicago ranks 21st in passer rating allowed (94.3), t-13th in yards per attempt (7.1) and t-22nd in completion percentage (64.6). Though they have only allowed 17 touchdowns through the air (t-10th fewest), the also only have five interceptions all year (30th). They just don’t have playmakers beyond that first line of defense.

Player to watch: Floyd. I mentioned it above, and I mentioned it in the open thread, this is a potential nightmare matchup for Detroit. The best hope is that Stafford’s quick decision-making renders Floyd’s pass rush moot.

Advantage: Lions +2. I really don’t think this is a good Bears defense, and Stafford is rolling right now, so I still feel pretty confident in this matchup. That being said, there are two things that worry me. First, is obviously the aforementioned pass rush, the second is Chicago’s performance in the first matchup. The Lions looked completely inept on offense for all four quarters, and that hasn’t happened in any other game this season.

Lions run offense (29th) vs. Bears run defense (21st)

Not much has changed with the Lions’ running game since Ameer Abdullah went down with an ankle injury in Week 2. The Lions have since been unable to hit the 100 rushing yard mark once, while their yards per carry mark has wildly varied from respectable (4.9) to downright embarrassing (0.7).

There was a glimmer of hope last week, as the Lions managed to run the ball well in the fourth quarter, draining valuable time with a lead. If the Lions can continue that, they could actually put together a streak of games that don’t leave their fans clutching their hearts at its conclusion.

But the overall stats still paint this running game as one of the worst in the league. Their yards per carry (YPC) of 3.7 is tied for 26th in the league and converting 21.0 percent of rushes into first downs puts them at t-22nd.

The Bears run defense has been a little more consistent than their pass defense. Though their yardage totals have varied wildly, the YPC column is a little more telling. The Bears have held the majority of their opponents very close to averages there. Only the Colts and Titans were able to significantly outperform their averages against Chicago.

Overall, On Paper agrees with Football Outsiders that this is an average run defense, but maybe a little above average. They’re only allowing 3.9 yards per carry (t-ninth), and only 20.5 percent of rushes against Chicago are earning first downs (fifth).

Player to watch: Nick Kwiatkoski. You’ve likely never heard of this rookie Bears linebacker, and that’s because he wasn’t supposed to be a contributor this year for Chicago. But with Jerrell Freeman’s recent suspension, Kwiatkoski has been forced into the lineup. The youngster picked up nine tackles last week, but is a huge step down from the veteran Freeman. He could be a vulnerability for the Lions to target.

Advantage: Bears +0.5. The running game has never been that important to the identity of this offense, so I don’t think this matchup will have a big impact on the game. However, if the Lions are playing with a lead, it would be nice to see them bleed clock again with Zach Zenner or even newly acquired Joique Bell. I don’t really see it happening against this week, though.

Bears pass offense (21st) vs. Lions pass defense (30th)

If the Bears’ pass offense chart looks a little wild to you, that’s because it is. The Bears have shuffled between three quarterbacks this year, both creating a confusing chart and making them difficult to predict. For simplicity purposes, let’s focus on Matt Barkley’s two starts, since he is who the Lions will be facing on Sunday.

Barkley had two mixed bag performances, and a really bad replacement performance in the Packers game. We’ll give him a pass for that since he wasn’t taking first team reps that week. Barkley had a poor performance against a pretty bad Titans pass defense (24th in DVOA) and an average performance in the snow against a horrible pass defense (28th).

In truth, there’s little to go on with Barkley, but the fact that he’s a third-string quarterback behind Jay Cutler and Brian Hoyer is all you really need to know. This is not a dynamic passing offense and it is even less so considering the Bears are without Alshon Jeffery, Kevin White, Zach Miller and potentially Eddie Royal.

The much maligned Lions pass defense finally looks like it could be turning into a respectable unit. The sample size is still a little small to support that claim, but the past three weeks have been extremely promising. The Lions have picked up a total of six interceptions in the past three games while allowing just two touchdowns.

Overall, the stats are still very ugly for Detroit, but they are improving. They rank 30th in passer rating allowed (101.9), 32nd in completion percentage (73.7) and 21st in yards per attempt. But as I mentioned earlier in the week, the recent improvement with this unit is real.

Player to watch: Darius Slay. Slay has quietly improved since returning from injury earlier in the year. On Thanksgiving, he had the game-winning interception and last week he shut down rookie Michael Thomas. Slay has been a big part of this defensive turnaround, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him take one the other way against a mistake-prone Barkley.

Advantage: Lions +1. If I were to take this season as a whole, there’s no doubt that Chicago would have the advantage here. But this is about how the units are playing right now. Matt Barkley is not a starting level quarterback in this league and the Bears are completely devoid of good receiving options. The Lions, on the other hand, just devoured Drew Brees in front of thousands of his fans. I never thought we’d be here with the Lions pass defense, but they’ve earned it.

Bears run offense (19th) vs. Lions run defense (25th)

Perhaps the biggest positive for Bears fans to take from the 2016 season is the year Jordan Howard is having. Chicago found success with Howard early in the year and have essentially made him the centerpiece of the offense since. In the past five weeks, he has averaged 21 carries per game, despite the fact that Chicago is typically losing at any given point of the game. Howard has responded by rushing for 883 yards at 4.9 yards per carry (the same mark as Ezekiel Elliott) and five touchdowns. If Howard was on a better team, he may have been a real contender for offensive rookie of the year.

As a team, the Bears rank t-sixth in YPC (4.4), but are just t-17th in percent of rushes that earn first downs (22.4).

Still, I think Chicago deserves a little more credit than their DVOA rating suggests. Howard is for real, and if the Bears had more of a reason to run the ball, I think the stats would make that a little clearer.

The Lions run defense, after a very shaky start to the season, has leveled out and played at an average level pretty much all season. They have yet to be pounded into submission in a game—their highest yards allowed number is just 139—but they’ve only held five of 12 opponents below 4.0 YPC in a game.

Detroit ranks t-17th in YPC allowed (4.2) but still oddly rank horribly (31st) in percent of rushes earning first downs (26.5). Statistical anomaly aside, I still consider this an average run defense.

Player to watch: Haloti Ngata. I believe Ngata had his best game of the season last week, as he was constantly knifing into the backfield and causing disruptions left and right. If you take a look at his entire 2016 campaign, you’ll see he’s only getting better. His stat sheet may not say it, but it’s there.

Advantage: Bears +1. If Chicago is smart, they’re going to try and run the ball early and often. Howard presents their best opportunity to loosen up this defense. And while I think Detroit has stiffened up as of late in all aspects of their defense, there’s still a small vulnerability here with the poor linebacking crew. There’s a chance DeAndre Levy finally returns this week, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

Last week’s prediction:

I warned you last week not to pay attention to my predictions anymore and that was the only thing I got right. The Saints pass offense—who I gave a +3.5 advantage—was completely shut down by Detroit, making my 34-24 Saints prediction look downright embarrassing. Equally embarrassing is my prediction record of 5-7 and a pitiful 2-8-2 against the spread.

In the comment section, there were some surprisingly close guesses to the 28-13 final score. The closest score prediction came from Singledigit, with his 31-14 pick. Here is your prize SD.

This week had Lions fans split on who they should be rooting for between the Packers and the Seahawks. So rather than continuing to fight for one side or the other, here’s a jersey for both. I would recommend immediately burning the jersey after Week 14 is done, but enjoy it Sunday.

This week’s prediction:

This week, On Paper finally comes out with a Lions advantage of +1.5. That’s not exactly the commanding edge you’d expect in a game between an 8-4 and 3-9 team, but I think it’s accurate. The Bears have advantages that could give the Lions trouble, while any division game is always a hard-fought battle. Still, considering the massive amounts of injuries and suspensions on Chicago’s side of the ball and the current trajectory of this Lions team, this should be a comfortable—respectively speaking—win for Detroit. Lions 31, Bears 25.