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Detroit Lions vs. Chicago Bears Week 15 preview: On Paper

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Here’s our Lions Week 15 preview and prediction.

Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears met at Soldier Field less than a month ago, and yet, here we are again ready to watch the two teams face off again.

Not much has changed in terms of each team’s outlook for the 2017 season. The Lions are struggling to make a final push for the playoffs, while the Bears are just compiling a list of candidates for their next head coach.

But the teams have changed a bit in the three games in between meetings. The last time the two teams faced off, I gave the Lions a small +1 advantage. Let’s see if that has changed since.

Lions pass offense (12th in DVOA) vs. Bears pass defense (14th)

Two bad interceptions against the Buccaneers ended Matthew Stafford’s streak of six straight games in which he’s outgained the opposing defense’s passer rating allowed average. Regardless, he’s still playing some of the best ball of his career and the passing offense seems to have finally figured things out after the bye week:

Matthew Stafford Weeks 8-14: 70.4% completions, 9.3 Y/A, 105.9 passer rating

As a team, the Lions rank eighth in passer rating (96.8), t-sixth in yards per attempt (7.8) and eighth in completion percentage (65.5). Regardless of where their DVOA ranking is right now, they’re a top 10 passing offense.

However, they could be at a big disadvantage this week. Starting offensive linemen Travis Swanson and Rick Wagner have been declared out. The Lions fared well without Wagner last week (against a poor Buccaneers pass rush), but Swanson’s injury will likely force the Lions to start an inexperienced player like Joe Dahl at guard this week.

The Lions didn’t allow a sack last week, but they’re going to be extra vulnerable on Saturday.

Since the Bears last faced the Lions, their pass defense has been up and down. After allowing five straight quarterbacks to outgain their season passer rating averages, they finally pulled out of a tailspin last week against Andy Dalton and the Bengals.

This defense started out as a pretty solid group, but have since really struggled. Overall, they rank 19th in passer rating allowed (91.3), t-16th in yards per attempt (7.1) and 26th in completion percentage (64.7). They’ve only allowed 15 passing touchdowns (t-sixth), but they only have six interceptions (t-29th).

The Bears are fairly well equipped to take advantage of the Lions’ offensive line injuries. They have 35 sacks on the year, good for ninth most.

Player to watch: Marvin Jones Jr. The last time the two teams met, Jones led the team with 85 yards and a score. Jones has had at least 60 receiving yards in seven of his past eight games, and he leads the Lions with 17 plays of 20+ yards.

Advantage: Lions +2.5. Detroit’s biggest (and possibly only) strength right now is their passing offense. They were able to move the ball fairly consistently last time against the Bears, and even solid defenses like the Ravens, Vikings and Steelers weren’t able to slow down Stafford too much. Detroit should get theirs.

Lions run offense (30th) vs. Bears run defense (12th)

I’m getting sick of this section. You’re probably sick of it, too. With or without Ameer Abdullah this running offense has been an abomination all year. They’ve only rushed for over 3.8 yards per carry in two games all year. That is ludicrous.

Their overall rankings continue to plummet. They’re rushing for just 3.3 YPC as a team (tied for last) and earning first downs on just 16.1 percent of carries (31st).

The Lions running game is most embarrassing when it’s trying to convert third-and-shorts. Football Outsiders keeps track of efficiency in those situations, and during those power run situations, the Lions are converting just 29 percent of the time. The league average... IS 63 PERCENT. Yikes.

This festive chart confirms what the DVOA ranking suggests: This is a slightly above average run defense. Six of 13 opponents have met or surpassed their yards per carry average against Chicago. However, Chicago has managed to hold five opponents below 3.5 YPC this year (including the Lions). They don’t seem to be trending in one way or the other, but they’re solid more often than not.

Chicago is allowing just 4.0 yards per carry (t-10th) and opponents are rushing for first downs on 20.2 percent of carries (14th). Additionally, they aren’t particularly prone to giving up big plays on the ground. They’ve allowed just eight rushes of 20+ yards (12th-best) and one of 40+ (t-seventh).

Player to watch: Akiem Hicks. Hicks is mostly praised for his pass rushing skills, but Hicks can be a disrupter in the running game, too. Against a shorthanded Lions offensive line, Hicks could be in for a big game.

Advantage: Bears +1.5. Abdullah will be back in the lineup this week, but it’s unlikely to really matter much. The Lions aren’t going to successfully run the ball this week, because they’ve only run the ball successfully once all year. The question is whether it will matter or not.

Bears pass offense (28th) vs. Lions pass defense (16th)

The Bears passing offense has been subpar all year, but they’re currently trending in the right direction. Mitchell Trubisky is coming off his best career game, throwing for 271 yards, 1 touchdown and a 112.4 passer rating against a Bengals defense that ranks 19th in pass defense DVOA.

They still aren’t a team that will throw for 300 passing yards per game—and they don’t want to be. But they’re starting to at least be a little more efficient passing the ball.

Chicago ranks 22nd in passer rating (81.3), t-26th in yards per attempt (6.5) and 20th in completion percentage (61.6).

The Lions are trending in the opposite direction. Despite playing some truly awful passing attacks (Browns, Ravens and Bears), they’ve allowed all three to significantly outgain their season averages both in yardage and passer rating. They haven’t held a defensive significantly below their passer rating average since before the bye week.

The Lions have fallen to 15th in passer rating allowed (87.8), 25th in yards per attempt (7.5) and 23rd in completion percentage (63.9). The one bright spot for this pass defense is their 13 interceptions this year (t-seventh), however, they only have three picks in their last seven games.

Player to watch: Adam Shaheen. Last matchup, Shaheen pulled in four catches for 41 yards and a score. He put up a nearly identical performance last week (4 catches, 44 yards, 1 TD). The Lions are truly struggling to defend tight ends, so expect Shaheen to see plenty of targets on Saturday.

Advantage: Bears +0.5. Chicago isn’t likely to throw the ball 30+ times this week. That’s just not their style. But in terms of their efficiency, they’re built to exploit a defense that is prone to misdirection plays. They aren’t likely to connect on any deep-ball plays against this solid secondary, but expect to see them methodically pick apart the Lions defense over the middle.

Bears run offense (16th) vs. Lions run defense (28th)

The Bears run offense is highly unpredictable. One week they’re rushing for over 200 yards (they’ve done that four times this year), one week they’re failing to rush for 10. Still, there’s more good than bad with this Bears rushing attack. They’ve finished with over 5.0 YPC in five games this year, and outgained averages in six of 13 games.

As a team, they’re averaging an impressive 4.5 yards per carry (t-fifth) and earning first downs on 22.2 percent of carries (12th). With the fantastic duo of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, the Bears often hit on big plays in the running game. They have five running plays of 40+ yards (t-first) and have 10 rushes of 20+ yards (t-eighth).

The Lions have ceded over 100 rushing yards in five straight games, but it’s not quite as bad as it seems. They’ve actually held two of those five below their yards per carry average.

But there’s no denying it, the run defense is much worse than it was at the beginning of the season. Last week, the Lions allowed one of the worst rushing attacks in the league to rush for 40 yards more than they typically average and 1.1 more yards per carry.

Opponents are rushing for an average 4.2 YPC against Detroit (t-17th) and earning first downs on 26.4 percent of carries (31st). This... is a problem.

Player to watch: Jordan Howard. Howard is currently fourth in the league in rushing yards (1032) and is popping off at a respectable 4.4 YPC. He’s also fourth in the league in rushing touchdown (7). The Lions didn’t have an answer for him four weeks ago, and they’ve only looked worse since.

Advantage: Bears +2.5. I want to look at the Lions’ chart and be a little optimistic, but there very little reason to believe they’ve actually been playing well. Chicago, on the other hand, seems to have finally figured out how to make their offense work—outside of an embarrassing overall performance against the good Eagles defense. The Lions defense is decidedly not the Eagles defense, so this could get ugly.

Last week’s prediction:

On Paper has now correctly predicted the outcome of the Lions game in seven straight weeks. What was once a paltry 2-4 record has now jumped to 9-4. Last week’s prediction of 31-26 Lions was pretty spot. But my prediction was bested by our own Andrew Kato, whose score of 23-20 was extremely close to the actual 24-21 final score.

Here is your prize, resident film genius:

As you may or may not know, Andrew is our resident special teams expert. He’s done a deep dive in special teams strategy this year. If you haven’t read his article on the Lions’ improved kick and punt return teams, you need to read it right now. In fact, a little birdie told me there’s another special teams article in the works.

But to hold you all over until that article drops, I present the next generation of superheroes: The Teamers.

This week’s prediction:

Let’s hope my seven-game winning streak comes to an end, because the Bears come out with a +1.5 advantage. That seems a bit drastic considering the Lions had an advantage just three games ago, but we have learned a lot about both teams, and they’re headed in opposite directions right now. As mentioned earlier in the week, the Bears are trending up. As for the Lions...

So even though #WeOwnTheBears, I have to pick against Detroit this week. Bears 31, Lions 27.