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Detroit Lions vs. Chicago Bears Thanksgiving preview, prediction: On Paper

A statistical breakdown of the Lions’ Week 12 preview against the Bears.

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Detroit Lions v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

On Thanksgiving Day, many of us are afforded the opportunity to be with friends, family and loved ones. Unfortunately, part of the tradition also means occasionally meeting up with a person you’ve been avoiding for every other day of the year. But each year sprouts the opportunity that maybe they’re a little more tolerable now.

The Chicago Bears are that distant relative. Sure, we have a sense of superiority over them, but every time we meet, it’s unpleasant. The Detroit Lions faced off against them less than two weeks ago, and it cost them their best tight end, their No. 1 receiver and their third-straight loss. Unfortunately, the Bears are coming to Thanksgiving again this year, and we’re just going to have to deal with it. Here’s our On Paper: Thanksgiving edition.

Lions pass offense (21st in DVOA) vs. Bears pass defense (3rd)

Yep, there’s still a pretty clear mark in this chart as to when the Lions traded away Golden Tate. No surprise, but Matthew Stafford has been a mere mortal since Tate landed in Philly and his late-September/early-October stretch of five straight 100 passer rating games feels like it’s in the distant past.

The Lions passing offense rebounded in a minor way last week with the continued rise of Kenny Golladay and the emergence of Bruce Ellington as a Tate replacement, but the Lions’ passing efficiency still continues to decline after some early success.

They rank just 20th in passer rating (91.2), t-23rd in yards per attempt (7.0) and 15th in completion percentage (65.8). It’s clear this has become a short-yardage, dink-and-dunk offense, for better or for worse.

The Bears pass defense has been absolutely dominant in the past month. How dominant, you ask?

Yeah, that dominant. It’s probably no coincidence that Khalil Mack returned to action in the past two weeks, as the Bears rendered Matthew Stafford and Kirk Cousins completely hopeless in two key division wins for Chicago.

While this pass defense is far from unbeatable, only three of 10 quarterbacks were able to outgain their passer rating average against them. Their raw statistics are just as impressive as you’d think:

  • 1st in passer rating (79.4)
  • 3rd in yards per attempt (6.7)
  • 9th in completion percentage (62.9)
  • 1st in interceptions (18)
  • t-5th in sacks (32)

Player to watch: Bryce Callahan. With Bruce Ellington’s busy Lions debut last week, I think it’s fair to say he’ll be one of the bigger focuses on Detroit’s offense. They’ll look to get the ball out quick and hope that Ellington can create yardage after the catch. Unfortunately for Detroit, Bryce Callahan is one of the best nickel corners in the league, ranked fifth among all cornerbacks in PFF grade. This will be an absolutely key matchup for both teams.

Advantage: Bears +2. With Marvin Jones Jr. expected to be out again, the Lions will be short on offensive weapons, and this is a team you can’t afford to be shorthanded against. Two weeks ago, the Bears sacked the Lions six times, and with Chicago’s talented secondary, you have to think Stafford will be forced, again, to hold onto the ball too long. Khalil Mack could certainly pop off again, and no one would be surprised. The Lions will need to find separation quick and often, but with a limited set of weapons, I don’t have a lot of confidence they will.

Lions run offense (20th) vs. Bears run defense (1st)

The Lions’ running game finally got back on track last week, only to have it ripped away in the third quarter when Kerryon Johnson went down with a knee sprain. It’s left the backfield cupboard completely bare, as LeGarrette Blount has been a disaster in the last month, and Theo Riddick and Zach Zenner have combined for 10 carries this year.

Throw away the Lions’ season rushing stats, because their ground game’s identity is completely different with no Johnson.

Smart money is on Zenner to take a good amount of carries, and while he’s shown flashes of being able to carry the load for a game or two, his career 3.6 yards per carry doesn’t exactly promote confidence, especially considering how smothering the Bears defense was in the previous matchup.

The Lions aren’t the only team to fall victim to this Bears defense. In fact, only two teams have managed to eclipse 4.0 yards per carry and/or 100 yards against this swarming defense.

It’s truly frightening just how good this defense is playing right now, and just about every stat backs up Football Outsiders’ DVOA ranking: First in YPC (3.5), first in rushing touchdowns allowed (2), first in percentage of rushes earning first downs (19.2) and only two carries allowed of 20+ yards (second).

Player to watch: Roquan Smith. In the last matchup, Smith was an absolute force. He tallied a team-high 10 tackles, including one for loss. The rookie linebacker is having an up-and-down year, but his tackling is top-notch, and he’ll likely get free reign with such an impressive defensive line in front of him.

Advantage: Bears +4. Just in case you didn’t remember, when the Lions were sparingly using Kerryon Johnson early in the year, they essentially had no running game. So now without him for the next game or two, they have no running game again. The Bears are undoubtedly the best run defense in the league, so this is as close to a completely one-sided matchup as you can get.

Bears pass offense (11th) vs. Lions pass defense (31st)

Alright, here’s where the preview gets tricky. At the time I’m writing this, the general feeling is that Mitchell Trubisky will not play on Thursday. That makes it tough to make any sort of objective prediction on this matchup, seeing as his backup, Chase Daniel, has started two career games in his nine-year career.

By all accounts, Daniel is a master of understanding Matt Nagy’s offensive system. The question is whether he’ll be able to execute it. That’s a question I just don’t have an answer for, and I’m not willing to sift through meaningless preseason stats to find out.

Here’s what we do know. The Bears boast a talented set of receivers and tight ends who absolutely abused this Lions secondary in Week 10. It wasn’t so much Mitchell Trubisky beating the Lions as it was their receiving corps. Not a lot of his passes were difficult to make, so, in theory, Daniel could do the same.

We also know that it doesn’t matter who the quarterback is; they seem to have career days against the Lions. Sam Darnold and Brock Osweiler lit Detroit up. Even in winning efforts, the Lions allowed Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers and Osweiler to crawl their way back into the game late, nearly resulting in another loss.

The big difference this week, however, is Darius Slay. While it hasn’t been Slay’s best year, the Lions playmaker sat out the previous matchup with the Bears, and he’ll make a huge difference if he can go in this game.

But who will be the man opposite Slay. Will undrafted rookie Mike Ford play in his second career game after a mildly impressive debut against the Panthers. Will Detroit use the physical but inconsistent DeShawn Shead? Will they even bother giving Teez Tabor a single snap?

The Lions secondary is extremely vulnerable beyond Slay, and I’m not sure they’ll find an answer before the 2019 season.

Player to watch: Anthony Miller. It’s unclear whether Slay will be on Miller or Allen Robinson II, but I’m assuming he’ll trend towards Robinson—if the Lions play much man-to-man. Regardless of the Lions’ defensive scheme, second-round rookie Anthony Miller is already coming into his own. He has a touchdown in three of his past four games and lit up the Lions defense for 122 yards last game.

Advantage: Bears +1. I don’t have any confidence in predicting what Chase Daniel will look like leading the Bears offense, but I have a lot of confidence in predicting that the Lions defense will make him look better than he actually is.

Bears run offense (10th) vs. Lions run defense (23rd)

The Bears running game has been up and down all year, but saw a minor revival last week against a good Vikings defense. Of course, part of that success was due to Mitchell Trubisky, who ran for 43 yards on 10 carries. In fact, if Trubisky can’t play on Thursday, his absence may be felt more in the running game than the passing game. The Bears quarterback is second on the team in rushing yards (363) and has been incredibly efficient with the ball in his hands (7.1 YPC).

Take away Trubisky’s runs and Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen combine for just 794 rushing yards and 3.6 YPC.

Overall, the team ranks t-18th in yards per carry (4.2) and earn first downs on 24.3 percent of rushes (18th). I think this is an average rushing attack with Trubisky, but slightly below average without him.

There is little doubt that the addition of Damon Harrison Sr. prior to the Seahawks game has made a monumental impact on the Lions’ run defense. In three of the past four weeks, the Lions have faced off against a top 10 rushing offense, and they’ve done a pretty good job bottling all three of them up. Last week, they were able to shut down Cam Newton and the Panthers despite missing starting defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson. More notably, however, is the fact that they shut down the Bears just a couple weeks ago.

Player to watch: Tarik Cohen. While the Lions showed they’re capable of shutting down Jordan Howard, Cohen is still the big-play back, and the Lions have proven vulnerable to allowing an explosion play on the ground, even with Harrison in the lineup. Detroit has allowed a total of five rushes of 40+ yard (second most) and Cohen has four rushes of 20+ yards on the season.

Advantage: Lions +2. This is assuming Trubisky is out, which will severely limit the Bears’ ability to run read options effectively. Daniel isn’t completely immobile, but he’s nowhere the threat Trubisky is, and the Lions were able to shut down this rushing attack two weeks ago. I’m still fearful of a big play or two, but objectively speaking, this matchup clearly favors the Lions right now.

Last week’s prediction:

Like most, I wrongly chose the Panthers to win after earning a +5 advantage. However, the game didn’t play out all that differently than I predicted in terms of matchups. Cam Newton was incredibly effective throwing the ball, and the Panthers defense was, indeed, not as good as the perception of it, allowing the Lions a chance to control the game on the ground. Where I really messed up, however, was underestimating the Lions’ ability to stop the run. I won’t let that happen again.

In the comment section, there were only a few brave souls who picked the Lions, and one of them nearly nailed the final score exactly. Humboldt Lions’ prediction of 21-17 Lions was just a few points off the 20-19 final score. Here is this week’s prize, Humboldt:

For this Thanksgiving, be extra prepared for dinner by roasting two turkeys while paying homage to your favorite Lions player: the goal posts!

This week’s prediction:

The Bears end up with a +5 advantage, just a half point less than what I gave them two weeks ago. Admittedly, a lot of this preview is based on the assumption that Trubisky doesn’t play, and if that happens, I truly think the Lions have a shot. If Matt Nagy tries to use Daniel as a game manager, it plays right into the Lions’ strength defensively.

The big question here is how will the Lions score points, to which my answer is: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

I have no idea how Detroit can effectively run an offense without a NFL-capable running back and with a depleted set of receivers. I think it’s entirely possible that the Bears defense outscores the Lions offense in this game, and that will ultimately be the difference. Bears 20, Lions 13.