There never seems to be a dull matchup between the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears as of late. While the #WeOwnTheBears hashtag has held true over the last five years—Detroit has won nine of the past 10 matchups—each game seems to come with a lot of drama, and just about every contest ends in a one-score game.
However, the script may be flipped this year, as the Bears have progressed far faster than most predicted under new head coach Matt Nagy. Is the Bears’ quick ascension for real, or is this just an artificial bump that we’ll soon see regress to the mean? Let’s look at the two teams on paper.
Lions pass offense (21st in DVOA) vs. Bears pass defense (4th)
I fear that by the end of the year, there will be a clear BTT and ATT line in the chart: Before Tate Trade and After Tate Trade.
Matthew Stafford had been having a fine year—far better than most have been giving him credit for—but last week’s game against the Vikings is certainly cause for concern. The Vikings have a pretty nasty defense, but when you look at this chart, the Lions have really faced a lot of good defenses this year. In fact, by passer rating allowed, the Lions have already faced five of the top 10 pass defenses in the league.
So with that in mind, the Lions’ raw statistics make a little more sense. Detroit ranks 19th in passer rating (94.0), t-20th in yards per attempt (7.2), and t-10th in completion percentage (67.1).
But right now they’re struggling to find an identity without Tate. Last week, they tried running back Theo Riddick, TJ Jones and even Kenny Golladay in the slot. None of it seemed to work. Add on a very bad day for the offensive line, and who knows where this offense goes from here?
The Bears pass defense ranks in the top five in just about every category: First in passer rating allowed (80.5), fourth in yards per attempt (6.9), second in interceptions (14) and ninth in completion percentage (63.1).
So why is their chart so average? Look at the quarterbacks they’ve played. Jameis Winston, Brock Osweiler, Nathan Peterman, Sam Bradford/Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold. They’ve played all three of the bottom three pass defenses by passer rating, and when they’ve actually played a good quarterback (Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers), they suddenly don’t look so dominant.
Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you this Bears defense is bad. I’m not even going to make the argument that they’re average or just above average. They’re good. But they’ve also yet to be consistently tested, and their overall stats may be slightly inflated because of it.
Still, with one of the best pass rushes in the league (24 sacks, t-seventh) and some ball hawking defenders, this unit is to be feared.
Player to watch: Khalil Mack. It has to be Mack. The Bears’ star defender looks to be trending towards playing this week, and when he’s in the game he’s an absolute beast. Something is currently wrong with Taylor Decker, and if the Lions don’t give him help on Sunday, Stafford could be in for a long day
Advantage: Bears +1. While the charts actually look to favor the Lions here a bit, I can’t help but put more weight on recent results. The loss of Golden Tate is massive and I can’t just give the Lions the benefit of the doubt, because our only data point over the past four years without Tate is one of the worst offensive performance we’ve seen in eight years.
Lions run offense (17th) vs. Bears run defense (2nd)
What seemed to be the biggest improvement from this Lions team has regressed mightily over the past two weeks. After the Dolphins game, the Lions were averaging an extremely impressive 4.9 yards per carry—good for the fourth best in the league. That number has dropped to 4.5 (t-10th) in a matter of two weeks.
That isn’t to say all hope is lost. Kerryon Johnson is still on the team, and while he’s on the injury report with an ankle injury, his status doesn’t seem in doubt. However, starting right guard T.J. Lang has yet to practice this week with a neck injury, and his replacement, Kenny Wiggins, has been brutal (44.7 PFF grade, 70th among guards).
Unfortunately for Detroit, there’s nothing inflated about this Bears run defense. They’re legitimately good, and as their DVOA ranking suggests, they’re arguably the best in the league at stopping the run. They rank fifth in yards per carry allowed (3.7) but are only allowing first downs on 18.3 percent of carries (first). They’ve only allowed two carries of 20+ yards (t-third) and zero of 40+ yards.
Only two opponents have eclipsed the 100-yard mark against Chicago, and only in the odd game against the Dolphins did they allow over 4.0 yards per carry. This is a legitimate unit with so much talent across their front seven that it’s nearly impossible to neutralize everyone.
Player to watch: Akiem Hicks. The Bears defensive tackle is one of the best in the league, and he’s particularly dominant against the run. His 91.8 PFF grade ranks him third overall, and his run defense grade of 93.1 is second best among interior defensive linemen. There’s a pretty good chance Hicks is lined up over Kenny Wiggins on Sunday, so be afraid. Be very afraid.
Advantage: Bears +1.5. While I truly believe that the Lions’ running game is for real, there’s absolutely no doubt in mind that this Bears run defense is legit. The Lions haven’t been able to run all that well against good run defenses, and it’s hard to imagine they’ll get it together this week without Lang.
Bears pass offense (14th) vs. Lions pass defense (30th)
This is the part where we talk about one of the most polarizing quarterbacks in the league, Mitchell Trubisky. Not even Bears fans are sure whether the guy is any good, and this chart doesn’t seem to help much. He beat up on a really bad Buccaneers defense one week, and threw a couple of picks against the Patriots a couple weeks later.
Despite all of that, head coach Matt Nagy has turned this into an offense that works despite Trubisky’s inconsistencies. The Bears now have playmakers capable of turning small gains into big splay plays and that’s why the Bears offense is responsible for the 11th-most passing plays of 40+ yards (six).
Overall, the Bears rank 14th in passer rating (96.1), 16th in yards per attempt (7.5) and 20th in completion percentage (64.2). I think it’s fair to call this Bears passing offense average. However, it’s worth noting that they’re likely to get two significant weapons back this week: tight end Adam Shaheen and receiver Allen Robinson II.
The Lions pass defense is still awful. Without a notable pass rush or a defensive back outside of Darius Slay who can make a play on the ball, opposing quarterbacks have been having a field day against the Lions.
There is a little hope now that Ezekiel Ansah has returned to the lineup, but the question is how many snaps is his body capable of enduring. In his return last week, he played in just 12 snaps, but managed to tally one sack. While the Lions would certainly benefit from a full game of Ansah, it isn’t likely to fix all of the massive problems with this unit.
They still rank 30th in passer rating allowed (112.5), 29th in yards per attempt (8.5) and 27th in completion percentage (68.0). Their three interceptions are the fourth-fewest in the league and they have just 20 passes defended on the season, the fewest in the league according to ESPN.
Player to watch: Tarik Cohen. The Bears running back is playing like Theo Riddick in his prime. He’s currently second on the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Among all running backs, Cohen is fifth in receiving yards, and t-seventh in touchdowns. I fear for the Lions linebackers.
Advantage: Bears +1. While I don’t have a lot of confidence in my assessment of Trubisky yet, I do know this Lions pass defense pretty well by now. They are not good, and I’m not going to give them the advantage again this year unless they play Nathan Peterman when they travel to Buffalo. It’s a disaster right now, and it’s hard to see them righting the ship before the season is over.
Bears run offense (7th) vs. Lion run defense (28th)
The Bears have had little trouble running the ball all year. It’s clearly their preferred method of transportation on offense, and they’ve hit at least 120 rushing yards in six of eight games this year. They’ve also managed at least 5.0 yards per carry in half of their contests.
The challenge the Bears bring is that they can beat you in so many different ways on the ground. They can physically punish you with Jordan Howard. They can break a long one with Tarik Cohen. They can catch you off guard with Mitchell Trubisky holding onto the ball. Don’t sleep on that last one. Trubisky trails only Cam Newton (352) with 302 rushing yards this year, and he’s averaging an insane 7.95 yards per carry (best among quarterbacks).
The charts don’t say it, but I swear this Lions run defense has been better with Damon Harrison Sr. now in the mix. He was good against the Seahawks when he was in the game, and he was absolutely dominant last week against the Vikings. Unfortunately, the Vikings picked up 55 percent of their rushing yards on a single play in which “Snacks” wasn’t even on the field.
But, unfortunately, Harrison is not capable of playing 100 percent of the snaps, so it’s impossible to ignore that this team is still very vulnerable when he’s off the field. Granted A’Shawn Robinson is playing well, as is Da’Shawn Hand, but Ricky Jean Francois is not, and your defense is only as good as your weakest link.
Player to watch: Jarrad Davis. With the improvements up front, the run defense now relies heavily upon the Lions’ young linebacker. Thus far in 2018, he hasn’t been up to the challenge. At times, he looks aggressive and punishing as a tackler, but more often than not, his instincts lead him astray and he misses his assignment. His run defense grade per PFF is just 33.3.
Advantage: Bears +2. I really do believe there is a chance the Lions run defense gets turned around by the end of the year, but this ain’t the week for it. Chicago has one of the most dynamic rushing attacks, and their emphasis on misdirection and big runs plays right into the Lions’ weaknesses. I expect them to hit on another long run this week.
Last week’s prediction: Finally, “On Paper” pretty much nailed the Lions’ Week 9 game. I guess that tells you how long you have to wait before data on a team becomes meaningful. My 31-13 prediction was pretty close to the 24-9 final score. However, I was outdone yet again by the comment section.
Commenter “sokol99” nearly hit the nail on the head with their 28-9 prediction. I am a little skeptical, because that username is a little too close to “Skol” for me, but they are a Lions fans, which means I will make a dumb photoshop for their win. Enjoy
After the week that the Lions offense had, Lions general manager Bob Quinn may have some regrets about trading Golden Tate the week before. So here is Bob Quinn: Golden Retriever.
This week’s prediction:
This does not look good. The Bears hold the advantage in every single matchup, leaving them with an overall +5.5 advantage, which is pretty darn big by On Paper’s standards. While I don’t think a blowout is in the making necessarily, I do think there aren’t a lot of ways the Lions can win this game. Detroit doesn’t have any clear strengths anymore, and perhaps the Bears’ only true weakness—their passing offense—plays right into the Lions’ biggest problem: their pass defense.
Unless Jim Bob Cooter has something up his sleeves (ew), I just don’t see a path to a Lions victory this week. Bears 24, Lions 10.