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NFL Week 1 preview: Detroit Lions vs. Chicago Bears, On Paper

A statistical breakdown, prediction of the Lions’ Week 1 matchup against the Bears.

Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Welcome back to another season of Detroit Lions football and another season of our On Paper previews. If you’re new to the Lions or Pride of Detroit or On Paper, let me break down how our standard weekly preview works.

On Paper seeks to objectively break down each Lions game with statistics as the deciding factor in these previews. Each team’s unit (ie: pass offense) will be matched up against the opposing team’s corresponding unit (ie: pass defense). At the end of each matchup analysis, I will hand out an advantage on a scale from zero to five based both on how strongly the matchup favors one side and its importance to the final outcome. Admittedly, there is no science to that part of the preview.

At the heart of On Paper is our matchup charts. These seek to put each team’s weekly performance in its proper context. We pull the stats from that week and compare it to their opponent’s weekly averages. For example, if the Lions pass for 330 yards with a passer rating of 100.0 one week, that looks like a pretty solid performance on its own. But if the defense they were going against averaged 360 yards allowed per game and a 115.0 passer rating, that’s actually a below-average performance by the Lions. So that cell for the week would get filled in with red. Yellow cells represent a performance within five percent of averages. Note: Color coding is based on the team we’re describing. So red for the Bears = bad for the Bears (good for the Lions). Green for the Bears = good for the Bears (bad for the Lions).

It sounds very complicated, but I promise you’ll get the hang of it. And, of course, for the first three weeks of preview, we’ll be using 2019 data while explaining the limitations of that data.

With all of that out of the way, here is our Week 1 On Paper matchup between the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears.

Lions pass offense (14th in DVOA in 2019) vs. Bears pass defense (11th)

There’s no clearer sign of just how important Matthew Stafford is to this team than this chart. In half the games he played last year, the Lions exceeded both opponents’ allowed passing yards and passer rating averages. In the eight games he didn’t play, the Lions accomplished that zero times.

Unfortunately, we have no data points against the Bears with Stafford at quarterback. Instead, Chicago got Jeff Driskel on short notice. Then they got undrafted rookie David Blough on short notice. In other words, you can just throw out those two data points completely.

This offseason, the Lions didn’t do much to change their passing offensive weapons. All four of their top receiving options have returned. They will, likely, be expecting big growth from second-year tight end T.J. Hockenson, and they may have a couple new weapons out of the backfield, but that all remains theoretical and not yet reality.

However, when Matthew Stafford’s back injury was discovered, the Lions had the fifth-best passing attack. It’s hard to see how that may have gotten worse this offseason.

This Chicago Bears defense may have regressed last season, but it was still incredibly hard to succeed against them. They allowed just two teams to exceed their passer rating averages last year, and only two managed a passer rating above 100: Teddy Bridgewater and Patrick Mahomes.

Overall, their statistics were quite impressive, despite the lack of sacks (32, t-24th) and interceptions (10, t-25th). They allowed just 222.1 passing yards per game (ninth), 6.6 yards per attempt (t-fourth) and a passer rating of 85.2 (eighth).

As for changes this offseason, much like the Lions offense, it was mostly about keeping the band together. While there remain questions about the secondary, with no Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Prince Amukamara this season, most of the players that left weren’t key pieces of this defense anyways.

However, the progression of second-round rookie cornerback Jaylon Johnson could be key to this unit, as he’s expected to start from Day 1.

Matchup to watch: Bears EDGEs vs. Lions offensive tackles. Injuries could play a big part here, as Lions starting right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Bears edge defender Robert Quinn both did not practice on Thursday. But Taylor Decker vs. Khalil Mack figures to be an entertaining matchup, as both players remain at the top of their game right now.

Advantage: Lions +1. I’m going to give this matchup the same advantage I did when the two teams met for the first time last season—and we had no idea Stafford wasn’t going to play. Largely, these teams remain similar from that time. And although the Bears were really good at stopping the deep ball last year (only 40 plays of 20+ yards allowed, t-third fewest), this Lions offense can hurt you in multiple ways.

Lions run offense (27th) vs. Bears run defense (10th)

The Lions have been trying to establish the run ever since 1999, and it appears they may have actually made some progress towards the end of last season. We’re still talking about an average-at-best unit, but the Lions also made some significant moves this offseason to take that next step.

In come D’Andre Swift and Adrian Peterson into the backfield. Detroit also attacked the offensive line, adding rookie right guard Jonah Jackson and free agent right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, both maulers in the run game. Vaitai’s availability to play this week is in question, however.

We’ve played this game time and time again. On paper, everything looks like the Lions running game is due for significant improvement this year, but it’s just hard to believe until the results are out there to see. Still, with the additions they made and the growth from last season, there is at least some real hope this year.

The Bears run defense started out hot, but really trended towards average by the season’s end. It’s probably overly simplistic to place all that on one player, but the injury to Akiem Hicks almost exactly lines up with this unit’s slide after the first month of the season.

His return will be huge for the Bears, but they also lost Eddie Goldman this offseason when the nose tackle decided to opt out. His most likely replacement is Bilal Nichols, who earned just a 52.0 PFF grade last year on 12 starts.

Still, this defense seems to work pretty well with or without individual players. This front seven is stacked, and it proved to be pretty darn good even without Hicks last season. There’s a pretty good chance it survives without Goldman.

Matchup to watch: Frank Ragnow vs. Akiem Hicks. While they may not be lined up directly in front of one another, Ragnow’s job at center will be to call out protections and make sure Hicks is taken care of in the middle of that defense. Ragnow is slowly becoming one of the best centers in the league while Hicks remains one of the most underrated run stuffers.

Advantage: Bears +1. The loss of Goldman is huge, but the Lions’ run offense remains hypothetical. I can’t trust it until I see it.

Bears pass offense (21st) vs. Lions pass defense (28th)

The Bears looked at this awful chart from last year’s passing offense, and decided, “ENOUGH! We’re going to go out and get a new quarterback...

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to sit on the bench.”

Mitchell Trubisky is back after beating out Nick Foles in training camp, and it’s hard to see how things will be much different from 2019. Last year, Trubisky ranked:

  • 32nd in yards per attempt (6.1)
  • 28th in passer rating (83.0)
  • 28th in QBR (41.5)
  • 18th in completion percentage (63.2)

Chicago’s solution to fixing this problem was bringing in a ton of tight ends this offseason. While, admittedly, tight ends were featured heavily in Matt Nagy’s offense back in Kansas City, I’m not sure how much to expect from a 33-year-old Jimmy Graham and second-round rookie in Cole Kmet. Training camp reports are promising, but they’re training camp reports.

The Lions pass defense was one of the worst last year, and they were especially horrible against the Chicago Bears last season. I won’t bore you with the statistical breakdown that just about every other site has beaten to death.

Unlike Chicago, however, the Lions have taken plenty of steps to change—and, ideally, improve—their pass defense from 2019. They changed their defensive front by adding Nick Williams and Danny Shelton. They added versatile linebacker Jamie Collins Sr. to give someone who can blitz and cover. Their entire secondary is completely revamped. Gone are Darius Slay, Rashaan Melvin, Quandre Diggs and Tavon Wilson. In come Desmond Trufant, Jeff Okudah and Duron Harmon.

However, the one part of the defense they didn’t seem to significantly address was pass rush, and that remains a significant concern in this matchup in particular. Trubisky’s mobility is one of his best traits, and if the Lions can’t contain him, it could be another long day against the Bears.

Matchup to watch: Jimmy Graham vs. Tracy Walker. Although some may downplay Graham’s efficiency at this point in his career, he has 1,083 yards over the past two seasons, which is good for ninth most among all tight ends. With the addition of Duron Harmon this year, Tracy Walker will likely be Detroit’s antidote for tight ends this year, and based on some of the matchups I saw in training camp, he appears ready for the challenge.

Advantage: Draw. Weakness vs. Weakness. While I think the Lions’ moves this offseason were more proactive in improving their worst unit on the team, I don’t have a ton of confidence that we’ll see drastic improvement right away. This matchup could truly go either way, especially when considering Trubisky’s success against Matt Patricia in the past.

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

All the talk this offseason has been about Trubisky, but the truth is the Bears’ run offense was even worse last season. They averaged just 3.7 yards per carry, and it didn’t seem to matter who was in the backfield. David Montgomery averaged 3.7 a carry, while Tarik Cohen was even worst at 3.3 yards per carry.

The Bears decided to completely overhaul their offensive coaching staff, but they kept the personnel almost exactly the same. On the offensive line, veteran Pro Bowler Kyle Long is out, and mediocre-at-best Germain Ifedi will replace him. Not great.

I’ll be honest, I was shocked to see this chart. I don’t remember the Lions’ run defnese being so good down the stretch. Of course, this could simply be a case of teams realizing they could throw all over Detroit, but, still, those yards per carry numbers were incredibly solid in the final two months of the season.

But, again, with all the changes on the defensive front, it’s hard to know exactly how the Lions will look out of the gate. There’s been so much turmoil on the roster—not to mention a new defensive coordinator—that predicting how this unit will play in 2020 is nearly impossible.

Key matchup: Cody Whitehair vs. Danny Shelton. If there was one positive on the Bears’ offensive line last year, it was 2016 second-round pick Cody Whitehair. Chicago’s center signed a five-year extension last year and lived up to it. Meanwhile, the Lions will counter with above-average nose tackle Danny Shelton.

Advantage: Lions +1. I just don’t see how the Bears got better this offseason, unless their coaching staff has some wild tricks up their sleeve. The Lions run defense was surprisingly average last year, and that should be good enough.

This week’s pick:

The Lions come out with a +1 advantage, but I have very little confidence in any of this. I’m basing almost all of my analysis from 2019 data. It’s impossible to know how each team’s offseason moves will impact their performance, especially with no preseason film to look at.

However, I will say that the Lions appear to have been more proactive about their issues than the Bears. And while Chicago finished with a much better record than Detroit last season, their talent level was a lot more close than that would suggest. So give me the Lions in an ugly, low-scoring game. 23-17 Lions.

Note: Remember to share your score predictions in the comment section. Closest to the final score gets an honorary photoshop in next week’s On Paper.