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Lions vs. Bears Week 4 preview, prediction: On Paper

We break down the statistical matchup between the Lions and Bears.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Bears are nearing the edge of a cliff. Most, if not all, fans of the franchise are done with head coach Matt Nagy, and last week’s ugly performance against the Browns was the last straw. In Year 4 of the Nagy regime, the offense is somehow even worse, and even the appeal of a rookie quarterback hasn’t breathed new life into the fanbase after Justin Fields’ debut last Sunday.

Some are theorizing that if the Bears lose to the 0-3 Detroit Lions this Sunday, it could spell the end. Even if Chicago survives this week, their upcoming schedule has plenty of bullets Nagy will have to dodge (Next 6: Raiders, Packers, Buccaneers, 49ers, Steelers, Ravens).

Things look dreary for Chicago. So are they the perfect opponent for the Lions to face after an emotional loss last week? Let’s take a closer look with our On Paper preview.

Note: 2020 data has been thrown out the window. We’re only dealing with 2021 numbers now.

Lions pass offense (25th) vs. Bears pass defense (9th)

The Lions passing offense is off to a pretty slow start this year. New quarterback Jared Goff has been able to put together some promising halves, but the other halves in each game have been pretty ugly.

Blame goes all around. It’s the early stages of a new offensive scheme. The team has a depleted receiving corps full of players that likely wouldn’t be starters anywhere else. Goff is a timid quarterback that struggled with this exact problem of taking shorter throws in Los Angeles. It’s the fact that in two of three games the Lions have had to abandon the run, making them one-dimensional and predictable.

But it isn't really all that bad. Despite the fact that Goff is last in the league in completed air yards per completion (how far a ball travels beyond the line of scrimmage before its caught), Detroit is still averaging a respectable 6.5 yards per attempt (22nd) and a passer rating of 93.5 (22nd). Obviously, those numbers aren’t great, but they aren’t the disaster that some make it out to be.

Other good things: pass protection remains fairly solid despite missing Taylor Decker for the first three weeks. Goff has only been sacked six times (t-11th) and considering Detroit has attempted the sixth-most passes, that’s a good success rate in protection.

There’s also their top two pass catchers: running back D’Andre Swift and tight end T.J. Hockenson. Swift is currently second among running backs in receptions (19) and first in receiving yards (166). Hockenson is third among tight ends in receptions (18) and sixth in yards (173).

After a rough opener, the Bears pass defense has settled in nicely. They appear to be the defense we’re used to seeing out of Chicago.

They’re mostly led by a threatening front seven that will make your quarterback uncomfortable. Despite ranking 27th in ESPN’s pass rush win rate, they are currently third in sacks (11) and rank 18th in PFF’s team pass rushing grade.

That being said, their secondary is a little vulnerable. They have two young corners in Jaylon Johnson and Kindle Vildor—although Johnson has been balling out thus far.

In spite of all of the positives, the Bears are still allowing 8.9 yards per pass attempt (27th) and a passer rating of 103.3 (20th). They’re beatable.

Player to watch: Roquan Smith. Despite an oddly poor PFF grade for the season (49.7), Smith may be the best defender this team has. He can rush the passer (1.0 sacks thus far), drop into coverage (has a pick-six this year), and can stuff the run. Since Detroit loves to target their running backs and tight ends, Smith’s coverage will be on display Sunday.

Advantage: Bears +1. Obviously, pass protection is also going to be key in this game, and the Lions have held up particularly well in that category for most of the season. They haven’t been perfect, but they’ve also faced some of the best pass rushing units in the league through three games and held their own. Because of that, I’m not going to give the Bears a huge advantage here even though it’s clear they have an advantage.

Again, sadly, the Lions don’t have the receivers to exploit Chicago’s potentially vulnerable secondary, but they’ve made do thus far.

Lions run offense (11th) vs. Bears run defense (17th)

The Lions running game has been a bit of an enigma thus far. It hasn’t been bad. In fact, there have been really good stretches for this running game thus far. But in the first two games, they’ve had to abandon the run, and in last week’s game, it was pretty terrible in the second half (16 rushes, 24 yards). We know it can be good, but it doesn’t quite look like the kind of rushing attack that can succeed when everyone knows they’re going to run the ball.

Still, there are plenty of promising stats. They’re still averaging 4.5 yards per carry for the season (10th), and 31.4 percent of their rushes are earning first downs (third). As a team, the Lions also rank ninth in PFF run blocking grade, which has been evident to anyone watching.

Through two games, the Bears effectively shut down the opponent’s running game. However, the floodgates opened last week against the Browns. Ask any Bears fan, and they’ll tell you the defense was simply run down towards the end of last week due to offensive incompetence. There is certainly some statistical evidence to support that. Let’s look at Nick Chubb’s day.

First quarter: 5 rushes, 11 yard (2.2 YPC)
Second quarter: 6 rushes, 26 yards (4.3 YPC)
Third quarter: 4 rushes, 5 yards (1.3 YPC)
Fourth quarter: 7 rushes, 42 yards (6.0 YPC)

Oh, and Kareem Hunt also had six rushes and 50 yards in the final quarter. In fact, 101 of the team’s 215 rushing yards all came in the final stanza.

Still, this run defense seems beatable. Their team PFF run defense grade ranks just 27th in the league and their team run stop win rate is 27th.

Player to watch: Eddie Goldman. The x-factor in this matchup is the Bears’ nose tackle, who appears primed to make his season debut after fighting off knee injury. Goldman—when paired with Pro Bowler Akiem Hicks—provide a pretty darn impressive defensive front against the run, although it’s unclear if Goldman is going to have to shake off some rust first.

Advantage: Lions +0.5. Given Detroit has been able to run at least somewhat competently against really good defensive fronts thus far, I have to believe they’ll be able to get things going this week against the Bears, as well. I’m just not confident they’ll be able to do it for an entire game, and even their expected success should be modest. Like a 90-100-yard game right around the 4.2 YPC mark. Don’t expect anything like what the Browns did last week.

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

That is not a typo. The Chicago Bears had a total of 1 net passing yard in Justin Fields’ debut. Unfortunately for Chicago, this problem does not appear to be confined to issues with Fields. Chicago pass offense has been an abomination all season, and there are plenty of reasons for it.

First and foremost is their leaky offensive line, whose best player is a 39-year-old left tackle who had two feet in retirement a couple of months ago. Chicago has been sacked a league-high 15 times, and considering they only have 84 passing attempts through three games (fourth fewest), that means their sack rate (15.2 percent) is way higher than anyone else in the league.

And despite having deep threats in Allen Robinson and Darnell Mooney, the Bears—like the Lions—just don’t throw down the field much. Chicago ranks 28th in completed air yards per attempt with 4.4.

This is a true weakness vs. weakness matchup, as the Lions have really struggled to defend the pass with their young and banged-up secondary. Last week, the Lions’ starting cornerbacks were 2018 fifth-round pick Amani Oruwariye, undrafted rookie AJ Parker and second-year undrafted Bobby Price, who was converted to cornerback two months ago.

As a result, the team’s coverage grade is dead last in the NFL, according to PFF grades, and the normal stats seem to back that up. Detroit ranks last in passer rating allowed (123.2) and yards per attempt (10.3).

However, there is hope. The Lions’ pass rush has started to come alive, as the team racked up four sacks last week against Lamar Jackson. Though they curiously rank last in pass rush win rate, their PFF pass rush grade is seventh in the NFL.

Player to watch: Romeo Okwara. Okwara is the Lions’ highest rated defender per PFF, and his pass rush grade of 81.2 is 10th among NFL edge defender who have played at least 100 snaps thus far. He’s coming off back-to-back games with six pressures, and he was among the reasons why they were able to contain Lamar Jackson as a runner—which could be handy against Justin Fields.

Advantage: Lions +1. It’s terrifying to give Detroit the advantage here, given the rough shape this secondary is in. However, a good pass rush can mask a lot of deficiencies back there, as last week showed against the Ravens. If there is a week the Lions pass defense should hold up, it’s this one, as the Bears are just floundering. There is always the fear that last week proved to be a wake-up call for Matt Nagy and company, but I can’t give them credit for something that hasn’t happened yet.

Bears run offense (12th) vs. Lions run defense (26th)

The Bears’ rushing attack hasn’t been explosive yet this season, but as the chart suggests, part of the reason for that is because they’ve gone up against some solid run defense. They’ve faced the 21st (Rams), second (Bengals) and fourth (Browns) best run defenses, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.

Given that tough stretch, it’s actually impressive that their overall stats remain average-to-above-average. They’re 14th in yards per carry (4.2) and 24.7 percent of their rushes have earned first downs (15th).

David Montgomery is still one of the better backs in the league, but he’s only had 46 rushing attempts through three games. Give how bad Chicago’s passing game has been, you know they want that number to be much higher.

Detroit’s run defense has gotten progressively better after a troubling start. Chalk it up to a number of factors. The Lions defensive interior features two players—Nick Williams and Michael Brockers—who barely practiced in training camp. The Lions made a linebacker switch last week. And maybe the defense is just getting used to the new scheme.

Much like the Bears, the Lions have faced a bit of a gauntlet when it comes to rushing attacks. The 49ers, Packers and Ravens rank seventh, fourth and 16th in run offense DVOA through three week. So consider that when you see that the Lions rank 16th in yards per carry allowed (4.2) and seventh in percentage of rushing plays earning first downs (19.8).

Player to watch: Derrick Barnes. Barnes made his first career start last week, and it’s important to remember that despite the flashy plays at times, he was Detroit’s lowest graded player per PFF. The fourth-round rookie didn’t make any egregious errors, but he’s still learning.

Advantage: Bears +0.5. This is a close one here, and it’s hard to predict where this matchup will go. The Lions are trending in the right direction, but the Bears have been a little more consistent this year, so I’m giving them the slight advantage. Given we’re working with such small sample sizes, I have little confidence in either direction here. Detroit can definitely win in the trenches this week, and they proved last week a mobile quarterback shouldn’t be a problem. But their inexperience beyond the defensive line could be vulnerable.

Last week’s prediction:

Like most people, I was way off on the final score prediction of the game. I predicted a 38-14 blowout from the Ravens, who barely snuck by with a 19-17 victory. However, in my conclusion I did say the Lions can keep it close if one thing happens...

There are signs that the Lions’ defense could find some success and keep the game close early. But I just don’t see how they’re going to get stops on defense unless that defensive front takes another huge step this week.

Well, guess who took another huge step last week? The defensive front.

In the comment section, there was basically nobody that came close to predicting the final score. This week’s winner is long-time POD commenter rames, who picked the Ravens 24-20 with a logical prediction that turned out to be very right:

I think this is going to be a close one, mainly because of how long each team will have the ball.

Here’s your prize this week, rames. You get a first look at the Lions’ new-and-improved goalposts.

This week’s prediction:

We come out with our first draw of the season, and this fits my feeling for this game all week. Even as I type these words, I’m not sure who I’m going to pick in this game. There are just so many tricky factors here. The Bears are coming off an embarrassing loss and their season almost feels like it’s on the line. With his back against the wall, will Matt Nagy pull something crazy out? Or is the fact that this offense has struggled for two years a sign he can’t pull out of this tailspin?

On the Lions side, how much can we read into their defensive improvement? Additionally, will this offense be able to score any points against a defense that has confounded them for years? Will they respond to last week’s heartbreaker with more hunger or will that be the kind of loss that derails the team?

But I have never picked a tie in the history of On Paper, and I’m not about to start now. I’m allowed one homer pick per season, so I’m burning mine early. Lions 20, Bears 17.