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

A statistical breakdown and prediction for the 2021 Lions vs. Bears Thanksgiving Day Classic.

Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

For only the second time this season, the Detroit Lions will be playing on national television as this Thursday is their Thanksgiving Day classic game against the Chicago Bears. The Lions, still searching for their first win of the season, may not get a better chance to get it than this week. The Bears are 3-7, starting their backup quarterback, are dealing with a bunch of injuries, and have a ton of drama surrounding their team, including a head coach who may or may not have been told that he’s being fired later this week.

But those are narratives, and our On Paper preview does not deal with narratives. It works in cold-hard facts, stats, and matchups.

So will the Lions finally get out from the shadow of their own previous winless season? Or will we all be doomed to another week of 0-16-1 talk?

Here’s our Lions vs. Bears Thanksgiving Day preview and prediction.

Lions pass offense (32nd in DVOA) vs. Bears pass defense (15th)

Since we’re on a short week, I’m going to keep this one short. The Lions' passing offense is bad. In fact, it’s never been worse than it has been over the past two weeks—when head coach Dan Campbell coincidentally started taking over playcalling.

The main question facing this passing attack is how much you buy the excuses coming from the coaching staff over the past two weeks. Their lack of aggressiveness has been blamed on the weather, the strong defensive lines they’ve faced, Jared Goff’s oblique injury, and Tim Boyle’s first career start.

Well, the Lions are playing indoors this week, it sounds like Goff is getting close to being able to play without the injury limiting him, and the Bears will be missing their premier pass rusher. The excuses are gone. The Goff-Josh Reynolds reunion is finally on. The deep ball is back in play!

But, of course, there’s no actual evidence of that being part of the game plan except for empty words from Campbell last week. On a short week, don’t exactly expect a huge change in strategy.

The Bears' pass defense has been very up and down all season. While they don’t give up very many passing yards, opposing quarterbacks have put up very good efficiency numbers against this Bears team. Chicago ranks 27th in yards per attempt allowed (7.7) and 26th in passer rating allowed (98.0).

Surprisingly, the Bears pass rush isn’t what it used to be. They rank just 19th in pass rush win rate, 18th in PFF pass rush grade.... buuuuuuuuut they are still tied for the most sacks in the league (31), so maybe you can throw those advanced metrics in the trash. Of course, with Khalil Mack—who has 6.0 of the Bears’ sacks—on injured reserve, Chicago is missing a key piece of their pass rush. That said, Robert Quinn has 10 sacks on the year.

The issues mostly lie in the secondary, where starting corners Kindle Vildor and Jaylon Johnson have struggled. Chicago has just 34 pass breakups on the year, ranking them 27th in the league.

Player to watch: Robert Quinn vs. Taylor Decker. Quinn plays almost exclusively over the left tackle, so that should be strength vs. strength for each team. While Penei Sewell has been playing better on the right side, Decker—now three weeks into his return—has been working his way back to being a top-10 left tackle.

Advantage: Bears +0.5. Neither team really provides much optimism in this matchup. But the one thing that pushes the scales in Chicago’s favor is linebacker Roquan Smith. He has the ability to completely shut down someone like T.J. Hockenson, which is essentially what they did in Week 4. In that game, the Lions actually threw the ball quite well against Chicago in what may have been Goff’s best game had it not been for the two fumbles. Quintez Cephus was the leading receiver for Detroit in that game, but he is now on IR. If Reynolds can take up that production, the Lions have a shot.

Lions run offense (21st) vs. Bears run defense (22nd)

For all the negativity surrounding the Lions' pass offense, their running game sure has taken off in the past two weeks—and against a couple of decent run defenses. D’Andre Swift has proven to be a more capable between-the-tackles runner, something that had come into question after his early struggles this season.

Overall, the Lions are now averaging 4.7 yards per carry on the season (eighth) and are earning first downs on 25.3 percent of carries (15th). Dare I say it? The Lions have established the run game?

After a very Bears start to the season in which they held four of five opponents both below 100 rushing yards and under 4.0 yards per carry, something has broken. Over the last five weeks—all losses, mind you—they’ve given up over 100 yards, and in three of those instances, they’ve ceded over 5.0 yards per carry.

Part of the issue seems to be Bears defensive tackle Akiem Hicks. He’s been limited or out over the past few weeks, and it appears he’ll miss this week’s game as well.

Overall, Chicago ranks as just an average run defense. They’re allowing 4.3 yards per carry (16th), they’ve allowed 10 rushing touchdowns (t-17th) and opponents are earning first downs on 26.2 percent of carries (24th).

Player to watch: Tommy Kraemer. With starting right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai likely out with a concussion, the Notre Dame rookie is expected to make his first career start. Going up against the likes of Eddie Goldman and Bilal Nichols will be a challenge, but if Hicks is out, that will be a bullet dodged.

Advantage: Lions +2. The Lions are trending up, the Bears are trending down. This seems like a good week for the Lions to keep hammering the ball on the ground. The loss of Vaitai does present a good amount of concern on the right side, but with Swift currently playing his best football, it may not matter.

Bears pass offense (30th) vs. Lions pass defense (28th)

File this under: You thought the Lions' pass offense was bad.

Chicago has not once this entire year finished a game with a team passer rating above the average of the opposing defense. That number for Detroit’s defense is 99.9. So logic suggests Andy Dalton won’t finish with a passer rating above 100—something the Bears have failed to accomplish once this season.

One of the more interesting stats I found about this Bears offense is that despite being incredibly inefficient (6.8 yards per attempt—25th and 75.1 passer rating—30th), they are not afraid to throw it downfield. Their average depth of target is 9.2 yards, which ranks second highest in the league.

Though it’s worth pointing out that Justin Fields (10.2 average depth of target) has been much more aggressive than Dalton (6.3).

Key in this matchup is that No. 1 receiver Allen Robinson is trending towards missing Thursday’s game. Darnell Mooney proved to be the bigger threat in the last matchup, though, hauling in five catches for 125 yards.

Chicago’s offensive line is a bit tough to figure out. They rank 11th in pass block win rate, 18th in PFF pass blocking grade, and yet they’ve allowed a league-high 36 sacks. Part of that is undoubtedly on Fields, as Dalton has only taken five sacks in three game appearances.

The Lions' pass defense is hanging in there. The past two weeks, they’ve been good, but they’ve undeniably aided by poor quarterback play. Mason Rudolph was horrible for the Steelers and Baker Mayfield was just as bad on a rainy Sunday afternoon last week. But, still, it’s easy to see some week-to-week improvement. There are fewer mental errors, guys like Tracy Walker, Jerry Jacobs, and Amani Oruwariye are making plays, and even some overall statistics are starting to settle down.

Still, the Lions rank 31st in yards per attempt allowed (8.3) and 28th in passer rating allowed (99.9).

Where they really struggle, however, is pass rush. They’ve managed just 15 sacks on the season (31st), and rank 30th in pass rush win rate and 26th in PFF’s pass rushing grade.

Player to watch: Darnell Mooney. As mentioned, Mooney tore up the Lions' defense last time around. Part of his value is his versatility, as he spends at least a dozen snaps per game in the slot. It will be interesting to see how the Lions focus on this matchup this week with Robinson likely out.

Advantage: Draw. This could go either way. I think Dalton being in the game is an advantage for the Lions, as he’s a far less aggressive QB with limited mobility. But Detroit’s pass rush is so lackluster, that Dalton could have all day to pick apart Detroit’s defense, and that veteran status probably helps for a short-week turnaround.

Bears run offense (14th) vs. Lions run defense (29th)

Chicago hasn’t gained a ton of yards on the ground this season—they’ve only rushed for over 150 yards in two games this season—but they are still very efficient at it, and very consistent. In eight of 10 games, they’ve rushed for between 130 and 190 yards. In seven of 10 games, they’ve rushed for at least 4.6 yards per carry.

Of course, without Fields in the game, a huge part of their rushing efficiency will be gone. Take away Fields’ 311 rushing yards on 56 attempts (5.6 YPC), and there’s what the team’s rushing stats look like: 230 rushes, 1,010 yards, 4.4 yards per carry. Not bad, but not quite as lethal as their overall stats (4.6 YPC).

The Lions' run defense has really struggled in the past three weeks, but they’ve also played some of the better rushing attacks. Unfortunately, they’ve only held two opponents below 100 rushing yards and just three opponents below 4.3 yards per carry.

As a team, they’re allowing 4.4 yards per carry (19th) and have given up 11 touchdowns on the ground (t-22nd).

Player to watch: Alex Anzalone. Among NFL linebackers, no one has missed more tackles than Anzalone. His 18 missed tackles per PFF are three more than any other player. Both Bears running backs, David Montgomery and Khalil Herbert have each forced 16 missed tackles.

Advantage: Bears +2. In the last matchup, the Bears rushed for 188 yards and 4.8 yards per carry. Nothing has really changed with either team since that game, and so there’s no reason to believe they can’t do it all over again on Thursday. That being said, divisional games are rarely the same in the second matchup between opponents, so maybe the Lions will figure something out.

Last week’s prediction

Last week, my biggest miss was underestimating the Lions rushing attack, which blew up a good Browns defense. I also expected a lot more out of Baker Mayfield, who was absolutely awful. If he was even a little better, my 31-13 prediction probably would have looked a lot closer to the final score.

In the comment section, Chris Perfett’s wacky 15-4 prediction ended up being closest to the 13-10 final score. Per tradition, when a staffer wins the On Paper challenge, they get to make a request for their prize. Here’s Chris’s request:

I don’t know what I want. I want Dan Campbell to be happy. I want him eating a turkey leg. a drumstick. sweet potato casserole, pumpkin pie, kneecaps, whatever, I don’t care. I just want to envision that man happy on thanksgiving

I just so happened to catch a photo of Campbell having a wonderful Thanksgiving from the future. So this was an easy one.

This week’s prediction

The Bears come out with a minor +0.5 advantage. This is truly a toss-up game. Both teams would be wise to run the ball a lot, as it appears that’s where the biggest mismatches are for each offense. Unfortunately for Detroit, Chicago’s rushing attack has been far more consistent and reliable than the Lions’, and that simply gives me more faith that they’ll be successful on Thursday.

If I were predicting with my heart, I’d take the Lions over the team that appears to be going through a fair amount of dysfunction this week. However, if we’re taking an objective, factual look at this matchup, the Bears have the advantage. Lions 17, Bears 20.

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