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Lions vs. Bears Week 17 preview, prediction: On Paper

A statistical breakdown and prediction for the Week 17 matchup between the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions.

Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions are desperately looking to rebound this week after being humbled by the Carolina Panthers in Week 16. The Lions don’t have any other choice but to get back on the winning side, with playoff odds dropping into “unrealistic” territory with a loss in either of their final two games.

The good news for Detroit this week is they face a team on a current eight-game losing streak that still has a chance to land the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. The Chicago Bears are in Year 1 of their rebuild, and it shows. They’ve got very little talent on the defensive side of the ball, and all of their current hopes reside in their young, exciting quarterback.

That being said, the Bears have played somewhat competitive football over the season. Of their 12 losses, seven have been by a single score, including the last time these two teams faced off.

So can the Lions avoid another upset and keep their playoff hopes alive, or will the Bears finally break through in the win column and play spoiler to Detroit?

Let’s take a closer look at the matchup in our On Paper preview.

Lions pass offense (7th in DVOA) vs. Bears pass defense (29th)

The Lions passing offense continues to be one of the most lethal in the NFL now that the entire gang is back together with Detroit’s receiving corps. Jared Goff just completed one of the most successful Decembers of any other quarterback this year:

But let’s back the date up even more. Here are Goff’s numbers since Week 8, and where that ranks among all NFL quarterbacks:

  • 102.9 passer rating (fourth)
  • 14 TDs (t-sixth)
  • 1 INT (t-first)
  • 7.5 yards per attempt (t-eighth)
  • .304 EPA/play (first)
  • 72.3 PFF grade (23rd of 39)

The PFF grade is bad, but if you look at just the last five games, Goff’s 78.6 grade is 10th in the NFL and his 79.4 passing grade is sixth.

Chicago’s chart doesn’t look all that bad, but it’s also a bit misleading for a few reasons. For one, the Bears have forced an uncharacteristically high amount of turnovers in the last three weeks. Four of their 13 interceptions this season have come in the last two weeks. Additionally, in the case of the Packers and Bills game, those teams just gashed the Bears on the ground.

Both advanced and basic statistics agree: this is a horrible pass defense.

  • 30th in yards per attempt (7.7)
  • t-32nd in passes defended (47)
  • 16th in passer rating (90.2)
  • 32nd in sacks
  • 32nd in EPA per dropback
  • 32nd in PFF pass rush grade (53.8)
  • 22nd in PFF coverage grade (64.3)

Unlike last matchup, the Bears are also missing some key players on defense due to injury: linebacker Jack Sanborn, cornerback Jaylon Johnson, and safety Eddie Jackson. Among starters, those players rank fourth, sixth and first (respectively) in PFF grades for Chicago’s defense.

Player to watch: Jaquan Brisker. Chicago is starting to use the rookie safety as a jack-of-all-trades player. He actually leads the team with 4.0 sacks. Both he and rookie cornerback Kyler Gordon seem like the only players truly capable of playing decent coverage.

Advantage: Lions +4. In the last matchup, Jared Goff had a very productive day, throwing for 236 yards, 9.1 yards per attempt (his second highest of the season) and a passer rating of 113.6. In that game, the Lions didn’t have Josh Reynolds, DJ Chark, or Jameson Williams. With no threat of a pass rush from the Bears, the Lions should—and need to—absolutely dominate this matchup.

Lions run offense (15th) vs. Bears run defense (29th)

The Lions running game is in a rut, and it has been for quite some time. While they’ve been able to rush for 90 or more yards in all but two games this season, they have not been very efficient in their individual runs for the past two months. Way back in Week 9, this team ranked seventh in run offense DVOA, and now they have dropped all the way to 15. To further drive this point home, here’s a look at their splits between the first and second half of the season:

Games 1-7: 183 rushes, 956 yards, 5.2 YPC
Games 8-15: 233 rushes, 854 yards, 3.7 YPC

At first, it seemed like the Lions were just missing out on the explosive plays that they saw early in the year. However, it’s now clear that the problems run deeper than that, as the Lions are now getting “stuffed” (tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage) on 17 percent of their runs, which ranks 17th in the NFL. The offensive line and tight ends are not playing up to expectations right now—though it’s worth noting that the Lions rank 10th in run block win rate and ninth in PFF’s run blocking grade. They are just trending in the wrong direction right now.

The Bears have ceded 100 rushing yards in 11 of 15 games this year, and the opponent has averaged 4.5 yards per carry or more in nine of 15 games. This chart doesn’t quite look as bad as their 29th DVOA rating suggests, but it’s hard to look at any of these performances as truly good. Even their game against the Eagles, they allowed three rushing touchdowns.

A look at the advanced statistics paint a not-so-threatening unit. The Bears rank 24th in adjusted lines yard allowed, 30th in PFF run defense grade, 27th in yards per carry allowed (4.9) and dead last in rushing touchdowns allowed (27). Additionally, the Bears stink in short-yardage situations, allowing conversions on 78 percent of those scenarios, ranking 30th in the NFL.

Player to watch: D’Andre Swift. Jamaal Williams has been the lead back most of the year, but Swift has quietly seen his playing time increase over the past month. With Williams suffering a knee injury last week (though he’s expected to play), Swift could finally see a significant amount of touches this week.

Advantage: Lions +1. I don’t feel very confident in this matchup either way, but Detroit clearly has the better front. It would sure be nice if they treated last week like a wake-up call, but that alarm has been ringing since the bye week.

Bears pass offense (27th) vs. Lions pass defense (28th)

For all the attention Justin Fields has gotten, the Bears passing game is still very much a work in progress. For the entire season, the Bears have totaled over 200 net yards just a single time, and they’ve finished with a team passer rating above 80 just eight of 15 times.

How bad is it? Let’s look at some more stats:

  • 7.2 yards per attempt (12th)
  • 61.7 completion percentage (26th)
  • 85.6 passer rating (22nd)
  • 50 sacks (29th)
  • 22nd in dropback EPA
  • 29th in pass PFF grade

Fields’ 58.3 passing PFF grade ranks 32nd out of 37 qualifying quarterbacks, but he certainly hasn’t been helped by a broken-down receiving corps. Let’s take a look at that real quick:

  • Chase Claypool — knee injury — Missed last two games
  • Dante Pettis — ankle injury (new)
  • Equanimeous St. Brown — concussion — Missed last game
  • Darnell Mooney — IR — Missed last three games

Claypool and St. Brown were limited on Thursday, so it’s possible both could play. If not, though, Chicago has to pick through Byron Pringle, Velus Jones Jr., N’Keal Harry, and some practice squad players.

Obviously, the Bears’ problems go well beyond these injuries, including a leaky offensive line. Chicago has the worst sack percentage in the league, but curiously, their offensive line ranks high in a lot of advanced metrics—15th in PFF pass blocking grade and second in pass block win rate.

The Lions pass defense renaissance has hit a bit of a snag over the last few weeks. At first, it seemed excusable to let Justin Jefferson go off. But after getting worked over by Zach Wilson and Sam Darnold in the past two weeks, there should be some legitimate concern about the defense.

Detroit really struggles when their run defense is not playing well—which makes sense considering their young roster is very susceptible to play-action. And Detroit’s burgeoning pass rush is going to be less effective when the opposing team finds themselves in third-and-shorts.

Just look at the opposing QBs in games which the Lions allow more than 150 rushing yards.

Jalen Hurts: 18-of-32, 243 yards, 80.6 passer rating
Geno Smith: 23-of-30, 320 yards, 2 TDs, 132.6 passer rating
Bailey Zappe: 17-of-21, 188 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 100 passer rating
Justin Fields: 12-of-20, 167 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 99.4 passer rating
Josh Allen: 24-of-42, 253 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 80.8 passer rating
Sam Darnold: 15-of-22, 250 yards, 1 TD, 121.1 passer rating

Obviously, this is a concern this week, as the Bears have a fantastic running game.

Player to watch: Cole Kmet. Last time the two teams met, Kmet hauled in four catches for 74 yards and two touchdowns, and Detroit ranks 26th in defensive DVOA against tight ends.

Advantage: Even. I fear that Fields will be able to beat Detroit over the top with all of the Lions’ secondary issues, but it’s hard to point to a Bears receiver capable of doing it. If Claypool plays, this matchup probably tips in Chicago’s favor, but it’s still had to see them putting up over 250 yards. And if Detroit can somehow get into favorable downs and distances, look for someone like James Houston—who didn’t play in the first matchup—to get plenty of sack opportunities.

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

The Bears’ success on the ground is well documented. It’s been highlighted by Fields, who leads the team with 1,011 rushing yards at a whopping 6.7 yards per rush. He has nearly half (eight of 17) of the team’s 20+ rushing yards and the exact same cut of the team’s rushing touchdowns.

But their efficiency goes beyond that. While the threat of Fields certainly helps, Khalil Herbert has been one of the most efficient backs in the league, averaging 5.7 yards per carry on his 114 carries. Herbert ranks third in the NFL in yards after contact per rush (3.84)

Confidence in the Lions run defense was shaken to its core last week after the Carolina Panthers absolutely demolished this team. It would be easy to ignore it as an outlier, but this week’s matchup presents an entirely different problem: mobile quarterbacks.

Detroit has done horribly against rushing attacks featuring a mobile quarterback with the only exception being the Giants game—but even in that game, Jones rushed for 50 yards and a touchdown on seven carries. Other notable QB rushing performances against this defense:

Geno Smith: 7 carries, 49 yards, TD
Aaron Rodgers: 4 rushes, 40 yards
Justin Fields: 13 carries, 147 yards, 2 TDs
Josh Allen: 10 rushes, 78 yards, 1 TD
Trevor Lawrence: 4 rushes, 32 yards
Sam Darnold: 5 rushes, 20 yards, TD

I don’t see a way out for the Lions run defense this week.

Player to watch: Fields. I mean, who else?

Advantage: Bears +4. The best run offense in the league going against one of the worst run defenses in the league against mobile quarterbacks? Yeah, this could be really, really bad. Throw in a beat-up Lions safety group that is going to be relied upon to corral one of the most difficult open-field rushers to tackle? Yikes.

Last week’s prediction:

Look at this dumb idiot from last week, regarding Carolina’s run offense vs. Lions defense:

Advantage: Lions +1. The Panthers are certainly capable of winning this matchup and their offensive line is good enough to give Detroit a challenge. But the Lions have the more consistent unit right now and they’re playing with a lot of confidence. This matchup is absolutely key, as the Panthers are likely to run it early and often.

Okay, I did leave some room for the Panthers to win that matchup—and mentioned it was essential for Detroit to stop them—but, still, this turned out to be a rare Panthers +5, and it really dictated the rest of the game. The timing couldn’t be worse for the Lions run defense to get exposed, as Chicago could honestly make things even worse.

In the comment section, basically no one got even close to the final score, seeing as only about three of you even predicted a Panthers win. Chrisrtld came closest with their 35-31 Panthers prediction. Congrats on being the biggest bummer:

This week’s prediction:

The Lions only come out with a +1 advantage, and that seems about right to me. This game has shootout written all over it, which should not be a surprise considering this last game was 31-30. I expect explosive plays all over the field against two struggling defenses, and the winner could very well be the team with the ball last.

That said, if Detroit can get out to an early lead and force Chicago to abandon the run game, they’ll be in great shape. That will require a much better start than last week. The Lions should be more focused defensively, but I just don’t think they have enough talent to handle Fields and force a blowout. Lions squeak out a nail-biter. Lions 38, Bears 34.