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The Honolulu Blueprint: 5 keys to a Lions victory over Bears in Week 11

Identifying the key things the Detroit Lions can do to secure a victory over the Chicago Bears in Week 11.

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Carolina Panthers v Detroit Lions Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions are back at home in Week 11, hosting the Chicago Bears in their first of two matchups between the teams in the next four weeks. The Lions opened the week as big favorites over their divisional rivals and you can check out the updated odds, as well as player prop odds, for this game courtesy of the folks over at DraftKings Sportsbook.

If the Lions want to continue their winning ways, they’ll need to follow the keys to victory laid out in this week’s Honolulu Blueprint.

Bears’ base schemes

Luke Getsy’s West Coast offense:

While the Bears’ offensive philosophy has changed in 2023, the playbook hasn’t seen much alteration. Getsy still runs a notified version of the Shanahan offense which leans on a lot of play-action, RPOs, boot-legs, quick outs, screens, and sweeps.

The Bears found success late last season on designed running plays for quarterback Justin Fields, so naturally this offseason, they stopped calling designed runs and asked him to stay in the pocket and throw more. This misuse of personnel was not limited to the quarterback and was a big reason they opened 0-4 to start the season.

Since then, the Bears have focused more on their running game, but with Fields back in the starting lineup, it’s unclear if they will go back to evaluating Fields’ arm, or if they will continue focusing on a rushing attack that has helped them go 3-3 over the last six games.

Matt Eberflus’ base 43 4-2-5 defense:

Eberflus (who is both the head coach and defacto defensive coordinator because the Bears don’t employ one) used a ton of base 4-3 with three linebackers on the field last season. But in 2023, they’ve adjusted to more 4-2-5 looks, staying in subpackages 80-100 percent of the time. Some of that is due to the opponent, some due to injuries.

For example, because of the Lions’ weapons on offense combined with linebacker Tremaine Edmunds’ injury making it unlikely for him to play, the Lions will likely see a lot of nickel defense.

In the secondary, there’s a lot of zone coverage with mainly two-deep safeties—though they will bring one up to help in run support. The Bears have done very well against the run this season, but the lack of health in the secondary has been a big reason why the defense has struggled.

Key 1: Make the Bears regret letting Montgomery go

Against the run, the Bears allow running backs to average just 3.2 yards per carry (best in the NFL) and as a team only allow 76 rushing yards per game (second in the NFL). They are the sixth-best run defense per DVOA, which illustrates their efficiency.

Early on in the season, the Bears gave up the bulk of their yardage allowed on the ground. The Packers (25 rushing offense in DVOA) put up 92 yards, the Buccaneers (31) ran for 120 yards, the Chiefs (23) hit 153 rushing yards, and then the Broncos (18) ran up 97 yards on the ground. Since then, they have averaged fewer than 50 rushing yards per game over their last six games.

So what changed?

Some of it is, of course, improved play from their defense, but over those six games, they have also only faced one top-10 rushing offense in DVOA—Washington (8)—and they jumped out to a 27-3 lead and took the Commanders’ running game out of the playbook. Beyond that game, they have faced the Vikings (26), Raiders (27), Chargers (22), Saints (14), and Panthers (30).

When you watch the Bears game film, you can see how Chicago uses an aggressive front, combined with downhill linebacker plays, as well as help from their secondary dropping into the box to stop the run. No doubt, it’s been effective.

On the flip side, the Lions are creative and physical in how they implement their rushing attack and have been very effective throughout the season, holding the fifth-best rushing game per DVOA. The only two games the Lions were held under 100 yards rushing were against the Bucs when Jahmyr Gibbs was out due to injury and David Montgomery went down with an injury, and then against the Ravens, when the Lions were forced to throw very early in the game—yet still rushed for 84 yards.

“We’re always going to look for the best ways to run the football,” Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said on Thursday. “That doesn’t change. [...] I don’t know that we’ll necessarily lean one way or the other (favoring pass vs. run against the Bears). It’s kind of the feel of the game once we get into it, but during the course of the week, we come out, ‘Hey, we feel like this is the best way to attack them in the run game. This is our complement off of it in the passing game,’ and it marries together, here, towards the end of the week.”

With Gibbs, Montgomery, and their offensive line healthy (save maybe Jonah Jackson), the Lions rushing attack is hitting on on cylinders right now and are coming off a game where they just ran for 200 yards against the Chargers.

Gibbs has been sensational of late and has really changed the dynamic of how the Lions can attack opponents. Over the last three games, Gibbs is averaging 99 rushing yards and 5.7 receptions for 43.3 receiving yards a game. While Gibbs is a sensational big threat, Montgomery remains the workhorse. Excluding the Bucs game where he was injured, Montgomery has three straight games of over 100 rushing yards (116 vs. Chargers, 109 vs. Panthers, and 121 vs Packers).

Adding more fuel to the fire, Montgomery spent the first four years of his career in Chicago, but this offseason the Bears opted to go cheaper at the position and he elected to join the Lions.

Both Chicago and Montgomery insist there is no ill will between them—Montgomery even said in the locker room on Wednesday that it’s just like “any other game”—but there is also something unique about playing your old team that adds some extra motivation.

That was illustrated over the summer when the Lions media team asked players which team they were most looking forward to playing this season and Montgomery picked the Bears:

Lions coach Dan Campbell also makes sure to put his players into advantageous situations against their former teams, allowing them to showcase themselves a bit more than normal. For example, when the Lions played the Falcons earlier this year, Campbell sent John Cominsky out for the coin toss and started him.

Look for the Lions to try and establish the run early, and don’t be surprised if Montgomery is the catalyst in helping them accomplish this.

Key 2: Give Jared Goff time to cook

While the Bears could be a problem to run against, their passing defense is on the opposite end of the stat spectrum. Bears opponents are averaging 248.2 passing yards per game (26th in the NFL), allowing 6.8 yards per completion (21), and have a league-worst sack percentage at just 3.42% on the year—they have just 13 sacks through 10 games, with three coming last week against the Panthers.

But Lions coaches insist that the Bears have a better defense than the numbers show and now that they are healthy, they are expecting a much better showing this week.

“This is a dangerous defense. These guys are very good,” Johnson said. “They have not been healthy until recently and it’s almost like they’ve taken off the training wheels, scheme-wise. Last year was very vanilla, this year it’s not the case.”

Johnson was very complimentary of the Bears' secondary in his media session this week, saying they “are playing really well,” with “talent across the board,” and Eberflus’ defenses have always used great “technique and fundamentals.”

And while the Bears' secondary has certainly improved, their pass rush is still very much a work in progress, despite the addition of Montez Sweat. To elaborate, you could take any two players on the Bears' defense and add their pressures together (through 10 games) and they would still fall short of Aidan Hutchinson’s 52 pressures (through nine games), according to PFF’s charting.

Add in the fact that they will be facing off against arguably the best offensive line in football, and quarterback Jared Goff should have plenty of time to sit in the pocket and dissect the Bears' secondary—regardless of how improved they are.

Goff has been on fire lately, and when you add an impactful running game to a stout offensive line, the result is that he is playing the best football of his career.

The Lions won’t need to change much to their offense identity to find success against the Bears. Work to establish the run, give Goff time in the pocket, and let him distribute to his skill players.

Key 3: This game is the reason you’ve been playing contain defense

In Week 10 of the 2022 season, the Bears unleashed Justin Fields. He and the Bears offense torched the Lions for 408 yards (in a loss) and delivered a wake-up call for how Lions approach mobile quarterbacks.

“This guy is an elite, elite athlete,” Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said of Fields. “And listen, it doesn’t matter who you are, the thing is that we have to do a good job of making sure we have population to the ball. That’s something that we’ve got to do a really good job of. And our guys know that.”

Population to the ball is a common phrase from the Lions' defense and it’s been a very noticeable characteristic when they’ve found success this season. In games where they attack in waves, you can see the disruption is can cause offenses. In games where they’re slow to the ball, quarterbacks have taken advantage.

While the Lions have struggled with mobile quarterbacks under Glenn, one of the reasons they use the “contain” approach to defend them is because of the success they had against Fields in their second meeting last season. In that Week 17 game, the Lions shifted to a contain and squeeze scheme to defend Field and the results were immediately positive, as the Bears only registered 230 yards of total offense that week.

While that contain approach has not worked against several other mobile quarterbacks, history shows it is effective against Fields and it’s likely one of the reasons we’ve seen Glenn lean on this approach.

“We’ve got to do a really good job of containing this quarterback because he gets in his mode and he wants to run it, he can cause some issues and he’s done it all through his career,” Glenn continued. “That’s something that we’ve got to do a good job of and make sure we contain this guy.”

It’s clear the Lions will once again try to use this approach with Fields, and fans should hope that all the practice the Lions have had with this scheme this season will pay off in this game.

Key 4: Take away the run, make the Bears’ offense one-dimensional

The Bears are a solid rushing offense and currently average 135.1 rushing yards a game (5th in the NFL), 4.5 yards per rushing attempt (8), and are the No. 10 rushing offense in DVOA.

“They always run the ball well,” Glenn said. “We know (D’Onta) Foreman, (is) big, strong, physical back, downhill runner. Want to see if (Khalil) Herbert comes back. He’s what we call stretch-to-puncture-type. He does a really good job of setting up his blocks, and putting his foot in the ground, and getting downhill. And then, obviously, the quarterback (Fields) makes a huge difference in their run game, also. So, it’s going to be a challenge for us and we know that.”

One of the advantages of the contain approach is that it can also be effective against the run, and the Lions' defense has been very solid in this area this season. They’re only allowing 79.1 yards on the ground per game (third in the NFL), 3.7 yards per carry (4), and have the No. 11 rushing defense in DVOA.

This is a true strength-on-strength battle.

If the Lions can stunt the Bears run game and force them to throw the ball, they should have a big advantage, as their passing attack has been inconsistent and many times ineffective. They rank in the bottom 10 in most statistical categories, including passing yards per game (24th in NFL), yards per pass (22), sacks allowed (24, average three per game) interceptions thrown (30, average 1.2 per game). The Bears average nearly one more turnover than their opponent per game, which is dead last in the NFL.

Key 5: Get an early lead

While the Lions' struggles in the third quarter have been well-documented this season, it hasn’t mattered too much because they have started so well. The Lions have averaged 6.78 points scored in the first quarter and 8.67 points in the second quarter (15.4 points at the half), while only giving up an average of 3 points and 7.22 points respectively (10.2 points at the half).

At home, the point totals have favored the Lions even more, with 6.75 and 11 points scored in the first and second quarters (17.75 at the half), while only ceding 1.75 and 5 points (6.75 points at the half) to opponents. Things even out more in the second half, with the Lions both scoring and allowing 12 points at home on average, but those early game leads are why the Lions are 7-2 on the season.

With the strength of this Chicago team being in the run game, and their struggles with their passing attack, the numbers say that the Bears don’t have the talent to get into a shootout with the Lions.

If the Lions can jump out to an early lead in this game, as they have most of the season, they’ll hold a significant advantage on their path to victory.

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