EDITOR’S NOTE: These stats- and smarts-heavy Bears Previews come courtesy our friends at Football Outsiders. For more, visit www.footballoutsiders.com.
It’s been a bizarre season already in Chicago, so it makes sense that the city will be rooting for it’s bitterest enemy on Sunday. As you no doubt are aware, the Bears need to defeat their fellow zoo attractions, the Lions, and hope Green Bay takes care of Minnesota. Hit the exacta, and the Bears, as we’ve been forecasting for most of the season, will be postseason bound. And as the last few years have proven, once you’re in, anything goes.
That’s true if you’re out, too, and the thing that goes if Chicago fails to make the playoffs after a 7-1 start could well be Lovie Smith. So it behooves the team to defeat Detroit, who have a surprisingly good DVOA for a 4-11 squad. They rank 15th, smack between an 8-win team and a 9-win team (which happens to be the Vikings). Here’s how they match up with the Bears.
BEARS ON O
Matt Forte’s bum wheel is an important concern for Chicago, as the Lions have a poor run defense begging to be exploited—Detroit is 24th against the run by our numbers. Digging deeper, we find that while Ndamakong Suh and his mates up front have been strong (fourth in Adjusted Line Yards), the tackling in the back seven has been shambolic. Detroit is near the bottom in both Second Level and Open Field Yards, meaning if the Bears can just crease the front wall, success awaits. But a gimpy Forte might not be able to take advantage. If the running attack is hinging on Kahlil Bell and Armando Allen being able to burst into the secondary, that significantly alters the game plan.
While Jay Cutler is sure to force balls to Brandon Marshall, as he has all season (only Calvin Johnson and Reggie Wayne have been targeted more often than the 178 times Marshall has), it is Alshon Jeffery who should have the more favorable matchup. Detroit is second from last in the NFL at covering No. 2 wideouts, allowing 64 yards per game. That compares to 18th in the league against top wide receivers. One area of attack the Lions have done well to shut down is passes to running backs. Only the Cardinals are better at defending this section of the passing game (the Bears are third, right behind Detroit, with basically the same number of attempts per game). So Chicago’s backs will be better off sticking to their primary skill on Sunday.
Detroit is also but 29th in Adjusted Sack Rate, so they shouldn’t be as able to take advantage of Chicago’s primary weakness, pass protection, as other teams have. Of course, don’t tell that to Cutler, who is still hurting from when Suh ragdolled him when the teams met back in October.
BEARS ON D
Five games against Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson, and Calvin Johnson, and the Bears defense is still comfortably number one in DVOA. So keep the doomsaying in perspective. Chicago’s defense has been outstanding overall, even with all the recent injuries and the expected regression from the ridiculous level the unit was playing at to begin the year. Brian Urlacher or no Brian Urlacher on Sunday, the defense will be stout.
The Bears shut down Johnson in the first meeting, holding him to three grabs for 34 yards. That means Megatron has averaged 133 yards in his other 14 games. Keeping Johnson closer to the first number will be key, of course—as CJ goes, so go the Lions. For all the debate about “garbage yards,” Johnson has a colossal lead in our DYAR stat, and has drawn more yardage on pass interference flags than anyone save Jeremy Maclin. So containing him remains priority one for Chicago.
Detroit has been pretty efficient on offense all season, with a glaring exception—converting third downs on the ground. The Lions are 29th in the league in this measurement. By contrast, they are sixth in third down DVOA when passing the ball. So expect to see the Bears play pass even on third and short.
The problem with being so pass heavy is that protecting leads becomes tough, and indeed Detroit is third from the bottom in DVOA when leading by a touchdown or less. The are third from the top when losing by eight or more points, however. So don’t plan on relaxing until the final whistle, not that you were likely to anyway, given the stakes.
ODDS & ENDS & GO PACK, GO!
This is a special teams mismatch, with the Bears fourth and the Lions 30th. Kicking off, punting, the return game—Detroit has been dire in every facet of the third phase save placekicking. Kicking off and punting remain the Bears’ strong suit, covering up for iffy returning and poor placekicking. (Are you listening, Devin Hester?)
As we’ve talked about before, good kickoffs and punts play into field position, and field position has been a key element in Chicago’s defensive prowess. The team is third in opponent’s Drive Success Rate, and second in average points allowed per drive (behind only San Francisco). The Lions special teams have hindered their otherwise potent offense. Detroit’s average starting position is 24th in the league, making their overall Drive Success Rate, 12th, pretty strong in context. If only the Lions could regularly get better field position, they’d be back to contending for a playoff spot, as they did a season ago.
But they aren’t—Chicago is. Beat the Lions, and the song on your lips will be, “Go Pack, Go!” Hopefully, we’ll see one another next week for a playoff preview.