Go ahead and take a look at the NFC North standings. Seriously. Go look and then come back. We’ll be here. OK, you back? Great! As you now know, the Chicago Bears are in first place.
The Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers were considered before the season to be among the inner-circle contenders in the NFC, while the Bears were viewed as a potential fringe playoff team due to the expected offensive improvement baked in by replacing John Fox with Matt Nagy.
Things have worked out well for Chicago on both offense and defense, while both the Vikings and Packers have been up and down. Now, the Bears are right in the mix for the division title. They can go a long way toward solidifying their chances by handling Sunday’s matchup with the last-place Lions, who are 3-5 and recently traded one of their best offensive players.
Will the Bears step up and ensure their footing, or can the Lions pull off the upset? We’ll find out Sunday (1 p.m., Fox, stream on fuboTV). Here’s what to watch out for.
When the Bears have the ball
Let’s talk about that aforementioned improvement in the Bears’ offense. Chicago hasn’t exactly been the most consistent team on a game-to-game or even play-to-play basis, but the overall difference between this season and last is stark. Take a look at the following chart, which shows where the Bears ranked in a variety of offensive categories last season and where they rank this season. The better mark is highlighted in bold.
Yeah. It’s safe to say that Nagy and company have found some stuff that worked. Some of the improvement is due to the signings of Allen Robinson, Trey Burton, and Taylor Gabriel, plus the drafting of Anthony Miller, but Nagy has found a far more effective way to use running back Tarik Cohen and has schemed Mitchell Trubisky into easier throws this season than he had a year ago. Chicago’s top pass-catchers averaged 2.71 yards of separation last year, per an analysis of NFL.com’s NextGen Stats, but this year their separation average is up to 3.01 yards. While a difference of 0.3 yards might not seem like a ton, consider the fact that it means there is an entire extra foot of space in which to fire the ball. That’s a world of difference, and it’s been clear in the ease with which Trubisky has completed passes this year (64.2 percent) compared to last (59.4 percent).
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That extra separation has borne itself out elsewhere in Trubisky’s numbers. His throws are going for first downs (32.9 percent to 27.9 percent) and touchdowns (5.8 percent to 1.9 percent) far more often this year. He’s also created a ton more big plays. Just 23 of Trubisky’s 330 pass attempts a year ago created gains of 20 yards or more. He’s already got 26 such plays this year, on 70 fewer pass attempts. That’s a jump from 6.0 percent to 10.0 percent. The guys creating most of those big plays this year are Cohen and Gabriel, who have combined to account for 12 of 26 20-plus-yard catches on the year.
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The Lions rank 26th in DVOA on deep passes this season, indicating that Gabriel has a chance to break a big play on Sunday. (That’s especially true because Darius Slay — who has not practiced all week and is uncertain to play — is likely to shadow Allen Robinson if he suits up, leaving Gabriel working against a weaker cover corner for most of the afternoon. ) The Lions’ pass defense has been poor in just about every area this season, with slot wideouts, tight ends, and running backs also finding success. With Slay likely covering Robinson, Trubisky and company would be wise to look at Gabriel, Miller, Cohen, and Burton as often as possible.
The Bears are also likely to find a good amount of success in the run game. Detroit’s run defense was arguably the worst in the NFL before they traded for Damon Harrison at the deadline, and in the two games since he landed in Detroit, they’ve allowed 178 yards on the ground to the Seahawks and 128 to the Vikings. And that’s with Harrison playing more than 60 percent of the snaps in both games. Chicago’s Jordan Howard-led run game had been on a roll until it ran into the Bills last week, but that game was over pretty much before it started and the offense barely had to do anything at all. The Bears had averaged 158.7 rush yards per game over the previous three weeks, and between Howard gashing up the middle, Cohen scooting around the edge, and the ever-present thread of Trubisky taking off with the ball himself on a scramble or read-option, they should have success running on the Lions as well.
When the Lions have the ball
Detroit’s offense unsurprisingly struggled in the first game of the post-Golden Tate era last week, with the Vikings holding the Lions to just 209 total yards, 18 first downs, and nine points. All three of those figures checked in well below Detroit’s season averages of 373.3 yards, 21.6 first downs, and 24.4 points per game prior to the contest.
The Lions essentially replaced Tate in their offense with scat-back Theo Riddick, who had been out for a few weeks until returning, and while Riddick did catch seven passes, they totaled just 36 yards. (T.J. Jones took most of the slot snaps but he was pretty much a non-factor.) Riddick is a strong pass-catching option out of the backfield but he doesn’t provide nearly the kind of downfield threat Tate does, nor is he nearly as good a run-after-catch guy as Tate, who has long been one of the best players in the league at creating additional yardage.
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One way to make up for Tate’s absence would be for the Lions to figure out a way to get Kenny Golladay going again. Golladay got off to a scorching start to the season with 27 catches for 428 yards and three scores in the first five games, reaching at least 74 yards or a touchdown in each of those games. Over the past three games, he has six catches for 95 yards on just seven targets. I mean … what???
The Bears play sides with cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller, with Amukamara taking 99 percent of his snaps on the right side of the field and Fuller playing 100 percent on the left. That means Golladay will see a decent amount of both, as he tends to move around the formation. Neither is necessarily the easiest guy to get going against. Among the 110 players who have been targeted in coverage at least 25 times, per Sports Info Solutions, Fuller ranks 13th in opponent passer rating and Amukamara ranks 54th.
Detroit’s offensive line had been very good in pass protection this season until completely falling apart last week. Matthew Stafford was sacked 10 (TEN!!) times by the Vikings a week ago, and he barely had time to look downfield, let alone throw the ball. The Bears have 24 sacks on the season, but recorded just three combined against the Jets and Bills with Khalil Mack on the sideline the past two weeks. The reasonable expectation is that Mack returns this week, and that is very bad news for the Lions. When fully healthy he has been absolutely unstoppable this season, and after taking two weeks off to let his ankle heal, he should be raring to go in this one. If the Lions can’t keep Mack away from Stafford, they’re done.
The Detroit run game has been better since they essentially handed the reins to rookie Kerryon Johnson, but the Bears are one of the toughest teams in the NFL to run against. Johnson also has just 59 yards on 20 carries in his past two games. If the line struggles to create holes through which he can run, well, again, they’re done.
Prediction: Bears 30, Lions 17