BEARS // LIONS OVERVIEW
Imagine being John Fox. It’s not quite like being Jeff Fisher, but Fox — the picture of a coach who “played to not lose” rather than playing to win — watched the Broncos win a Super Bowl the year after he left their sidelines (to make matters worse: the Broncos won with Peyton Manning in steep decline, after Fox failed to win it all with Manning-on-fire), and then he went 6-10, 3-13, and 5-11 with the Bears. Much like Sean McVay on the Rams last season, Matt Nagy has entered the picture and led the Bears to a 7-3 record, with their Week 11 win over the Vikings giving them a clear shot at first place in the tough NFC North.
The story has not been so pretty on other side, where Matt Patricia was supposed to “push the Lions over the top” after they went 9-7 each of the last two years. The Lions are now in the basement of the NFC North, at 4-6. Detroit has wins against the Patriots, Packers, and Panthers, but they have also taken losses against the 49ers and the Jets.
Each team in this game slows down the pace and aims to control the clock (both the Lions and the Bears rank top six in time of possession), and each offense ranks middle of the pack in yards per game (though the Bears rank sixth in points per game). The Bears’ offense leans on the run (fifth lowest pass play rate), while the Lions have shown run-leaning tendencies, but have been unable to keep this up with their defense playing so poorly. With Kerryon Johnson set to miss this week and the Bears boasting the number one run defense in football, expect the Lions to skew toward the pass this week.
Vegas is giving Detroit a substantial home team bump, with the Bears favored by only four points, in a game with a middling total of 45.0. When these teams met two weeks ago in Chicago, the Bears won 34-22. The Lions had Marvin Jones for much of that game, and they had Kerryon for all of it. To give the Lions some credit: they have gone 3-1 in their last four home games — with those wins against the Patriots, Packers, and Panthers.
BEARS PASS OFFENSE
The Lions have allowed an increase of more than 19% on the league-average aDOT — the worst mark in the league — and they have also allowed an increase of more than 5% on the league-average catch rate, leading to the NFL’s worst yards allowed per pass attempt. The only reason the Lions’ season-long numbers against the pass don’t look worse (10th most fantasy points per game allowed to quarterbacks // fewer passing yards allowed per game than half the league) is because only three teams have faced a lower opponent pass play rate, as opponents have generally chosen to attack Detroit on the ground. The Lions have faced the second fewest pass attempts in the NFL…and they have given up the fifth most passing touchdowns.
(Note: Since completing this writeup, it has begun to look less and less likely that Mitchell Trubisky will be able to play in this game. If he misses, it will be Chase Daniel under center. Daniel has been in the league since 2010, but has started only two games — developing under Sean Payton and Drew Brees early in his career, and playing for Andy Reid and Doug Pederson since then, with Matt Nagy bringing him over to the Bears this season. He has thrown only 78 passes in his entire NFL career, but he is very familiar with this system and should be able to run it without major issues. The Bears will likely go more run-heavy early, but the Lions will likely be ready for this, which could force the Bears to win with Daniel. He’s less exciting than Trubisky would have been, but there will still be opportunity for one or two of the pass catchers to be useful. One thing to look for in a spot like this is average separation for pass catchers, as this can make life easier on a backup QB. Gabriel leads wide receivers on this team in separation, at 3.5 yards, followed by Miller (2.8) and Robinson (1.9). Burton also has an average separation of 3.5 yards.)
Across the Bears’ last seven games, Mitchell Trubisky has topped 31 pass attempts only once, but he has piled up six or more rush attempts four times in that stretch, with rushing totals of 3 // 3 // 1 in his other three contests. Trubisky is averaging 7.1 yards per rush attempt, and in spite of taking off 21 fewer times than Cam Newton, he has out-rushed Cam by 34 yards on the season. With that said: the Lions have allowed the fewest quarterback rushing yards in the league — including holding Trubisky to his third lowest output of the year, and holding Cam to only two yards on two carries last weekend. Trubisky’s strange season includes four games of 300+ passing yards and six games of 220 or fewer passing yards, with no games in between. Given that the Lions are the only team in football allowing nine yards per pass attempt, even a 30 attempt game from Trubisky will give him a solid shot at adding a fifth game of 300+.
With passing volume so limited on the Bears, production from wide receivers has been unpredictable. Allen Robinson has topped seven targets only twice (an eight target game against the Lions, who were missing Darius Slay, and a 14 target game way back in Week 2); Anthony Miller has topped 50 yards only once (and has cracked 40 yards only twice); and Taylor Gabriel has sandwiched his 100-yard efforts with a season full of sub-53-yard games.
Box-score-watchers are likeliest to gravitate toward A-Rob, as he has posted more solid stat lines this year, and he is the safer-feeling name (he also blasted this Lions team just two weeks ago); but it is worth noting that Robinson is averaging only 1.15 more targets per game than Gabriel, and they have identical aDOTs of 12.3. Gabriel has five red zone targets, including four looks inside the 10. Robinson has eight red zone targets, with three looks inside the 10. Robinson is the better player, and while he is likelier to draw coverage from Slay, the Lions’ star corner has had an inconsistent season. If we played out this slate a hundred times, we would likely see more big games from Robinson than from Gabriel; but it would be much closer than most would imagine. The Lions may have the worst defensive backfield in football away from Slay, giving Gabriel a premium draw, and making him an upside play on the Thanksgiving slate. Gabriel has the highest catch rate and the highest xYAC/R among Bears wide receivers.
Miller lines up in the slot on 72% of his snaps, putting him in a different category than the other two — but he has started seeing enough work downfield lately that his aDOT has actually risen to 12.2 (compared to the 12.3 mark for Robinson and Gabriel). Miller has also seen eight red zone targets and three targets inside the 10, giving him sneaky opportunity to post the highest score among wide receivers on this team as well. You can go into this game expecting each of these receivers to see five to eight targets, with roughly equal opportunity to hit on these looks. Miller is still a bit raw, but he may be the most talented all-around player in this bunch.
With these three soaking up most of the action, Trey Burton has seen recent target counts of only 4 // 3 // 4 // 1. The Lions are a middling matchup against tight ends, leaving Burton as a “hope for touchdown” or “hope for a spike in usage” play.
BEARS RUN OFFENSE
One reason to believe the Bears’ passing attack might land on higher volume than normal is the continual strengthening of this Lions run D, after Christian McCaffrey went for only 53 yards on 13 carries (4.1 YPC) last week. Rushing lines against this team since they traded for Snacks Harrison now look like this (if we take away the 70-yard run Dalvin Cook had against this squad) —
19-50-1 to Latavius Murray and Dalvin Cook
35-138-1 to Chris Carson and Mike Davis
18-36-0 to Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen
13-53-0 to Christian McCaffrey
As noted each of the last few weeks: this team will still have some issues on the second level, opening opportunities for big gains. But they are winning at the line of scrimmage more often these days, and are making it difficult for running backs to pop for those big gains.
Jordan Howard has still not topped 82 yards in a game, and he has three total receptions across his last seven games. He’ll need a totally busted play or a multi-touchdown game to return value.
Tarik Cohen is the better bet for an explosive play, but he has topped seven carries only once this season, and his targets are never guaranteed. He has a solid shot at seeing around five to seven targets this week, if you want to bet that he can bust one of those for a long play.
The Bears have been a difficult matchup for quarterbacks this year, ranking near the top of the league in DVOA and allowing the third fewest yards per pass attempt in the league. Brock Osweiler (of all people) is the only quarterback to pass for 300 yards against the Bears this year (most of which came on short passes and yards after the catch), and this team has racked up the most interceptions and the fifth most sacks in the league. Volume should be on the side of Matthew Stafford and this passing attack, as Kerryon is going to miss this game, and neither LeGarrette Blount nor Theo Riddick is capable of making a difference between the tackles against the best run defense in the league; but Stafford will have to battle all game to move up and down the field — especially with Marvin Jones set to miss.
Last week with Jones on the sidelines, targets on the Lions looked like this:
Riddick played only eight snaps at wide receiver, while Ellington filled in for 33 snaps, with 20 coming in the slot. Ellington is not an impact player, but he is serviceable, and with a snap rate around 50%, he’ll have a chance to pile up five to seven targets again, with outside potential for more. As a slot receiver, he is often in position to be the second downfield read when Golladay is too covered to throw to, giving him a leg up on T.J. (who played 45 snaps last week, but is being schemed no looks in this offense).
As noted last week: Golladay will see his targets regardless, as Stafford has essentially rolled his Golladay/Marvin throws into one. The Bears have allowed the eighth fewest receiving yards to running backs and the fifth fewest receptions to tight ends, but only four teams have allowed more catches to wide receivers. Vic Fangio and the Bears will do what they can to make throws to Golladay as difficult as possible, but another 10+ looks is in the cards here, and Golladay should be able to haul in around 50% of this targets, giving him more than enough usage to matter on this slate.
The Lions’ best backfield alignment will have Riddick playing heavy snaps and taking a few carries throughout the game while remaining heavily involved in the pass game. His yardage upside is limited outside of broken plays, but his workload is secure, giving him a strong floor for the price.
Blount should see some touches that waste everyone’s time (he is averaging a check-for-typo 2.3 yards per carry on the season, and last week he managed one yard on seven totes), and Zach Zenner may mix in for some work as well. It’s unlikely that either guy tops 30 to 40 rushing yards even with eight to 10 carries, so multiple touchdowns would be required for them to be more than a crater on your roster.
Most of the pass game attention on the Thanksgiving slate will (rightfully) land on the Falcons // Saints game at night, but in tourneys, keep in mind that Trubisky (while doing so with a much lower floor) has shown the same ceiling this year as Matt Ryan and Drew Brees. On paper, he’s the third best option, but his upside makes him a definitely-interesting piece.
There is a case to be made for playing just about anyone on a three-game slate, but in terms of “best plays,” no one from this passing attack pops, as it’s a low-volume unit that spreads the ball around; but it is likely that at least one player in this group (the three wide receivers and Burton) will post a strong game — and in this matchup, it’s certainly not crazy to think one of them will end up with a big game. Regression Analysis points to Gabriel as the best play of the bunch, given that all three wide receivers have the same aDOT and red zone role, and Gabriel has the highest catch rate and the highest xYAC/R — though in the small sample size of a single game, any of the three could come out on top. If I play this slate (I always think I won’t…and then I end up putting in a team on Thursday morning and being happy that I did), I’ll consider all three guys in tourneys, and I won’t be surprised if I end up taking a shot on one.
Burton and Cohen are worth tourney shots for their upside, but neither guy pops off the page beyond that.
On paper, Stafford is a worse play than at least three other quarterbacks on the Thanksgiving slate, but something like 260 yards and a pair of touchdowns is his likeliest outcome in what is guaranteed to be a pass-leaning approach for this offense. It wouldn’t be crazy to think he could find a broken play in there to add another 40 yards and an additional score.
Among his pass catchers, Golladay is the clear and obvious top play, but Ellington could also prove to be worthwhile as the number two option. Ellington was not targeted on a single “upside” route last week (eight of his nine looks came within six yards of the line of scrimmage, and he was moving toward the sideline on his only “downfield” route — a 10-yard out), but his price tag could allow you to unlock some higher-priced plays elsewhere on your roster, and he could provide upside with a touchdown while providing what should be a decent price-considered floor either way. Obviously, this assumption is based off only one week of usage, but this team has shown no inclination to involve T.J. Jones, and Ellington is the only other body out there.
Riddick is also interesting for his floor, but he’ll need a touchdown or a broken play to hit for upside against a defense that erases running backs.
Other players on this team could land a random touchdown, but they are unlikely to add enough yardage to their unpredictable score to become truly useful.