After four consecutive weeks of AFC East opponents that the Bears won’t have to worry about for another four years, the Bears sit at 5-3 and in first place heading into a crucial stretch against some very familiar foes.
The first of these critical matchups is against a longtime rival in the Detroit Lions. Motor City has given the Bears fits over these last few seasons, but Chicago is clearly a different team than they were then.
Detroit is as well, though not necessarily in a good or bad way. Their defense is certainly unlike anything the Bears have seen before from the Lions, mainly due to new leadership and widespread personnel changes in the past couple years and even the past couple weeks.
I watched an ample amount of film to deduce what exactly to make of the Lions’ second phase, and this is what I came up with. Here is my scouting report on Detroit’s defense.
Up front for the Lions, their trademark is depth, versatility, and rotation but the overall skill level was taken up a notch when they traded a fifth-round pick to the Giants for nose tackle Damon Harrison on October 24. Harrison, or “Snacks,” is a one-dimensional player but that one dimension is being arguably the best run-stuffer in the NFL. He’s impossible to move and when an offensive lineman tries to hard to do so, he’ll counter with a nasty swim move and get to the ballcarrier without being touched.
Before “Snacks” came over from New York, Detroit was allowing over five and a half yards per carry to opposing backs. If you discount an outlier – a 70-yarder from Dalvin Cook in which Harrison was not on the field – that number is under four in the two games since the trade.
Beside him is fellow veteran DT Ricky Jean-Francois, who isn’t quite as dominant against the run but is by no means a liability either. He can be a factor in the passing game if you’re not careful, too. Rookie Da’Shawn Hand will rotate on the inside as well but he can also play on the edge on run-heavy downs or against run-heavy formations. The two of them split snaps and either could be denoted the “starter” on any given Sunday.
At defensive end, Romeo Okwara is their most effective and versatile player. You’ll see him in a three-point stance, standing up, and in a three, five, or seven technique on either side. He’s their best pass rusher who plays consistently. He doesn’t have a signature dominant pass rush move but he has very strong arms for hand-fighting and is relentless in pursuit of the quarterback. A’Shawn Robinson plays Okwara’s role when the starter needs a rest and isn’t as good but he’ll line up anywhere as well.
The X-factor here is former top pick Ziggy Ansah, who has been injured for all of two games this season while under the franchise tag. He does have a sack in both of the matchups for which he’s been healthy, though, and is certainly somebody the Bears have to watch for if he is able to suit up.
The linebacker position is where things start to get a little dicey, but not on the inside. The middleman is Jarrad Davis, a second-year man out of Florida who Detroit has very high hopes for and with good reason. He has garnered a reputation as a tough, gritty, do-it-all guy at a slightly below-average ILB size. He’s a very solid tackler (as are the other two starters), flashes elite athleticism, and displays above-average lateral quickness on a regular basis. His one weakness – coverage.
Outside of Davis, the Lions will trot out Devon Kennard, who as the “Sam” backer in this system (he plays the “Leo” role that you may have heard of from a Seattle-based scheme) will line up exclusively on the line of scrimmage and sometimes even in a three-point stance. He is tied for the team lead in sacks with Okwara.
The other name is one that will ring a bell – Christian Jones, who started a number of games for the Bears last season. Depending on the formation and/or personnel grouping he’ll line up on and off the ball, generally on the weak side. Both of the outside guys can have issues setting the edge in the run game.
These three backers share a few things in common: they’re all solid tacklers but liabilities in coverage and they have a tendency to bite on well-executed play fakes (more on that later).
On the back end, everything starts with Darius Slay, who Bears fans should know all too well by now. He’s one of the better ballhawks at cornerback in football, pulling in an astounding eight interceptions last season including two against Mitch Trubisky, so he’d be well-advised to avoid Slay on Sunday (though he may not be able to go due to injury – that would be a big help for the Bears).
The other starter is Nevin Lawson, who won’t pick off nearly as many passes but is very solid in coverage. He held Adam Thielen to a total of 22 yards on Sunday in Minnesota; no other cornerback had been able to keep him under 100 all season.
DeShawn Shead plays the nickel spot. He’s an average slot corner, never really jumping off the screen for good or bad reasons. Teez Tabor, on the other hand, does – for all bad ones. Search his name on twitter and you’ll find a Motor City Angry Mob because he’s been burned quite a bit in coverage this season. He has played in dime packages and sometimes in nickel, but will have an increased role if Slay is unable to suit up.
And finally, at safety, Glover Quin leads the pack and plays centerfield most of the time, occasionally walking down to the box or the slot. He has a reputation as a ballhawk but his turnover numbers are way down this year, although he’s still one of their better coverage men. Quandre Diggs completes the safety duo and is at his best in run support. He’s one of Detroit’s better tacklers at any level.
Tavon Wilson has received some playing time at a backup/rotational safety spot – usually in the slot or in the box – in the past couple weeks. Wilson is decent against the run but is a complete liability in coverage. The common theme with this Lions defense: deep up front, top-heavy with worrisome depth in the back.
HC/DC: Matt Patricia/Paul Pasqualoni
Pasqualoni’s name may sound familiar, as he was Chicago’s DL coach in 2014, but it’s Patricia – a first-year head coach from New England – who runs the show on defense in Detroit. Their trademark is mixing up their looks and presenting the offense with numerous types of personnel packages to prepare for on game day.
The look they’ll be in most often, especially with the recent defensive line upgrade in Harrison, is a 3-3-5 nickel set. Harrison will line up directly over the center with Shead and Okwara (though they’ll rotate plenty) in the B gaps, creating a “double eagle” formation. Jones and Kennard will be on the LOS with Davis off the ball, and their typical nickel DB package behind them.
Second would be a modified 4-3 look, with the same front-three alignment except for Jean-Francois on the inside and Okwara kicked outside in a three-point stance. Jones and Davis will be off the ball here with Kennard in the same spot as in the previous paragraph. They will show a traditional 4-3 set too, traditional meaning a one, a three, a five, and a seven technique up front with three off-ball linebackers. I would guess that they show that more than they have before against the Bears – more on that later.
You’ll also see a 2-4-5 with Okwara (and whenever I put Okwara’s name down you can expect to see Robinson in that spot as well) as a stand-up linebacker, a 4-1-6 with two B-gap and two C-gap d-lineman with Davis as the lone backer, or a number of other exotic looks on third down (they’re too numerous to list each and every one of them here, though the most interesting is putting all three linebackers next to each other on one side of the line of scrimmage).
The coverage scheme has multiple variations as well, but there is one constant: they play majority man with their corners, often in press, or at least giving very little cushion. The CBs are not tied to a side, rather they’re tied to a matchup – Patricia will put each of his outside guys against an offensive weapon who he believes they’ll have the best chance against. The one exception here is they’ll occasionally put Slay in a three-deep set where his ball skills can shine.
Usually, their safeties are positioned so that the one deep man is Quin, with Diggs roaming a slightly shallower area. Their linebackers will play a mix of man and zone, usually depending on the offensive personnel. The defensive formation isn’t a great indicator of coverage with this group, so Trubisky will have to be careful with his pre-snap reads.
The main way that Patricia generates pass rush is by keeping his DL fresh, which he can do liberally because of the quality depth they have up there. They don’t run many stunts, the one exception being that sometimes Okwara will slant inside and Davis will scrape off the edge.
They like to bluff blitz more than they actually blitz (unless you count Kennard lining up on the ball and rushing as a blitz, which I don’t), and when they do blitz it’s usually only five men. Patricia can get too cute here and will try to out-smart and confuse an offensive line rather than overpower it.
The last thing I will say about Patricia is that his guys generally don’t play with above average technique, which is a radical departure from what his unit did in New England. As previously mentioned, they (especially the linebackers) can be undisciplined against play action and misdirection.
They will also look apathetic sometimes, or like they’ve quit, especially late in games that they’re trailing. There were some rumors this offseason of Patricia beginning to lose his locker room, and based on the tape, those rumors had some validity.
Matchup the Lions can exploit: Damon Harrison vs. Eric Kush
Last week, Kush and Wintzmann split snaps 28-23 in Kyle Long‘s absence. Whichever one of them on the field is going to have a hard time against Snacks, and that’s the reason I think Detroit will go with a more traditional 4-3 set in Chicago.
If they can position Harrison in a one-technique matched up on Kush or Wintzmann instead of in a straight nose tackle spot against Cody Whitehair, they can make life a whole lot tougher for Chicago’s run game.
Matchup the Bears can exploit: Matt Nagy vs. Detroit’s linebackers
Shovel passes, RPOs, bootlegs, oh my!
That’s what the Bears’ mantra for game planning should read this week. The Lions’ linebackers – Jones, Davis, and Kennard – are easily sucked in by play fakes and can lose the edge or over-pursue on bootlegs and jet sweep action, which opens up the shovel pass.
Like Coach Nagy has been doing relatively consistently all season, the Bears should be working a motion man on almost every play, even if it’s meaningless window dressing, just to give the backers something to think about so that they’re not as quick in reading the play and getting to the ball. That should open up the passing game over the middle, where any number of Bears receivers should feast on Sunday.
This is a deep team up front with some quality talent but I get a feeling from watching film that they’re not always completely prepared to play. Teams have tended to spread the ball around against this group, which should play directly into Chicago’s strengths.
I predict a Bears victory. And if Slay can’t go and Tabor has to start, this game shouldn’t be close.
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