In the early months of the pandemic, when many people were mocking the National Football League for its presumptuousness for holding off-season free agency and the draft, the actual start of the NFL season seemed like wishful thinking. Despite other sports rolling out their bubbles and hub cities, the NFL – the most contact sport of any of the four major North American sports – decided to forge ahead, choosing instead to focus on daily testing and enhanced training complex safety protocols and social-distancing to keep their players and team personnel safe.
Fast-forward to today, and the NFL has had very low positive Covid-19 infections among its ranks, to the surprise of many. The season formally kicked off on Thursday night between Houston and Kansas City, and aside from only about 16,000 fans in attendance due to pandemic capacity restrictions, the game itself looked the same as always.
This doesn’t mean the league is out of the woods by any means when it comes to a spike in Covid-19 infections. The league can look no further than their baseball counterparts to know that the virus has its own plans, and can wreak havoc on game schedules. But for today, and hopefully, for the season in total, football is back, and it’s under this backdrop that we present our week one Chicago Bears preview: Chicago at Detroit.
PREVIEW: BEARS @ LIONS – SEPTEMBER 13, 2020 – 12:00 pm CT
BEARS vs Lions: 2019 RECAP
11/10/19 at Chicago: Bears 20 – Lions 13
11/28/19 at Detroit: Bears 24 – Lions 20
That Chicago won both games against the Lions in 2019 is more of a testament to the team’s good fortune than it was to their overall ability and talent compared to the Lions. The Bears were able to dodge facing Matthew Stafford in either game, as his back injury the week before the November 11th match-up took him out of action for the remainder of the season. Instead, Chicago got to face such quarterback wizardry from the likes of Jeff Driskel and David Blough. Advantage: Bears.
The Detroit defense also was very forgiving, as Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky continued to string together his best performances within the division against the Lions and Matt Patricia’s man coverage schemes. Something about facing the team from the Motor City seems to bring the best out of Trubisky, or the worst out of the Lions.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
After “winning” the pre-season quarterback competition over free-agent signee Nick Foles, all eyes will be on Trubisky to prove he has finally turned the corner in his star-crossed career. Trubisky’s struggles have been well-documented: inability to read defenses, leading to poor decision-making; telegraphing his targets; inaccurate throws. There have also been concerns with the quarterback’s psyche, and whether he is too fragile to handle one of the most demanding positions in all of pro sports. His comment last season about turning off the televisions at Hallas Hall didn’t help him in that regard.
Glass half-full theory says Trubisky usually does well against Detroit and will be able to continue this trend. Glass half-empty theory says Detroit has a new defensive coordinator (Cory Undlin) and revamped defensive personnel that might deploy more zone schemes to confuse the Bears quarterback. If the off-season work that Trubisky says he put in to improve his game-day performance has worked, this game will serve as exhibit A.
Improvement on offense is not in Trubisky’s hands alone, however. Bears head coach Matt Nagy will be scrutinized as much as his quarterback this season to determine if the supposed offensive guru has figured out a way to get his offensively-challenged team progressing and moving in the right direction. The starting personnel on offense, except for new tight ends and a new guard, remain the same. That means Nagy will be tasked to develop a game plan that fits with the players he has on offense, something he has not done successfully in his first two years on the job.
Receiver Allen Robinson is the Bears best weapon on offense, but he won’t be able to do it alone against the Lions. The Bears are facing a completely revamped Lions secondary that includes Desmond Trufant, third overall draft pick cornerback Jeff Okudah, and Duron Harmon. However, that might not help the Bears if they can’t get receiver production from an inconsistent Anthony Miller and an aging Ted Ginn Jr. At tight end, the Bears are hoping free agent acquisition Jimmy Graham and second-round draftee Cole Kmet can provide Trubisky with the short/medium range outlets that they have lacked during his time as a Bear. The Lions will look to linebacker Jamie Collins Sr. and safety Tracy Walker, among others, to slow down Graham and Kmet.
At running back for the Bears, David Montgomery will be available. His effectiveness will go a long way in providing the Bears with some versatility on offense. To help Trubisky, the Bears need to establish an effective running game to provide offensive balance, something that Nagy has seemed unwilling to commit to since his arrival. The Bears were 28th in run offense in 2019, while the Lions were middle of the pack in run defense at 16. Defensive tackles Danny Shelton and former Bear Nick Williams will be the men in the middle of the Lions defensive line trying to clog things up for the Bears running game.
With the exception of newcomer Germain Ifedi at RG, the Bears offensive line returns all starters from 2019. The Bears offense ranked at or near the bottom in most offensive categories last year. The offensive line owns a significant portion of that performance. The focus on this game will be Bears left tackle Charles Leno Jr. versus Lions defensive end Trey Flowers.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
Stafford returns at quarterback for the Lions. He was having a very successful first half of the season before he exited 2019 with a back injury. The Lions and their fans are holding their breath that he can remain healthy for the entire 2020 campaign, because as Matthew Stafford goes, so goes the chance for any success for the Lions. That said, the last season Stafford faced the Bears and their defense was in 2018, and he only threw for two touchdowns to go along with 4 interceptions, for a passer rating of 71.4 percent. Clearly, Stafford can’t do it alone either.
The Lions will be without a grade A talent at wide receiver in Kenny Golladay, who finished 2019 with 11 touchdown catches to go along with 1,190 receiving yards. This despite only having the services of Stafford for half a season. Still, look for the Lions to test Bears rookie cornerback Jaylon Johnson early and often. At tight end, the Lions are hoping to get more from second-year starter T.J. Hockenson. Bears linebackers Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan will be tasked with containing him.
Running back has consistently been the Lions Achilles heel since Stafford came into the league, and has typically been seen as the reason the Lions have not been successful overall as a team. The Lions are hoping a combination of Kerryon Johnson, second-round pick D’Andre Swift, and former All-Pro Adrian Peterson will breathe life into a Lions non-existent running game. Look for the Lions to test Bears nose tackle Bilal Nichols, who has some big shoes to fill in the middle of the Bears defensive line, replacing Eddie Goldman, who opted out for the season.
The right side of the Lions offensive line is completely new from the unit that finished 2019 as the 11th ranked unit according to Pro Football Focus. Halapoulivaati Vaitai will start at RT, and rookie third-rounder Jonah Jackson at right guard. The Bears had two sacks against the Lions in each game in 2019, including two by Smith in the Thanksgiving day match-up. Look for the Bears and Khalil Mack to dial up the pressure on the right side of the Lions offensive line.
For the Bears, Cairo Santos replaces the injured Eddy Pineiro at placekicker to start the season. The Lions employ the normally reliable Matt Prater. At punter, the Bears Pat O’Donnell should have an initial edge over Lions rookie Jack Fox. Kicking edge to the Lions. In the return game, the Bears combination of Cordarrelle Patterson and Tarik Cohen provides them with a considerable edge.
Matt Nagy: 20 – 12 – 0 (.625)
Matt Patricia: 9 – 22 – 1(.297)
Bears fans have not exactly been enthralled with what they have seen from Nagy, despite his overall record in his first two years. Lions fans would take 20-12 over the last two seasons compared to the record Patricia has provided over that same period. Advantage: Bears
The Bears win a typical NFC North slog against the Lions: 23 – 20