In the last Bears Watchtower, I projected both teams to score about ten more points than they actually did. I correctly projected the winner and the margin, however, so things weren’t too far off. If the numbers lead us in that direction again, I wouldn’t mind it.
Mike Martz vs. Gunther Cunningham
Since the last time these two teams met, both the Bears offense and the Lions defense have gotten a little better. The Bears offense is now the 10th-best scoring unit, up from 13, and it’s averaging 25.0 points per game. The Lions D is two slots better, up to 6th-best (18.4 PpG). The Bears are averaging 6.69 yards per attempt, and rushing for an astounding 5.20 YpC. Meanwhile, the Lions pass defense has ratcheted it even further down: they’re allowing just 5.23 yards per pass attempt. The rushing D has not been so great, of course; the Lions are allowing 5.24 yards per carry.
Yes, the Lions are allowing more yards per average rushing attempt than average passing attempt. I'll just let that sink in for a minute.
Over the past years of Watchtowering, I’d thought I’d identified a trend: that Mike Martz offenses exceed yardage expectations when facing a Cunningham defense, but fell short of scoring expectations because of sacks and turnovers. That didn’t happen in the second Bears game last season, though, and it didn’t happen on Monday night. In fact, the Bears moved the ball almost exactly as well as they have all year—they just scored half as many points.
Without any kind of systemic advantage at work, the Bears should score about 23 points. However, there’s pretty strong evidence now that Gunther has Martz’s number. I’m not going to project a repeat of Monday Night Football; there’s no way the Bears false start themselves nine times. Therefore, I project the Bears to score 17-21 points, passing for 6.50-7.00 YpA and rushing for 4.75-5.25 YpC. I have medium-high confidence in this projection.
Since Monday Night, Cutler and the Bears have been on a roll, hanging 39 on the Vikings, 24 on the Buccaneers, and 30 on the Eagles. Martz has been keeping more blockers in to buy Cutler time, and it’s paid off. Of course, this plays into the Lions’ hands: with fewer targets to cover, they’ll be able to blitz if need be. I can see Cutler being “efficient” without being “effective,” completing a lot of high-percentage passes but not moving the ball in chunks or scoring a lot of points.
As we’ve discussed at length, the Lions can more or less allow Forte to run for five YpC and not sweat it—but they’ll have to keep him from hitting the home run. If Forte can’t break anything long, this projection should hold up.
Scott Linehan vs. Lovie Smith
When it comes to Scott Linehan and Lovie Smith, I’ve identified a very strong statistical trend:
Given greater or equal talent, Lovie Smith's relatively aggressive Tampa 2 will surrender a disproportionate amount of yards to Linehan's balanced offense, but also generate high numbers of sacks and turnovers, disproportionately disrupting scoring. Given mediocre or poor talent, Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 surrenders disproportionately high yardage and points, respective to the Linehan offense’s talent level.
Given this, I projected the then-2nd-best offense in the NFL to score all over the then-20th-best defense. It didn’t happen. The Bears defense has tightened up significantly; it’s now the 14th-best in the NFL, allowing a field goal less per game than just a few weeks ago. The Lions offense is also a field-goal-per-game less potent, though 29.9 points per game is still third-best in the NFL.
When the third-best offense in the NFL goes up against the 14th-best and takes a 20% effectiveness hit instead of meeting its averages, something is up. I don’t think the previous effect I’d described (sacks/turnovers) was at play, more like a good defense showing up for a big game. I think the odds are good they’ll show up for this game, too.
When the 3rd-best offense faces a near-median defense, they should meet their season averages. However, they didn’t do that on Monday Night—and since then, the Lions offense has had some rough games while the Bears defense has had some great ones. I’ll split the difference between their season averages instead, and project the Lions to score 23-27 points, pass for 7.25-7.75 YpA and rush for 4.25-4.50 YpC. I have medium-high confidence in this projection.
This is kind of all over the place. The Lions will be without Jahvid Best, who had one of his best games as a pro in the last matchup. Since then, Matthew Stafford had two poor games against good teams followed by a great one against a terrible team. It’s hard to know which Lions team will show up—and of course, the Soldier Field elements will come into play.
I am extremely, extremely nervous about this game. It was a low-scoring slugfest before, despite only one turnover and four sacks between the two teams—mostly thanks to an absolutely ridiculous 26 total penalties that wiped 198 yards of combined offense off the field.
If the hankies aren’t flying this time like they were a few weeks ago, which offense benefits more? Can two teams currently ranked 1st and 7th in the NFL in turnover margin play another game without turnovers playing a significant role? I’m also haunted by one of my strongest Watchtower rules of thumb: rarely do two teams meet twice in the same season and play to the same result.
Partly because I’m so twitchy about it, I’m going to take the high end of my Bears projection and the low end of my Lions projection; I’ll say the most likely outcome of the game is a 23-21 Lions win.