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NFC North threats: How the Lions could derail the Bears

In Part 1 of a 3-part series breaking down the NFC North on the eve of the 2019 season, the Sun-Times’ Patrick Finley looks at the Detroit Lions.

Lions coach Matt Patricia calls out a play from an elevated bench during a preseason game against the Bills last week.
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In Part 1 of a three-part series breaking down the NFC North on the eve of the 2019 season, the Sun-Times’ Patrick Finley looks at the Detroit Lions:

Record last year: 6-10 (Fourth in NFC North)

The Bears play them: Nov. 10 at Soldier Field; Nov. 28, Thanksgiving Day, at Ford Field

What’s new

Seeking an adaptable offense in the vein of coach Matt Patricia’s former team — the Patriots — the Lions fired offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter in January after 3½ seasons. His replacement: Darrell Bevell, the former Seahawks play-caller who decided to throw into the end zone at the end of Super Bowl XLIX.

Bevell is the fourth coordinator to coach quarterback Matthew Stafford in Detroit. One way or the other, he might be the last.

Expect the Lions to try to be as Belichickian as possible on offense. They’ll try to change formations and styles every week, looking like a different team from game to game based on their opponent’s weaknesses. And they’ll lean on the run — for all the attention quarterback Tom Brady gets, the Patriots finished third in the NFL in rushing attempts two of the last three years.

Gone are the days of Stafford leading the league in passes, the way he did in 2011 and 2012.

Stafford’s average of 35 passes per game last year was the lowest of any full season in his career.

There’s no way he’ll throw that much this season.

Where they’re headed

Toward a new defensive identity. Since 1998 — that’s nine coaches ago — the Lions’ defense has finished in the NFL’s top 10 in points allowed exactly once.

A former Patriots defensive coordinator, Patricia is trying to build the defense in his image. Their new defensive line is dangerous — they traded for Giants defensive tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison last year, signed Patriots edge rusher Trey Flowers to a five-year, $90 million deal in March and picked up former Packers tackle Mike Daniels in July.

One big question

Can the Lions’ defense dominate while Stafford is still on the roster? Two years ago, Stafford signed a five-year, $135 million contract. The $92 million guaranteed was the most in NFL history. The Lions likely can’t get him off the books until after the 2020 season, when it would cost them a $10 million dead cap hit. (The dead cap hits the next two years: $55 million and $22 million.)

The Lions have won one playoff game since 1958. Will Stafford be around to see the second? And if he’s not, what does that say about the team that gave him the NFL’s richest contract?

He could be a Bears killer

Kerryon Johnson. The second-year running back carried the ball 118 times in 10 games last year. He could hit that figure in half the time with Bevell calling the plays.

Bevell ran the Seahawks’ offense from 2011 to 2017. Seattle led the NFL in rushing attempts in 2012 and was second in 2013 and 2014 and third in 2015. The Seahawks led the NFL in rushing yards in 2014, ranked third twice and fourth once.

Johnson had 641 rushing yards and 213 receiving yards in a season shortened by a sprained left knee.

Bears threat level

Medium. The Bears have a better roster — the Lions will be lucky to finish above .500. But before Bears fans get too cocky about beating the Lions, consider that the boys in Honolulu blue always play their team well. From 2013 to 2017, the Lions went 9-1 against the Bears — and 34-36 against the rest of the NFL.