Even visiting an offense ranked 30th in the NFL, one woefully hampered for most of the season by sub optimal quarterbacking, blocking and contributions, period, from its TE corps, the Detroit Lions can’t feel very safe as they visit the Bears at Soldier Field Sunday with a singular spot in the NFC North basement at stake.
The Lions — who have the NFL’s 31st-ranked defense (No. 27 in points allowed) — will be without three of their top four safeties to begin the season, including top tackler and TE defender Tracy Walker, set to miss his second consecutive game since injuring his knee almost immediately after the trade of fellow Week 1 starter Quandre Diggs to Seattle.
Making matters worse for Detroit, No. 3 safety and top special-teams tackler Miles Killebrew was placed in concussion protocol Friday after getting dinged in practice this week. That leaves only journeyman Tavon Wilson and rookies Will Harris (third round) and C.J. Moore (undrafted) healthy in the safety corps headed to Chicago.
It's not all that much better up front, where Detroit's top four interior defensive linemen — Damon Harrison, A'Shawn Robinson, Mike Daniels and D'Shawn Hand — are listed as questionable, like QB Matthew Stafford (hip/back), among others, though their best player is fully expected to play.
Of course, the Bears, who appear fairly healthy entering Sunday with only NT Eddie Goldman (thigh) questionable on the injury report after improving from limited on Thursday to full go Friday, have other issues, mainly stick moving and point scoring on offense. Chicago’s regression on that side of the ball has been well-documented, including the Mitch Trubisky-led passing game whose 5.40-yard average per play trails only the New York Jets.
Is this finally the week Matt Nagy’s unit awakens from its season-long slumber? That answer, as is usually the case, hinges mostly on the ability of the coach to better calling plays and the quarterback to better execute them.
But in light of the Lions’ current limitations at safety and their strength on the boundaries with Pro Bowler Darius Slay and outstanding free-agent addition Justin Coleman, it says here that mostly invisible TE Trey Burton won’t have a better opportunity in his second season with the team to show up and show out.
Burton hasn’t exceeded four catches or 20 receiving yards in a game this season, after averaging 3.5 and 36, respectively, in addition to tallying six touchdowns in 2018. Nagy was asked this week about the putrid production from arguably the most important position other than quarterback in his offense, and specifically about Burton, who missed the offseason and Week 1 following sports hernia surgery.
“We went into training camp and [Burton] just wasn’t right at training camp. We felt that we wanted to pull back and now we’re gradually trying to get him back. He’s been playing better and better each week,” Nagy said, despite Burton being held without a catch for only the second time as a Bear last week. “Do I think he’s 100 percent yet? No, I don’t. There [are] some opportunities that we’ve had here or there, but it hasn’t been nearly as much as we want it to. Between everything else that’s going on. That’s definitely a part that we would like to improve at.”
Burton was signed in 2018 to a four-year, $32 million contract following his Super Bowl season with the Eagles to help stabilize one of the Bears’ shakiest positions. Ryan Pace spent the 45th overall pick in 2017 on Adam Shaheen, an unmitigated disappointment, weeks after handing $10 million guaranteed to Dion Sims, who made 18 starts, 17 catches and one end zone visit in two seasons.
Burton was fairly dependable if not overly dynamic in starting 16 regular-season games prior to the mysterious groin injury that popped up in January on the eve of the wild-card defeat vs. his former team — an injury, the Bears say, continues to slow Burton and derail one of the NFL's most expensive TE rooms that this season has been the league's least productive.
Yet with the Bears not getting any consistency in their WR corps outside of Allen Robinson — who’s likely to draw star CB treatment Sunday from Slay — the table is set for Burton to finally break through. If it doesn’t happen Sunday, when the Lions severely lack weapons to cover the Bears “U” tight end and supposed chess piece, it’s fair to wonder whether it’ll ever happen for him this season.