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Data Entry: Bears Offense Found Better Balance in 2nd Half of 2017

| January 8th, 2018

When the Bears were on their bye week back in November, I looked at Chicago’s play-calling tendencies over rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky’s first four starts. In that study, I found that Dowell Loggains’ offense had been incredibly predictable through those four games. The team basically ran the ball if it was 1st or 2nd down and 10 or less and threw it if it was 2nd and 11+ or third down and anything.

This is obviously not a sustainable way to run an NFL offense, so let’s look at how those trends may have changed in the 8 games the Bears played after the bye. As before, all statistics come courtesy of the fantastic NFL play finder from Pro Football Reference.

1st down

In Trubisky’s first four starts, the Bears ran it 72% of the time on first down, but those numbers shifted dramatically following the bye. They actually passed more than running on 1st down in the last 8 games, with only 46% of their 1st downs featuring runs (I should clarify here that throughout this article passing plays are those which were called to be a pass, so either a pass attempt, sack, or QB rushing attempt, while runs are rushing attempts by anybody other than the QB. This assumes all QB runs are scrambles, which might slightly skew the data, but the Bears didn’t call many designed runs for Trubisky this year).

I was very surprised to find that the Bears ran it less than half the time on 1st down after the bye, but it does make sense when you consider they spent a good portion of several games trailing and trying to catch up. If you only look at the first three quarters, when game situation will not impact play calling as dramatically, the Bears ran it 53% of the time on 1st down. This is still not nearly as high as I expected, and actually feels about right for a well-balanced but still run-based offense.

In terms of effectiveness, their 91 1st down runs gained 381 yards, an average of 4.2 yards per attempt, while their 109 pass plays gained 618 yards, an average of 5.7 yards per play (including sacks and scrambles). These are both respectable but not fantastic numbers. For comparisons’ sake, the Bears averaged 5.2 yards per run and 8.1 yards per pass play on 1st down in 2016 with a 48% run rate.

2nd down

When it comes to 2nd down, context is needed. A 3 yard gain is great on 2nd and 2, pretty good on 2nd and 5, and awful on 2nd and 10. With that in mind, I split the data into 4 groups based on the distance required to get a 1st down. The table below shows the results.

Just like first down, we see a number of differences between Trubisky’s first 4 starts before the bye and his last 8. The play calling on 2nd and short (mostly run) and 2nd and 11+ (mostly pass) hasn’t changed much, but the balance is much better when it’s 2nd and between 3-10 yards. In Trubisky’s first 4 starts, those were still more than 70% run, whereas now they are much more balanced, indicating a greater trust in Trubisky to make the offense work (more on that in a future article).

Another difference we see is an improved offense on 2nd down. In Trubisky’s first 4 starts, the Bears averaged less than 2 yards per play in 5 of these 8 categories. There’s still not a lot of success here, but it’s a bit better than it was in Trubisky’s first 4 games. Overall, they averaged 4.8 yards per play on 2nd down in the last 8 games, which is a nice improvement from the 2.6 yards per play they averaged on 2nd down in the 4 games before the bye.

If you look back at 2016, the Bears averaged 5.2 yards per play on 2nd down. That wasn’t exactly a top-shelf offense, but it was still noticeably better than 2017’s version on both 1st and 2nd down, which feels right considering how painful watching Chicago’s offense was for large parts of this season.

3rd and 4th down

I grouped 3rd and 4th down together because the 4th down sample size was too small to do on its own, and on both downs the objective is the same: pick up a 1st down. Because of that, I ignored yards per play, and just focused on how often they met that objective and moved the chains.

Here we don’t see a lot of balance, but that’s to be expected. You have the option of either running or passing when you only need a yard or two, but otherwise are pretty much throwing the ball if you need to get a first down. I might like to see the Bears try to run a little bit more often on 3rd and 3-4, but it’s hard to argue with the lack of balance overall given the context.

The biggest thing I note here is how often the Bears are behind the chains. Only 17% of their 3rd downs come in short-yardage situations, while 55% of them come needing 7 or more yards. While those are actually an improvement on Trubisky’s first 4 games (8% short yardage, 67% 7+), that is still far from a winning ratio. This to me is the biggest single statistic to highlight Chicago’s offensive futility in 2017.

If there’s one area where we see some improvement, it’s avoiding the 3rd and extremely long situations. 40% of Chicago’s 3rd downs in the 4 games before the bye came needing 11 or more yards, while that dropped to only 26% after the bye. Still, more than 1/4 of Chicago’s 3rd downs in the final 8 games came with them having lost yardage total on 1st and 2nd down. To put it mildly, that’s not good.

In Trubisky’s first 4 starts, the Bears were able to convert on 3rd and 7-10 just over half the time. I said at the time that was likely due to a small sample size (13 plays) and would not continue, and we certainly see that here.

One area where the Bears did improve their 3rd/4th down efficiency was in 3rd and medium (3-6 yards). They converted half of those chances here, compared to only 31% in Trubisky’s first 4 starts.

Sack Trends

One additional area I would like to highlight are when Trubisky got sacked. He was sacked a whole lot this year, including 21 times in 8 games after the bye. That’s not good, which is not entirely surprising given a rookie quarterback playing behind a banged-up offensive line and frequently playing catch-up and behind the chains.

But one thing I noticed that struck me as a good sign is when Trubisky took those sacks. 6 of them came on 1st down (5.5% of dropbacks), 2 on 2nd down (2.2% of dropbacks), and 13 on 3rd or 4th down (13.8% of dropbacks). It’s good to see that most of the high sack rate is coming from situations when Trubisky needs to hold the ball to make a play.

It’s worth noting that this matches the NFL trend. QBs as a whole were sacked on 5.6% of dropbacks on 1st and 2nd down and 9.7% of dropbacks on 3rd and 4th down in 2017. So while Trubisky took a whole lot of sacks in 2017, he was actually sacked at a lower than average rate on 1st and 2nd down. That 14% on 3rd and 4th down number is alarmingly high, but might be a function of the Bears being behind the chains so frequently in those situations.

Lessons Learned

Complaints about the offensive balance have been everywhere from Bears fans this season. In Trubisky’s first four starts, they were warranted. In the last 8, it appears that they were not, at least when looking at down and distance trends. There are other legitimate predictability complaints that can be made-like the fact that the Bears ran it only 13% of the time when they were in shotgun (per NFL savant)-but it appears this is one issue that they did in fact fix after the bye.

Of course, the problem is that fixing this did not fix the offense, but that is to be expected when you are playing with a rookie quarterback, banged-up offensive line, and terrible collection of pass targets. Those are all the ingredients for a bad offense, though you can make a pretty good case that the play calling certainly didn’t help.

With John Fox fired and Dowell Loggains on his way out the door, these trends won’t really teach us anything about the Bears for next year. Once the new coaching staff is put in place, I’ll probably look at similar numbers for where the head coach and/or offensive coordinator were in 2017, but that might not carry over all that much either since they’ll be working with different personnel in Chicago.

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  • EnderWiggin

    Good stuff, Wood. I think we are all excited for the change.

    • Debra

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    • SC Dave

      What is funniest to me is that people would find the actual data
      surprising. More than once over the latter half of 2017 I pointed out
      how many times they passed on first down, but the “run, run, pass, punt”
      mythology continued to be droned by those that value their narrative
      over reality.

      Getting away from that would be a change that would excite me.

      • BearDown100393

        Getting away from 5-11 and actually making the playoffs would excite me even more.

        • Scharfinator

          Why not both?

      • KentuckyBearsFan

        Seeing the error of my ways, I have now updated my mythological narrative from “run, run, pass, punt” to “drop, run, sack, punt.”

        • SC Dave

          Better, but you forgot the penalty part.

      • It was a HUGE problem in Trubisky’s first 4 games, as I pointed out at the bye.

        I feel like, by that point, every time the run-run-pass sequence happened, people were looking for it, and noticed it, and thus it felt like it happened more than it did down the stretch.

        I know these numbers surprised me.

        That said, my issue was not so much with whether they were running or passing, but in how predictable it was based on the formation. They only ran it 13% of the time out of shotgun. They would frequently line up with 2 TEs and run it into a stacked box.

        I’m fine with running it a lot. That made sense given their offensive personnel. I just wish they would quit lining up to scream “We’re running it now” and then running, or going in shotgun to say “we’re passing now.” Keep the defense off balance and not knowing what’s coming.

        • SC Dave

          I took a very brief look at the play finder, and did not see an easy means of finding out why there were so many 2nd or 3rd and long plays.

          If I get time I’ll have a look

          • evantonio

            I think it’s because they didn’t gain a lot of yards on first or second down.

          • CanadaBear

            You would think running into 9 in the box would make you change the play calling.

          • evantonio

            If you’re scared of getting stuffed, yeah.

          • penalties hurt too. Bears were 2nd most penalized offensive team in the NFL this year, 1 behind the leader.

        • “Modestly” Huge Bears Penis

          The run-run-pass sequence did change after Trubs first 4 games. However, I have this feeling that it did not change radically as some(Dave) may have thought. Did you by chance look at play calling per half? The couple games that I looked into it we still did the run-run-pass crap a lot during the 1st half of games. Then we were forced to pass more often in the 2nd halfs because we were down. So yes the overall numbers played out that we were more balanced, but only because we were forced to make a change. Like you said, not only were we looking for it, but it was the predictability of the formations that made it seem worse.

          • I looked at 1st 3 quarters, at least for 1st down, and found it was pretty balanced. I could do by half, but don’t expect it will be all that different.

        • Barbara

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  • catfish44
    • BearDown100393

      Caesar, Pompey and Crassus will split for good.

  • BearDown100393

    The Bears were eliminated from the playoffs by Week 13.

    That will alter the offensive strategy.

    • evantonio

      Funny to read those words coming from you, as your comment history makes it seem like they were ousted as early as week 6. 🙂

      • BearDown100393

        Mathematically by Week 13.

        5-11 is dismal.

  • BerwynBomber

    “Once the new coaching staff is put in place, I’ll probably look at similar numbers for where the head coach and/or offensive coordinator were in 2017, but that might not carry over all that much either since they’ll be working with different personnel in Chicago.”

    The new coaching staff will also be working with a second year QB who should be light years more knowledgeable/experience than he was as a rookie. So apples not being oranges ….

    • yeah, and Nagy doesn’t have a long track record calling plays. Don’t know that I’ll bother doing that, but maybe I’ll look at his 4 games.

  • EnderWiggin

    New thread

  • Bear Instincts
  • Joecashflow

    Data, you got hijacked by Nagy, lol. Maybe repost in March !

  • Barbara

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