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What Changed in the Passing Game: Volume III

| January 24th, 2020

Today I want to look back at two areas of concern I noted for Trubisky last off-season: deep passes and performance against good defenses.


Deep Passes

Last year, I noted that Trubisky was really good at short passes (15 yards or less past the line of scrimmage) and really bad throwing the ball deep. I also found that short passing performance tends to be less variable year over year than deep passing, which gave us a reason to be optimistic about Trubisky heading into 2019.

Let’s see how that theory played out in 2019.

A few thoughts:

  • So much for short stuff being consistent. Trubisky’s completion percentage, yards/attempt, yards/completion, and touchdown rate all plummeted from 2018 to 2019.
  • Some of the completion percentage can be accounted for by drops (as I have previously addressed), but not nearly all of it on the short stuff. Despite throwing shorter passes in the short stuff, Trubisky completed fewer of them. The end result was an extremely inefficient short passing game.

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What Changed in the Passing Game: Volume II

| January 23rd, 2020

Yesterday, it was discovered that the pass blocking and drops by pass catchers went from really good to about average.

The hypothesis, then, is that the quarterback was largely responsible for the Bears having one of the worst passing games – and thus worst offenses – in the NFL. So today I want to look at Mitchell Trubisky’s performance more closely to see what it can tell us.

On the surface, Trubisky certainly was awful in 2019. He completed 63.2% of his passes (18th in the NFL), averaged 6.1 yards/attempt (last), and posted a passer rating of 83.0 (28th). This was a big step back from 2019, when he was near average in all of those marks (66.6% completion, 14th; 7.4 yards/attempt, 18th; 95.4 rating, 16th).

Evaluating a quarterback’s play statistically can be tricky, because his stats depend both on his offensive line’s ability to block for him and his RBs/WRs/TEs’ ability to catch his passes, both of which are outside of his control. That’s why I started by looking at the offensive line and drops, both of which were worse in 2019 than 2018 but not nearly bad enough to explain bottom 5 production from the quarterback.

It’s also worth noting that Chase Daniel’s production barely changed between seasons. In 2018, he completed 70% of his passes, averaged 6.8 yards/attempt, threw 3 TD and 2 INT, and posted a 90.6 passer rating. In 2019, he completed 70% of his passes, averaged 6.8 yards/attempt, threw 3 TD and 2 INT, and posted a 91.6 passer rating. To be fair, it’s a small sample size – he played 2 games and threw around 70 passes each year – but still, this is at least anecdotal evidence to support the notion that the offense as a whole didn’t change all that drastically.


Advanced Stats

With that said, let’s look more closely at Trubisky’s performance to see if we can hone in on what changed, besides worse pocket presence and less running impact, which were touched on in previous articles. This is going to focus on passing. We’ll start by looking at a smattering of advanced statistics, which come from a combination of Next Gen Stats and Pro Football Reference.

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What Changed in the Passing Game: Volume I

| January 22nd, 2020

It stands to reason that if the offense was mainly responsible for the Bears’ 2019 regression, and the running game didn’t change all that much, most of the regression came from the passing game. And a quick look at the stats backs that up. In 2018, the Bears were 9th in completion percentage, 18th in yards/attempt, 14th in passer rating, and 10th in sack percentage. In 2019, those ranks fell to 14th, 32nd, 24th, and 23rd.

So what went wrong in the passing game? Generally, there are 3 components to examine: the pass protection, the pass catchers, and the quarterback. Let’s look at each one by one.


Pass Protection

Evaluating pass protection statistically is difficult, but thankfully advanced statistics to help with this are getting better. A number of them are shown below, with their ranks out of 32 NFL teams in parentheses. Average time to throw is from Next Gen Stats, Average time to pressure and pressure rate is from Pro Football Reference, and Pass Block Win Rate – a measure of how often a QB has a clean pocket for at least 2.5 seconds, is from ESPN Metrics (source for 2018 and 2019).

 

As I tried to make sense of these numbers, it seemed to me that the change in NFL ranks was often greater than the change in the actual value. Sure enough, it seems that pass blocking was slightly better across the league in 2019 than 2018. The median average time to pressure increased from 2.4 to 2.5 seconds, the median pressure rate dropped from 24.1% to 22.6%, and the median pass block win rate increased from 50% to 59%.

Looking just at the Bears’ numbers, they generally got a little worse in pass protection, but their drop in the rankings looks worse than it is because the rest of the NFL got better. The average time to throw didn’t change all that much and the pressure got there a little faster, but the Bears still ranked right around average both in pressure rate and pass block win rate.

If the pass protection didn’t get much worse, how do we account for the massive uptick in sacks? The Bears went from giving up 33 sacks in 2018 (6.1% of dropbacks) to 45 in 2018 (7.2% of dropbacks).

Well, sacks aren’t only due to the pass blocking, they’re a result of the quarterback as well. Lester Wiltfong of Windy City Gridiron breaks down film on every sack and assigns blame to the person or people he deems responsible (he also splits blame if multiple people mess up).

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ATM: Signs Point to Bears Betting on Trubisky

| January 21st, 2020

John DeFilippo wouldn’t have signed on to be the Chicago Bears quarterbacks coach if he didn’t know who his pupil would be and he didn’t think he could get that player to play at a high level.

Flip wouldn’t have had trouble finding a different job than the one he ended up taking and, according to Adam Jahns on the Hoge & Jahns Podcast, he did have other options.

But he didn’t take them. He signed on to coach Mitch Trubisky and any other quarterback they might add.

There were two schools of thought when Flip was announced as the team’s new quarterbacks coach.

1. The Bears were beefing up their coaching staff as much as possible for Mitch Trubisky

2. The Bears were going to use the knowledge of Flip and new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor to judge possible additions to the position.

While fans debated which thought process was right, both are probably true to an extent. But it certainly seems as if the Bears want to make Trubisky work before they go to the next option.

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Castillo, Flip & Team Grades: Thoughts on the Off-Season (So Far)

| January 20th, 2020

The Bears offense was an abomination in 2019 and there was plenty of blame to go around. Here are five thoughts on what’s transpired since the end of one of the most disappointing campaigns in the history of this organization.


(1) The most pivotal decision made thus far (and unsurprisingly the first) was hiring Juan Castillo to rebuild the offensive line/run game. How did that happen? It’s pretty simple. Matt Nagy is in constant communication with Andy Reid, his mentor and friend. Reid’s recommendation was to get the run game fixed by getting Castillo. (And Andy was instrumental on making it happen.) This offense doesn’t want to be run first. But it needs to be run effectively. And under Helfrich/Hiestand, the rushing attack was disjointed and wildly ineffective. Relying on RPO concepts meant relying on the quarterback to make the right decision. He didn’t do that very often in 2019. Castillo will move the run game back down the hill.


(2) Nagy and Pat Shurmur had a deal done. Shurmur was going to be the next Bears offensive coordinator. But a day after I got word of the agreement, I got another word: “He’s got options.” The allure of Philly was strong. Shurmur is pissed off at the Giants and wanted to play them twice a year. The allure of Cleveland grew, even though he was fired there, because he has deep affinity for new head coach Kevin Stefanski. But ultimately it was Vic Fangio giving him the keys to the offensive kingdom in Denver that won the day. Now he’ll run half that program, nurture a young, talented QB and perhaps get himself a third shot at a head coaching gig.

[Side note: Shurmur was not turned off by working with Trubisky.]


(3) John DeFilippo interviewed to be the head coach of the Bears in 2018 and, since then, his star has been rapidly falling in the league. Why? Because many folks in the league don’t believe Flip is a play-caller. He’s a leader of men. He’s a teacher. He’s great on the whiteboard and even better on the sideline. But his talents are misused trying to figure out which run to call on third-and-one. Flip will make every QB in the 2020 QB room better. Now it’s just a matter of finding out who is going to be in that room.

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Championship Sunday Gambling Guide!

| January 17th, 2020

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports


Still have my head above water this postseason, thanks mainly to believing Derrick Henry is an unstoppable force and wagering heavily on him in both rounds. We’re down to the final three games of the 2019 NFL season. Need a strong finish to a solid gambling campaign.


2:05 PM Central

AFC Championship Game

Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs (-7.5)

Over/Under: 52.5

This is Andy Reid’s time. He’s one of the best coaches in the history of this sport. He’s got one of the most prolific, successful coaching trees in the history of the sport. He’s sacrificed so much for this game he loves and all that’s missing from his resume is a title. Once he wins on the final Sunday, his next stop is Canton. I can’t see him losing this title game at home. And I can’t see Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo not completely selling out to stop the run.

Final score prediction: Chiefs 34, Titans 20. 


5:40 PM Central

NFC Championship Game

Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers (-7.5)

Over/Under: 45

They can run the ball. They can rush the passer. They have a quarterback who always gets them into the right play and makes the big throw. Are the Packers a great team? No. But they’re built to succeed in this spot. I’m not taking them to win. But I won’t be surprised if they do.

Final score prediction: Niners 31, Packers 30

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What Changed in the Rush Game: Volume II

| January 16th, 2020

Yesterday I dove into Chicago’s 2019 ground game to figure out where it all went wrong. There I found that the Bears missed Mitchell Trubisky’s legs, didn’t change how they used their 2 main running backs much, and saw the largest regression on runs outside of the tackles.

Today, I want to look a little more closely at directional running.

Let’s start by looking at yards per carry, which can be seen in the figure below. Bar height is proportional to yards per carry (ypc), numbers in parentheses are NFL rank out of 32 teams, and bars are color coded according to that. Green = top 10, red = bottom 10, yellow = middle 12.



A few thoughts:

  • I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the red all comes on the right side and the Bears had injury issues at right guard and right tackle this year. The yards/carry actually improved behind left tackle and left guard compared to 2018.
  • The numbers look even better up the middle and behind left guard when you look at runs after the Bears swapped Cody Whitehair and James Daniels back to their 2018 spots. After that, the Bears averaged a combined 4.7 yards/carry on runs to those areas.
  • Runs outside the tackles were fairly poor on both sides, which is new since 2018. I think this speaks more to the blocking of WRs and TEs than the offensive line. The Bears got fewer fewer snaps from Trey Burton, Josh Bellamy, Kevin White, and Taylor Gabriel in 2019, and it appears the young players who took those snaps may have struggled in run blocking.

Now I want to look at this from another perspective using success rate, which can generally be thought of as a measure of staying ahead of the chains. A run is considered successful if it:

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What Changed in the Rush Game: Volume I

| January 15th, 2020

Chicago’s rushing attack was woeful in 2019, finishing 27th in the NFL in rushing yards (91 yards/game), 29th in yards per attempt (3.7 yards/carry), and 26th in success rate on rushing attempts (44%). All three marks showed a decrease from 2018, when they were 11th (121 yards/game), 27th (4.1 yards/carry), and 10th (48%) in those three metrics.

This happened despite having fairly decent consistency in personnel. The starting offensive line was the same (when healthy), and the Bears saw only three primary rushers in both seasons. Tarik Cohen and Mitchell Trubisky were 2 of the 3, with the main rusher changing from Jordan Howard in 2018 to David Montgomery in 2019.

Today I want to look at the running game from a variety of angles to try and figure out what changed to account for the dip in production.


Player vs. Player Comparison

Let’s start out by comparing each player from season-to-season. First, I’ll look at the players who accounted for the majority of rushing attempts each year: Jordan Howard and David Montgomery. Their usage and production was remarkably similar in the two seasons, as you can see in the table below.

Similar playing time, similar carries, similar efficiency. The two were basically indistinguishable from each other, at least on the surface. That really makes you question whether it was worth getting rid of Howard and trading up for Montgomery in the 3rd round last year. At least for 2019, the answer is a resounding no.

This post is focused on rushing, but look at those bottom two rows. One of the reasons to swap Howard out for Montgomery was supposed to be that Montgomery can feature more heavily in the passing game, and thus make the offense less predictable and harder to defend. That didn’t happen in 2019. One of Chicago’s big problems in 2018 was that they were too predictable based on personnel (Tarik Cohen = pass, Jordan Howard = run, Anthony Miller = pass, etc.). In 2019, the offense ran the ball 50% of the time when Montgomery was on the field and only 24% of the time when he wasn’t. For Cohen, those numbers were 25% and 52%. That’s too big of a swing in tendencies based on personnel.

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ATM: Titans Give Reason For Hope, If Pace Is Willing to Admit Mistake

| January 14th, 2020

Purgatory.

The team had just finished a season in which they finished third in their division, with the 27th-best scoring offense and third best defense. Against all odds, they had made the playoffs the year before, but they were stuck.

The young coach seemed like a great leader. The defensive coordinator had his unit set. The offensive play caller was dialing up winners. But they weren’t winning because the No. 2 overall pick quarterback simply could not execute the offense.

There were no easy answers.

Now that team is one win away from going to the Super Bowl.

Most of that probably sounds very familiar because the 2019 Tennessee Titans entered the season in the same spot as the 2020 Chicago Bears. But the Titans weren’t afraid to do exactly what the Bears have to do. They sat Marcus Mariota on the bench.

Through six games, the Titans were averaging 16.3 points and 307 yards per game, but they finished the season 10th in the league scoring 25.1 points 12th averaging 363 yards per game.

And the only major change they made was the quarterback.

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Don’t Blame Defense for Offensive Regression

| January 13th, 2020

Chicago scored only 17.5 points per game in 2018, the 4th worst mark in the NFL. This was a significant drop from 2018, when they were 9th best in the NFL at 26.3 points per game. I’ve seen some people argue that this is mainly due to Chicago’s defense, which scored 5 fewer touchdowns and forced 17 fewer turnovers in 2019. The logic then was that the offense in 2018 was just as bad, but it was overshadowed by a dominant defense that handed them points on a regular basis.

This argument made me curious, so I dug into the numbers to see if it held up.


Non-Offensive Points

The 2018 Bears had 44 points that were scored by their defense and special teams, while the 2019 version had 16*. If you remove those from the season totals, the 2018 offense scored 277 points (23.6 per game) while the 2019 version scored 264 (16.5 per game).

That means Chicago’s offense scored 7.1 points per game more in 2018 than 2019. The total points scored dropped by 8.8 per game, so clearly the bulk of that was from offensive points, not defense/special teams.

*Quick disclaimer: I tallied touchdowns, field goals and safeties, and applied values of 7, 3, and 2, respectively, for each. These numbers might be a little off because not all touchdowns result in exactly 7 points due to missed extra points or going for 2.


Points Off Turnovers

Of course, points directly scored by the defense is only half of the original argument. The 2018 defense also forced far more turnovers, in theory setting the offense up in better field position for more easy points. In order to see what effect this had, I looked at points scored off turnovers for each team using Pro Football Reference’s Drive Finder. The table below shows the data.

Despite forcing far more turnovers, the Bears didn’t actually get many more points from them. Part of this may because of where the turnovers happened; the average starting field position for these drives was the Chicago 42 in 2018 and the opponent 47 in 2019. Accordingly, the Bears got 2.4 points per drive off turnovers in 2018 and 3.3 in 2019. Because of this, offensive scoring following a defensive turnover changed by only 0.7 points per game from 2018 to 2019.

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