I’m not going to look at safeties much because there hasn’t really been any rotation there and there aren’t many stats to quantify safety play (though I will say I feel good about my preseason pick of Eddie Jackson as the defense’s breakout star). Let’s jump right to the CBs then and take a detailed look at their performance using stats from The Quant Edge.
The first thing I want to note is that Chicago’s corners don’t move. Kyle Fuller has played exclusively on the right side (from the offense’s perspective) and Prince Amukamara has been exclusively on the left. Kevin Toliver II basically took Prince’s spot on the left post-injury, though he did play a few snaps in the slot. Nickel CB Bryce Callahan, meanwhile, played a few snaps outside after Prince got hurt but otherwise has been exclusively in the slot.
Next I want to look at how effective each CB has been in coverage, as well as how much man, zone, and press coverage they’ve played.
A few thoughts:
- At first glance it might seem like Kyle Fuller has been the worst CB on the roster, but look beyond the passer rating. That takes a big hit because he’s given up 2 passing TDs and none of the throws targeted at him have resulted in interceptions yet. He’s been very good at keeping the completion percentage down, and the yards per target on throws aimed at him are much lower than anybody else. Make no mistake: he is the best CB on Chicago’s roster, and he is very good.
- Fuller is actually the only CB credited with giving up a TD so far this year. He gave up two, which means the other 5 passing TDs the Bears have allowed are blamed on non-CBs. Meanwhile, five passes targeted at CBs have ended up intercepted. That’s a great ratio.
- I find the press splits interesting. Toliver has never played press, and Fuller only does it about half as much as Prince and Callahan. That’s perfectly fine; each player has their own style that is obviously working well for them so far.
- I’m particularly impressed with how well Toliver has held up. He was targeted a ton in the little over a game he’s played, but he did just fine in keeping those targets in check. It’s a small sample size, but something encouraging for Chicago’s positional depth.
Now let’s move to looking at the linebackers, specifically on the outside. I don’t have much statistically to say about the inside linebackers. Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith are good, Nick Kwiatkoski was not in the one game he played, and there’s not really much rotation going on there.
That’s not true at outside linebacker, where the Bears have basically used a three man rotation. The table below shows snap counts for each player, as well as how often they have rushed the passer vs. dropping back into coverage. All data comes from Pro Football Focus.
A few thoughts:
- Khalil Mack is so, so good. According to the Quant Edge, the pass defense gives up a successful play 28% of the time less often when he’s on the field compared to off of it, and 7% less often on the ground.
- Mack also can play more snaps. He typically played around 90% of defensive snaps in Oakland. He only played 70%-75% of the snaps weeks 1 and 2 as he worked into shape and 80% in week 4 because of the blowout, but he played every defensive snap in week 3 and can do close to that when needed moving forward.
- An added value Mack has had comes from shifting Floyd and Lynch into their ideal roles.
- Floyd is best as a jack-of-all-trades instead of being tasked as the top edge rusher.
- Lynch is an ideal 3rd OLB who can make an impact in limited snaps – exactly what he’s done so far this year.
- Floyd has had a slow start to the season, probably due to his hand injury. He doesn’t have any sacks so far, and according to the Quant Edge the defense has performed 15% worse against the pass and about the same against the run when he’s on the field. I first want to point out that, as mentioned above, teams have been running to the left (Floyd’s side) more frequently this year to avoid Mack and Hicks on the right, and the run defense there has been excellent. That’s certainly not all due to Floyd, but he plays a big part.
- As for the pass defense, Floyd has been struggling there. It’s not about how he’s being used.
- Floyd is rushing 75% of the time this season as opposed to 80% last season.
- Part of it is certainly his hand being in a cast/brace, which limits his ability to use it to disengage.
- He’s also rushing mostly from the left side this year, whereas in past years he rushed mostly from the right (where Mack is now).
- Part of it is also could be his focusing more on contain than hunting the QB. Last year, his job was to be the guy who hunts QBs when he rushed. This year, that’s Mack, and Floyd has to make sure he keeps integrity so that the QB can’t avoid Mack by escaping to the other side. Floyd has done a good job of that so far; according to the Game Play Finder, opposing QBs have only had 1 outside scramble to the left, as compared to three on the right. It’s a small sample size, but I think that might be part of the explanation.
- No matter how you want to explain it, Floyd needs to produce more as a pass rusher. He’s shown in the past that he can, and now that Mack and Hicks are attracting so much attention, I think we’ll see him get better as the season wears on and he has full use of both hands again. This defense has been great without getting any pass rush from Floyd. Imagine how dominant it can be if he starts playing like he’s shown he’s capable of in flashes in the past.
Finally, I want to take a closer look at Chicago’s defensive line, which has a nice rotation shaping up. The Bears have primarily used a five-man rotation so far, and all five are finding ways to contribute. Stats are from Football Outsiders.
A few thoughts:
- It’s great that Akiem Hicks is getting rested. He played more than 85% of the snaps last year, and visibly wore down as the season wore on. The better depth this year can hopefully keep that from happening.
- Part of that might be due to getting ejected only 17 snaps into the Tampa game, but in the first three weeks he played 76% of the snaps, which is still a pretty good number. To put that in perspective, through three weeks he averaged 46 snaps per game, while last year he played 56 snaps per game. Ten snaps fewer every week can really add up once we hit the stretch run.
- Bilal Nichols was inactive in week 1 but has steadily seen his snap counts rise each week since. Even better, he’s made some high-impact plays each of the past two weeks. If that continues, the Bears have fantastic depth on the defensive line, and all of the players but RRH are under contract for 2019 too. RRH will be a restricted free agent, which means he’s easy to bring back for fairly little money. That type of quality depth up front is how championship defenses are built.
- Speaking of RRH, he’s had a noticeable impact this year as a pass rusher. According to The Quant Edge, the Bears give up a successful pass play 18% of the time less when he is on the field vs. off it. Of course, he hasn’t been as good against the run, as teams have a successful run play 11% more often when he’s on the field vs. off. He doesn’t 2-gap very well, which is key against the run, and is why Goldman and Bullard play a lot on run downs. But his value as a pass rusher should not be overlooked.
Elite Defense = Playoffs?
I wrote before the season that, historically speaking, the Bears should have a good shot at the playoffs if their defense takes an expected step forward after adding Khalil Mack. Four weeks in, the Bears’ defense might just be the best in the NFL, and consequently they sit atop the NFC North.
There are still twelve games to go and anything could happen, but right now this looks like a team that should make the playoffs if the defense keeps dominating.