There’s been a good deal of talk this offseason about how the Bears will model their offense after the Kansas City Chiefs, which makes sense given that new head coach Matt Nagy spent his last several years in Kansas City learning from Andy Reid.
But I think Chicago’s offense will end up looking more similar to what Philadelphia has run the last two years under Doug Pederson, another branch on the Reid coaching tree. Even though both offenses are similar, there are some subtle yet important differences that are worth looking at. So today I want to start by looking at personnel to see which one Chicago matches better, and then I’ll compare and contrast offensive styles.
Kansas City’s offense was built around three main producers: running back Kareem Hunt, wide receiver Tyreek Hill, and tight end Travis Kelce. Those three combined for 4,069 of Kansas City’s 6,007 yards from scrimmage, meaning they were about 2/3 of the offense.
Quite frankly, the Bears just aren’t built to be that reliant on a small number of players. Outside of Jordan Howard and Allen Robinson, nobody has been a high-volume producer, and even Robinson has only hit 1,000 yards in a season once in his four years.
Unlike in Kansas City, Philadelphia’s offense wasn’t reliant on just a few players. Their top 3 yardage gainers combined for only 41% of their yards from scrimmage, and no individual produced even 900 yards. But Philadelphia did have 4 players with at least 700 and 7 had at least 400 (in Kansas City, meanwhile, 3 players topped 1000 yards but only 4 hit 400). It seems likely to me that Jordan Howard will eat up the touches that LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi combined for in Philadelphia last year, and he should easily top 1,000 yards for the third season in a row if he stays healthy. But it wouldn’t surprise me if we don’t see anybody else hit 1,000 yards, and that’s perfectly fine. There are a number of weapons who will all be involved in the offense and have their moments when the matchups are right.
I’ve already written a couple times about the similarities between Chicago and Philadelphia when it comes to the running back position. Here’s a quick recap of that:
- Jordan Howard is similar to LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi, Philadelphia’s top two running backs. They are similar size, have similar running styles, and are similarly not very involved as pass catchers out of the backfield.
- Tarik Cohen and Darren Sproles are very similar players as well. They are both small, quick backs who are dangerous weapons in small doses and excel at catching passes out of the backfield. They have been used very similarly in the past in terms of run/catch ratio and where their runs go, and I expect that to continue in the future.
- Philadelphia’s main run has been the outside zone, which is where Howard and Cohen have both been at their best in the NFL so far. Kansas City, on the other hand, used the inside zone more heavily.
Now I want to look a little bit at the wide receivers and tight ends for Philadelphia, and share how I think each matches a Chicago counterpart.
- Alshon Jeffery-Allen Robinson: Philadelphia’s most targeted player last year was Alshon Jeffery, who Bears fans are very familiar with. Allen Robinson is a very similar style of player: a big, physical wide receiver who is most dangerous winning jump balls down the field. Alshon has had around 800 yards for three straight years now, and Robinson was around that range in the last season he played. I think somewhere in that ballpark is a realistic expectation for Robinson this year.
- Nelson Agholor-Anthony Miller: Agholor and Miller have very similar sizes, as both are around 6 feet tall, 200 pounds, and have about 32 inch arms. Both were highly productive in college and were high draft picks. Agholor has played largely in the slot in Philly, though he has lined up outside some, and I expect we’ll see something similar with Miller. It took Agholor until 2017-his 3rd season in the NFL-to really get going, but Bears fans can only hope Miller has a quicker start to his career (though they shouldn’t be overly worried if that doesn’t happen).
- Torrey Smith-Taylor Gabriel: Smith and Gabriel have the same trait in common: blazing speed. As a result, both are dangerous underneath and down the field. Smith didn’t have a huge stats-based impact for Philadelphia in 2017, as he had only 430 receiving yards, but he had an impact on their offense by using his speed to attract defensive attention and open things up for other players. I expect something similar from Gabriel in Chicago this year; his numbers won’t jump off the page at you, but his presence will be felt in the offense.
- Zach Ertz-Trey Burton: Both Ertz and Burton (like Kelce in KC) are fast tight ends who will play the U position, which is usually split out instead of lined up next to a tackle in a three point stance. They can all use their speed to threaten a defense down the seams, and thus are heavily involved in the offense. Burton is smaller than both of those players (he’s around 225 pounds, they’re both around 255), but stylistically they’re all fairly similar. I kind of doubt Burton will be as productive as Ertz, who has topped 800 receiving yards for three straight years, but he should play a similar, if slightly reduced, role.
- Trey Burton-Adam Shaheen: This comparison is for Burton’s role on the Eagles in 2017 compared to Shaheen’s on the Bears in 2018, so it’s different from the Burton role for the Bears I talked about above. Shaheen and Burton are not all that similar as players, as Shaheen is more of a big physical tight end while Burton is small and fast. But they do share one thing in common: both have shown the ability to be weapons in the red zone. Burton had a relatively small role in Philadelphia’s offense overall last year, catching just 23 passes for 248 yards, but 5 of those 23 catches were in the end zone. Similarly, Shaheen had an outsized portion of his small workload come in the end zone last year (3 of 12 catches), and I expect that to continue in 2018.
- Brent Celek-Dion Sims: Both Celek and Sims are blocking tight ends who will play a bigger role in the offense than their minimal stats suggest. Celek only caught 13 passes last year, but he played 40% of the offensive snaps in Philadelphia. We could see Sims taking a similar role in Chicago this year, though it’s worth noting Adam Shaheen might take some of those if his blocking improves.
Compare and Contrast
Now let’s look at some key similarities and differences between the offensive approaches in Philadelphia and Kansas City, and what that might look like in Chicago.
Running back rotation
In Pederson’s 2 years in Philadelphia, no singe running back has exceeded 45% of the snaps. Even if you combine Blount and Ajayi into a rough approximation of what Jordan Howard might be expected to get, that’s only 48% of the snaps from 2017 (all snap counts from Football Outsiders). By contrast, Jordan Howard played 58% of Chicago’s snaps last year, and Kareem Hunt played 65% of Kansas City’s snaps. So it’s possible we’ll see Howard on the field less, even though I don’t think his carry total will drop all that much (Blount and Ajayi combined for 243 carries in 2017). Tarik Cohen could be the beneficiary; Darren Sproles played around 45% of snaps for Philadelphia in 2016 (his last healthy season), while Cohen only played 36% of snaps in Chicago last year.
It’s also interesting that running back substitutions can change run/pass ratios quite a bit. When at least one of Blount or Ajayi were on the field in 2017, Philadelphia ran the ball 54% of the time. When neither was on the field, they only ran the ball 35% of the time. We could see something similar happen in Chicago with Howard.
No Philly Fullback
Another difference between Philadelphia and Kansas City is in the usage of a fullback. Kansas City has carried a fullback for the entirety of Reid’s duration, and fullback Anthony Sherman played 18% of their offensive snaps last year, while Philadelphia has not carried a fullback under Pederson. The Bears have one fullback-Michael Burton-currently on the roster, and it will be interesting to see if he sticks around until the regular season.
In a related but not identical note, there is also a distinct difference in how often KC and PHI employ 2 running back sets. KC did this on 13% of their snaps last year (all formation stats courtesy of Sharp Football), while Philadelphia only had 16 total snaps between 2016 and 17. I would expect to see the Bears use some looks with both Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen on the field, but Philadelphia never really did that with Darren Sproles and another running back.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Eagles led the NFL in the number of run/pass options run in 2017 with 181. KC was 2nd with 168, so no matter which offense you look to as a model, it’s highly likely we’ll see plenty of these from Chicago.
If you’re not familiar with run-pass options, this article does a great job explaining them. Basically, the running back and offensive line execute a running play, the wide receivers run routes for a passing play, and the quarterback chooses which play to execute based on how the defense reacts. It’s a great way to either get a running back a favorable look against a soft box or a wide receiver a favorable look in man coverage against a linebacker without immediate safety help.
Jordan Howard should be great here; he has averaged nearly 6 yards per carry against nickel looks in his career so far, and should see that a lot more often thanks to RPOs. According to Player Profiler, LeGarrette Blount saw 56% of his carries against nickel fronts for Philadelphia in 2017, compared to only 20% for Howard. This is also a great way to help a running back who struggles catching passes still be a factor in the passing game by forcing the defense to respect the run. If defenses stay in a bigger front to keep more men in the box against Howard, then Chicago’s slot WR (likely Anthony Miller or Tarik Cohen) has a mismatch against a linebacker that can be exploited for a quick-hitting pass.
There’s also a bit of a difference in how often PHI and KC utilized various personnel groupings. The table below shows all the groupings that got at least 1% of offensive snaps for each team in 2017. Every formation has 1 QB and 5 offensive linemen, so the variation lies in what combination of running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends are used to fill the other 5 spots. The table is color-coded based on how many running backs are on the field.
Like I mentioned above, Philadelphia basically always had exactly 1 running back on the field, while Kansas City varied it a bit more. Neither offense likes to use 4+ WRs much (2% for PHI, 1% for KC), which makes sense given that both heavily involved tight ends in the passing game.
Tight end usage is a bit different for the two teams as well. Although I associate PHI with multiple tight ends more readily, KC actually played more tight ends. The Chiefs averaged 1.47 tight ends per snap and had 2 or more tight ends on the field 39% of the time, while those numbers were 1.36 and 33% for the Eagles.
Given the Bears’ depth at tight end, I could see them more closely resembling Kansas City, but some of that will likely depend on how well the wide receivers are playing. Philadelphia had 3 wide receivers who they wanted on the field last year (and each played at least 65% of the snaps), while Tyreek Hill was the only KC WR who earned more than 60% of the snaps.
PHI has also made a point of running lots of offensive plays, a trait which KC has not shared. The Eagles have been ranked in the top 5 of the NFL at right around 67 plays per game in both of Pederson’s seasons, while the Chiefs and Bears both were ranked in the bottom 5 each of the last two years with between 58 and 61 plays per game. That might not seem like a huge difference, but 67 plays per game equates to 1072 in a season, while 61 plays per game is only 976 per year. I’ll be curious to see if Chicago goes for more of an uptempo approach like PHI.