The Bears offense showed significant improvement in 2018, but still was an average-to-below average unit overall. There’s been plenty of focus about the need to get better on that side of the ball, and that starts with scouting yourself. Some coaches have play-calling tendencies in different down and distance situations, and opposing NFL teams scout those to help their play calling in response. With that in mind, I looked at down and distance trends for Chicago’s’ offense in 2018. All statistics are from the NFL Game Statistics and Information System and Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Finder.
The Bears were very balanced on first down, with 231 runs and 223 passes for a 51/49 split. Unfortunately, they were not very effective on the ground, where they averaged only 3.6 yards per carry. This is a significant step down from 2017, when they averaged 4.1 yards per carry, and 2016, when they were at 5.2.
Lest we be tempted to blame Jordan Howard, I’ll note that 142 of the 231 runs (62%) were his, and those actually gained 3.7 yards per carry. So the rest of the team was actually slightly worse than Howard on 1st down. One way or another, the Bears need to figure out how to improve running on 1st down and/or run less and throw more.
Speaking of throwing it, the Bears averaged 7.0 yards/attempt on 1st down, a healthy but not overwhelming number that was right around average for all NFL passing stats in 2018. Teams always average more yards/play passing than running, but when the discrepancy is this large, you should probably consider throwing it more.
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.
A few thoughts:
- The Bears generally did a good job in 2nd and short situations. They averaged a solid yards/play mark both on the ground and through the air, and did a good job picking up the 1st down too. They also used this opportunity to look for big plays, picking up an explosive play on 4 of 40 chances (10%). That’s a small sample size, but roughly matches the explosive play % of the top offenses in the NFL last year. 2nd and short is a prime opportunity to go for big plays, because you’re left in 3rd and short if they don’t work, so it’s good to see the Bears taking advantage of it.
- I maybe would like to see the Bears throw it more often on 2nd and short. Running is more likely to pick up the 1st down, but you’re more likely to get a big play by throwing the ball, and an incompletion still leaves you in 3rd and short.
- The Bears were generally better running the ball on 2nd down than 1st, so maybe they made their run/pass setups less obvious here.
I grouped 3rd and 4th down together because the 4th down sample size was so small, 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.
A few thoughts:
- The Bears did a good job avoiding bad 3rd down situations. In both 2016 and 2017, their most frequent 3rd down situation of these groups was with 7-10 yards to go, and here it shifted noticeably to 3-6 yards, which makes picking up the first down much more likely. Overall, 42% of their 3rd downs needed 7+ yards for a 1st, as opposed to 55% in 2017 and 52% in 2016.
- Overall, the Bears converted on just over 40% of their 3rd down attempts, which was 13th in the NFL. That’s a pretty good number compared to their overall offense, which was around 20th in most stats, and avoiding 3rd and long helps explain it.
- The run/pass balance is very skewed here, but that’s always the case. Teams typically run in 3rd and short and throw in every other situation, because those are the most likely ways to pick up a 1st down.
- Picking up a 1st down on 1/3 of your 3rd and 7-10 pass plays seems pretty good to me. Hopefully the Bears can continue that trend next year.
Overall, Chicago’s offense was actually pretty conservative when it came to down and distance play-calling in 2018. They ran it slightly more than passing on 1st down, and followed the same trend on 2nd down unless they were behind the chains.
This worked to help keep them out of 3rd and long situations, but also likely limited their big plays. Especially on 1st down, they were far more effective throwing than running, and throwing it more could have both opened up the run game and led to more 2nd and short situations, where they should run it less and take more shots down the field hoping for a big play.
But one way or another, Chicago’s approach in 2018 helped them convert 3rd downs at a fairly solid clip, and there’s something to be said for that.