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Bears at the Mini-Bye Volume III: Defense & Playoff Odds

| October 15th, 2020

I already looked at a variety of statistics for the offense, including QB performance, run game woes, and explosive plays, and explored how Chicago has deployed their skill position players. Today I want to look at advanced defensive statistics from Pro Football Reference and think about Chicago’s playoff odds.


Missed Tackles

I highlighted missed tackles as a concern in the secondary heading into the season. As a team, the Bears are actually doing quite well with missed tackles right now; they rank 7th in the NFL with 22 through 5 weeks. The table below shows missed tackle stats (from Pro Football Reference) for all players with at least 10 tackle attempts, as well as cumulative totals for each position group.

For context, here’s how the positional averages compare to NFL peers over the last 2 years:

  • The median starting NFL DB misses right around 11% of their tackles, so Chicago’s secondary is about average here so far. That’s actually pretty good for them given the tackling concerns heading into the season with Kyle Fuller, Buster Skrine, and Eddie Jackson. Fuller in particular has struggled so far this year, but everybody else has been ok.

  • The median starting NFL LB misses 9.5% of their tackles, and the median starting DL 8.5%, so the Bears have been excellent across the board in the front 7. In fact, both the DL and LB as a unit would rank in the top 10% among their positional peers for avoiding missed tackles.

If you want to put a negative spin on things, Chicago’s run defense has struggled a bit this year (15th in yards/carry, 16th in yards/game) despite doing a good job of avoiding missed tackles. That means the issues are more about not getting to a tackle attempt, which is probably more difficult to fix.


Coverage

Next we’ll take a look at coverage stats. The defense as a whole has been quite good in coverage; they’re giving up 6.4 yards per pass attempt (4th in the NFL) and a 77.1 passer rating against (2nd). Going into the year, I highlighted Kyle Fuller’s need to bounce back from a down 2019. He has definitely done that so far, as you can see in the table below.

A few thoughts:

  • The median starting CB gives up 7.4 yards/target, and the Bears’ mark of 6.0 would rank in the top 20% compared to their peers of the last 2 years. Kyle Fuller has been particularly excellent, but all 3 starting CBs have been quite good so far this year.
  • Fuller has been the most heavily targeted player on the Bears by a wide margin in each of the last 2 years, so it’s interesting to see Jaylon Johnson and Roquan Smith both up there with him in 2020. Interestingly, his target rate hasn’t really changed; he saw 6.6 targets/game in 2019 and is getting 6.8 targets/game this year. There just happens to be 2 other defenders who are getting targeted just as often. Those three combine to account for over 20 targets/game.
  • The median starting S gives up 8.0 yards/target, so the Bears’ mark of 9.8 would rank in the bottom 30% relative to their peers. Both of the Bears’ main safeties seem to be struggling a bit in coverage so far this year.
  • The median starting LB gives up 6.8 yards/target, and the Bears’ mark of 5.7 would be in the top 20%. Danny Trevathan has really struggled in coverage (10.8 yards/target is more than 2 yards higher than the cutoff for the bottom 10%), which is why the Bears keep pulling him off the field in favor of a 3rd safety in passing situations. This is especially concerning because Trevathan struggled in coverage last year too (8.8 yards/target). Roquan Smith has been fantastic though, coming in almost 2 yards/target better than the threshold for top 10% among his positional peers.
  • A quick note: I’ve seen many complaints about Chicago’s pass defense being soft in the middle of the field, but the data doesn’t back that up. They’ve been targeted in the short middle area 61 times, which is the 2nd most in the NFL, but they’re only giving up 6.9 yards/target on those throws, which ranks 9th in the NFL.

Pass Rush

Coming into the year, I highlighted how the team as a whole did not receive as many sacks as expected based on the pressure they generated. Let’s look at the pressure:sack ratio so far in 2020.

A few thoughts:

  • For more context, the average across the NFL over the last 2 years is 3.8 pressures/sack. So the Bears are performing right up to that average after coming in about 10 sacks below expectation last year.
  • They’re actually pressuring the QB less than they did last year; in 2019, the Bears averaged 10.8 pressures/game, while that has dipped to 8.4 so far in 2020. I thought Chicago’s defense had its best outing in over a year in the 2nd half against Tampa Bay, when the pass rush absolutely destroyed Tom Brady, so hopefully that is a sign of things to come.
  • I put Mack and Hicks in the chart because they both have at least 10 pressures. On average, about 1 player/team gets at least 30 pressures in a season, but Mack (on pace for 42) and Hicks (on pace for 35) are both on track to eclipse that mark. They’ve both been having All Pro-caliber seasons so far this year.
  • Nobody else has more than 5 pressures, and the 3 for Robert Quinn has to be especially disappointing for the Bears after they gave him a massive contract to rush the passer this offseason. Here’s hoping his production picks up along with his playing time as he moves farther away from the ankle injury that bothered him at the start of the season.
  • Quick side note: these are all pressure stats from Pro Football Reference. Other sources have different values, and seem to be a little freer for giving out pressures, which are admittedly a little subjective.

Playoff Odds

The Bears are in really good shape sitting at 4-1, especially considering they are 4-0 against the NFC (a key tiebreaker) and there are now 7 playoff teams per conference. Somebody went back to look at playoff odds based on current record and the current 7-team playoff format, and teams who start 4-1 end up making the playoffs 85% of the time, which bodes very well for the Bears.

However, things might not be quite that rosy given that Chicago is in a tough division and has not actually played all that well so far this year. Sites that do playoff projections accounting for team performance and difficulty of remaining schedule have the Bears’ playoff odds well below 85%. Five Thirty Eight’s prediction has the Bears at 72%, Football Outsiders puts them at 62%, Pro Football Focus has it at 63%, and ESPN is right around 56%.

However you look at it, the 4-1 record has the Bears in a good spot going forward. If they can go 6-5 in their final 11 games to finish 10-6, they are almost guaranteed a playoff spot. 5-6 from here on out gives them a 9-7 record, which is still a decent chance with the expanded playoff format.


Lessons Learned

Here’s the shortened version if you really don’t want to wade through 1200 words:

  • Chicago’s tackling in the front 7 has been exceptional so far, while the secondary has been around average, and Kyle Fuller in particular has struggled with missed tackles.
  • Chicago’s cornerbacks (especially Kyle Fuller) have been outstanding in coverage, while the safeties have struggled a bit.
  • Danny Trevathan’s coverage woes are real, while Roquan Smith has excelled defending the pass.
  • Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks are both playing great football, but the rest of the team is struggling to generate much pass rush.
  • The Bears have a good shot at the playoffs if they can play .500 football from here on out.

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