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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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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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Big Picture Stats: What Changed from 2018 to 2019?

| January 8th, 2020

The 2018 Chicago Bears went 12-4 and outscored their opponents by 138 points, the 4th best mark in the NFL. Expectations for the team were sky high heading into 2019, but Chicago responded by falling flat. They finished 8-8 and were actually outscored by 18 points over the course of the season.

So what changed from 2018 to cause such significant regression? That’s exactly what I’ll be looking at over the first part of the off-season to see what areas the Bears need to prioritize improving for 2020. Let’s start today with a general overview of all three phases.


Offense

Chicago’s offense was not great in 2018, but it took a decided turn for the worse pretty much across the board in 2019, as you can see in the table below. DVOA is a metric from Football Outsiders intended to be an all-encompassing measure of how well a unit performs. Values in parentheses are NFL rank out of 32 teams.

A few thoughts:

  • The 2018 offense could generally be described as average to slightly below average. The 2019 version was one of the 4-5 worst in the NFL.
  • The run game actually didn’t change all that much, remaining fairly consistently bad in both years. This is probably why the Bears shook up their offensive coaching staff this off-season. I’ll have a more detailed look at what did and did not change in the run game in the next few weeks.
  • The passing offense went from average to possibly the worst in the NFL. Some – but certainly not all – of this can be attributed to a decrease in pass protection, though notice the pressure rate allowed was still average, making pass blocking one of the strongest areas of the offense. I’ll take a much closer look at the passing game in the near future.
  • Pretty much the only area where the Bears actually improved was that they turned the ball over less. This is why their DVOA – which heavily weights turnovers – didn’t fall as far as most of the other statistics suggest it should have.

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Heading into the 2020 Off-Season, a Primer.

| January 6th, 2020

A disappointing 2019 season is over, and it’s time to start thinking about what the Bears can do over the next several months to set up a 2020 rebound. To start the offseason, let’s take a look at where things currently stand for the roster.


Salary Cap Situation

The 2020 salary cap has been projected between $196.8M and $201.2M. We’ll play it safe and use the low end of that estimate. As you can see in the table below, the Bears don’t currently have a lot of money to work with (bottom row). All cap information courtesy of Spotrac.

So the Bears currently have around $13.5M in cap room for 2020, though that could be around $18.5M if the cap hits more optimistic projections. Now let’s look at who they lose from 2019.

NOTE: these numbers are before the Eddie Jackson extension. I’ll update once the exact figures for that come out, and then remove this note. I’m guessing they’ll only drop the 2020 space by 1/5 of his signing bonus, which will probably come out to $2-3M.


Key Free Agents

The Bears actually don’t have a huge number of free agents this year, at least in terms of players who were significant contributors. I’ll briefly list and discuss the main ones here, sorted by position.

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A Closer Look at New OL Coach Juan Castillo

| January 2nd, 2020

The Bears didn’t wait long to start attacking the offseason following a disappointing 2019. Just three days after their last game and one day after firing offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, they hired his replacement in Juan Castillo. He brings a wealth of experience to the role, having filled the same position in Philadelphia under Andy Reid from 1998-2010, in Baltimore from 2013-16, and in Buffalo from 2017-18.

Castillo is expected to be heavily involved in designing and coordinating the run game in Chicago, which will be revamped this offseason after 2 unproductive years under Hiestand and former offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. Accordingly, I dug into how well run games have fared under Castillo in the 19 years he’s served as an offensive line coach and/or run game coordinator. I did this using DVOA rankings, from Football Outsiders, which are a generally solid all-encompassing metric to evaluate both the rushing and passing production from an offense. The ranks for rushing and passing DVOA can be seen in the table below.

There’s a lot of data to parse through here, and I think you can look at it fairly from both an optimistic and pessimistic viewpoint. Let’s take a brief look at each perspective:

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Bears at the Bye: Defense (and Specials)

| October 15th, 2019

With five games under their belt, the Bears are roughly 1/3 of the way through the season. I already checked in on the offense, so today let’s take a closer look at how the defense is doing.


No Regression

I wrote this offseason that the Bears’ defense was likely to regress a bit from their 2018 selves but still be one of the best in the NFL. So far this year, you could make the argument that this defense is better in 2019 than it was in 2018, as you can see in the table below.

The Bears are giving up fewer points and getting more sacks than they did a year ago, but the turnovers and touchdowns (the 2018 stats most likely to regress) are both down a bit, which is why their DVOA has fallen so drastically. Still, this remains one of the absolute best units in the NFL, even if they had a thoroughly disappointing showing heading into the bye week. That alone should give the Bears a chance in every game they play.


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Bears at the Bye: Offense

| October 14th, 2019

With five games under the belt, the Bears are roughly 1/3 of the way through the season. Let’s check in on how they’re doing, starting with the offense.


Explosive Plays

I wrote this offseason about the importance of explosive plays (passes of 20+ yards or runs of 15+ yards) to an offense’s overall success, finding there is a very strong correlation between explosive plays and points scored. Chicago’s offense produced explosive plays at a slightly below-average rate in 2018, and I believed they were poised to improve dramatically in that category this year, and thus improve overall as an offense.

So far, the exact opposite has happened, as you can see in the table below.

The Bears have turned into one of the least explosive offenses in the NFL. They currently have 11 explosive passes and 2 explosive runs, and their current explosive rates would have ranked 31st and 32nd of 32 NFL teams in 2018 (I didn’t have time to compile the numbers for everybody in 2019 so far).

The run game is particularly egregious, as the lowest mark in the NFL last year was 3.1%. 1.7% is not even in the same ballpark. The Bears are 20th in average yards per carry before contact and 29th in yards/carry after contact, but I’m inclined to blame the offensive line more than the runners. Most of the time first contact seems to come not from one player in space, which might give the runner a chance to break a tackle and keep going, but with multiple front 7 players hitting the RB at the same time. It’s worth noting that the Bears’ running backs haven’t been great either though; Player Profiler ranks David Montgomery 36th among running backs in juke rate (evaded/broken tackles per carry), while Tarik Cohen is 55th. In Montgomery’s defense, he is 9th in the NFL in broken tackles per carry, according to Pro Football Reference.

I wrote this offseason that getting rid of Jordan Howard would help Chicago’s run game be more explosive, but so far they’re producing explosive plays on the ground at less than half the rate they did last year. Part of the problem is that Tarik Cohen and Mitchell Trubisky – who combined for 14 explosive runs on 167 carries last year, have no explosive runs so far this year, but David Montgomery only has 1 in his 69 attempts, and that’s far worse than Howard’s rate of 1 every 25 carries last year (which was already one of the worst marks in the NFL).

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Recapping the 2019 Offseason

| August 19th, 2019

It’s been a long offseason, and I’ve covered a lot of ground with a variety of articles. Now that the 2019 season is fast approaching, I’m pretty much finished writing new content, but since I have a hard time remembering everything I’ve researched and shared on here, I thought it might be helpful to re-visit what we learned and see how it relates to the Bears in 2019.

I’m going to try and highlight the most relevant stuff in 1 sentence per article, grouped together by topic. Think of it like a TL;DR for the offseason.

Trubisky


Running Backs

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Big Plays Win Games

| August 12th, 2019

What if I told you that less than 14% of plays determine the outcome of most NFL games?


Everybody loves watching big plays in football. Highlight reels are filled with bone-crushing sacks, long runs, deep bombs to a streaking WR, and big interceptions, because those are the exciting plays fans love to watch.

It turns out those are the plays that decide games too, and I have the stats to prove it.


Methods

Earlier this offseason, I wrote about the strong correlation between long runs and passes and overall offensive success, which got me thinking about what other plays might prove to be crucial to a team’s success. I ended up settling on four types of plays, which I will briefly describe below:

  • Explosive run: a carry that goes for 15+ yards
  • Explosive pass: a pass that goes for 20+ yards
  • Sacks
  • Turnovers

My hypothesis was that the team who produces more of these big plays than their opponent will usually win the game. To test this, I tracked all four categories for all 256 NFL games in 2018, along with the final score of each game.

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