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Bears Offense Should Take Significant Step Forward in 2019

| January 21st, 2019

Chicago’s defense was awesome in 2018, leading the NFL in points allowed, turnovers forced, touchdowns scored, and passer rating against. They also finished third in yards and sacks and were generally the best defense in the NFL by a wide margin. Their play propelled the Bears to a 12-4 finish, NFC North title, and the franchise’s first playoff berth in eight years.

It’s hard to expect much improvement from that unit in 2019. In fact, they’re almost certainly not going to repeat that level of dominance. So when I write that I expect the Bears to improve in 2019 and be one of the top Super Bowl contenders, that must mean I expect it to happen because of the offense.

Unlike the defense, there is plenty of room for improvement on that side of the ball. Chicago had a pretty mediocre offense in 2018. They finished:

  • 21st in yards per game
  • 20th in yards per play
  • 9th in points per game
  • 20th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings, an all-encompassing metric intended to evaluate an entire unit.

Outside of points per game – which was likely aided by all the turnovers and defensive touchdowns – the offense was pretty consistently below average in most important metrics. So why am I so confident the offense will improve next year, even though they probably won’t be making many significant personnel changes?

To put it simply: NFL history strongly suggests that significant improvement is coming.

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Projecting Contracts for the Key Free Agent Bears

| January 17th, 2019

The Bears have three starters – Bryce Callahan, Bobby Massie, and Adrian Amos – and a key role player – Aaron Lynch – who are all free agents this offseason. They’re tight up against the cap, so keeping all of them will be hard.

In order to prioritize which ones might be most important and attainable to hang onto, we need to understand how expensive their contracts are likely to be. Let’s look at each player one by one and look at the types of contracts signed by comparable players in recent years to get an idea for what to expect. All data is from Spotrac.


Bryce Callahan (27 years old)

Callahan’s contract is a difficult one to project because it is complicated by health. Callahan has been one of the best nickel backs in the NFL when healthy, but he’s only played 45 out of a possible 65 games (including playoffs) in 4 years, which should keep his price down a little bit. It’s also a bit difficult to parse out nickel back contracts from the other cornerbacks, as they’re listed generically together even though NFL teams clearly pay them differently. Nevertheless, here are four recent nickel back contracts that can help give us an idea of what Callahan’s market should be.

Harris’ deal sets the standard for nickels, but I don’t think it will have much bearing on Callahan. I’m sure his agents will point to it as what they’d like to get, but I don’t think teams view Callahan on Harris’ level, both because of health and big plays. Harris missed 1 game in 4 years before signing this deal and had 10 interceptions to Callahan’s 4.

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A Thorough Breakdown of the Chicago Cap Situation

| January 16th, 2019

After a heartbreaking playoff loss, it’s time to shift from in-season coverage to looking ahead to what’s in store for the Bears this offseason as they prepare for 2019.

And that starts with looking at the money, because after all, the NFL is a business. So let’s get a feel for where the Bears are with respect to the cap, what moves could be made to clear up space, and what players are scheduled to be free agents.

Current Cap Situation

The table below shows the Bears’ current cap situation. All data comes from Spotrac.


As you can see, that looks a good bit different than in years past. The roster has gotten significantly more talented, but also significantly more expensive, which means they don’t have much money to spend. So don’t expect free agency to be nearly as exciting as it’s been the last several years. A few other notes:

  • All of these figures are flexible. There are always ways to change the cap situation, and I’ll look at a few of them below.
  • The 2019 cap projection is currently somewhere between $187 and $191 million. I went with the conservative estimate, but they might have a few million more than this to work with. We’ll know more sometime in the next few months (it was set in early March last year).

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Turning the Page on the 2018 Bears

| January 11th, 2019

What a ride.

The Bears’ 2018 season ended with a doink a few weeks before anybody wanted it to, but man oh man what fun it was. After four straight years of shifting attention to the draft by November, the Bears went 12-4, established themselves as one of the best teams in the NFL, and laid waste to the division. Along the way, they got to officially end the season of both the Packers and Vikings and made the entire city of Chicago go crazy with football fever.

Lest we forget some of the highlights of 2018:

  • After three brutal games to start the season, Mitchell Trubisky finally had his coming out party when he laid waste to the Bucs in week 4. Just to make sure you knew it wasn’t a fluke, he followed it up with 300 yards and multiple touchdowns in both of the next two games.
  • Khalil Mack, Eddie Goldman, and company embarrassed the Rams on Sunday Night football with the whole world watching (and picking against Chicago), proving once and for all that this team was in fact for real.
  • Eddie Jackson just kept scoring touchdowns, Kyle Fuller led the NFL in interceptions, and the defense as a whole made big play after big play.
  • Linemen and linebackers kept scoring touchdowns on trick plays, just for fun.
  • The Bears finished the season winning 9 of their last 10 games, with the only loss coming on the road in overtime with their backup QB.
  • The Bears finished with the NFL’s 3rd best W/L record, 4th best point differential, and 3rd best turnover differential, all key indicators of the best teams in the league.

And then…

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Random stats: pass catchers and playoff odds

| November 20th, 2018

I’m not really writing during the season due to an extremely busy fall semester at work, but Thanksgiving break opened up a little time, so here are a few random statistical nuggets I dug up while I was poking around.

Pass Catchers

The Bears’ entire passing game has been built on five players: Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller, Trey Burton, and Tarik Cohen. Those 5 have combined for 82% of Trubisky’s targets, 85% of catches, 88% of yards, and 95% of passing TDs. Let’s take a quick look at how efficient each one is being.

A few thoughts:

  • The Bears’ two highest-usage players (Gabriel and Robinson) have been the least efficient of these 5 in terms of yards per target. This is likely due to the fact that they get the ball thrown to them even when they’re not wide open, which is not necessarily the case for the other players. All five are still producing above the team average in terms of yards per target.
  • I also find it interesting that Miller, Gabriel, and Robinson are all getting basically the same average target depth. It’s great that Bears have been able to use all three in similar ways without having to typecast each one to just one type of route.
  • Special tip of the cap to Anthony Miller, who was basically only being used underneath early in the season but has stepped up his game.
  • I didn’t put target stats on here, but usage has been very even overall between the 5. All getting between 4.5 and 7.3 targets/game (in games they’re active), and thus the volume stats are pretty similar too. All are on pace for between 570 and 770 yards, with the top 3 (Gabriel, Cohen, and Robinson) all on pace for between 730 and 770 yards.
  • I’m curious to see how Adam Shaheen impacts this down the stretch, should he be able to get and stay healthy. Will he be a major factor, and if he is, will he eat into one specific players’ targets or take a little bit from each of them?

Playoff Odds

In case you somehow missed it, the Bears are 7-3 and looking like a good bet for the playoffs. How good are their chances? Depends who you ask.

Nate Silver of 538 used Pro Football Reference to look at the historical odds of a team making the playoffs based on their current record. Based on that work, summarized in the nifty image below, a 7-3 team like the Bears has an 84% chance of making the playoffs.

A win against Detroit on Thursday would push that to 92%, while a loss drops it to 71%. No pressure, Mitchell Trubisky (or Chase Daniel?).

Those are general numbers that don’t take into account anything about how well a team is playing or how difficult their remaining schedule is. Football Outsiders uses their DVOA rankings to develop playoff odds based on that, and they really like the Bears.

 

Well that’s nice. 94% odds for Chicago to make the playoffs, with an 81% chance of winning the division and even a 17% chance of getting a 1st round bye (though I think that’s very unlikely given the Rams’ win over KC last night).

Football Outsiders also gives the Bears the 5th best odds of winning the Super Bowl at just over 6%. This is the third highest number in the NFC behind the Rams and Saints, which matches the 3rd seed that the Bears would be if the playoffs started right now.

There’s still six games left in the season and anything can happen, but right now things are looking pretty good for the Bears. It’s fun to have a good team to watch and root for every week instead of starting to shift our attention to what players might be available in the draft.

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Bears at the Bye: Looking at the Defense Position-By-Position

| October 10th, 2018

Secondary

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.

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Bears at the Bye: The Best Defense in Football? Sure Seems That Way…

| October 10th, 2018

Chicago’s defense has been awesome in the first month of the season. They’re among the best in the league in nearly every category that matters, and are ranked first overall in DVOA. Now I want to look a little more closely at how well they’re performing against both the run and pass in different areas of the field.


Defending The Run

Chicago’s run defense was solid in 2017, but it has been fantastic so far in 2018. They have shut opposing run games down, and they’ve done it pretty much across the board, as we can see below.

Here’s the data for Chicago’s rushing defense by zone, courtesy of the NFL Game Statistics and Information System. The line at the bottom is the line of scrimmage, runs are split into 7 zones, and attempts and yards per carry are listed for each zone, with ranks relative to the rest of the NFL in parentheses. The height of the bar is proportional to yards per carry, and bars are colored green for top 10, red for bottom 10, and yellow for middle 12. Note expected yards per carry varies by region, so the colors are relative to their peers in that region.

A few thoughts:

  • That’s a whole lot of green. Awesome. Last year’s version featured a lot more yellow and red. This is a good time to remind you that Khalil Mack is an elite run defender in addition to being one of the best pass rushers in the league.
  • Speaking of Khalil Mack, he and Akiem Hicks usually line up opposite the RG and RT. Notice where defenses are running towards? There are 38 runs to the left side – away from Mack and Hicks -compared to 21 towards them on the right.

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Bears at the Bye: Pass Catchers! Everywhere! Pass Catchers!

| October 9th, 2018

Now that we’ve seen Chicago’s new offense play four games, it’s time to examine what exactly it looks like. We’ve seen them run 271 plays, and while that’s still a fairly small sample size, it’s big enough that we can begin to pick up trends, search for predictable patterns that opposing defenses might begin to pick up on, and see if there are any situations their current approach could be improved.

Now we focus on the wide receivers and tight ends, examining how much they’re playing, how effective they’ve been, and how they’re being utilized.


Snap Counts and Predictabilities

First I want to look at how frequently each target is playing, and how their presence on the field impacts the offense’s performance. Data is from The Quant Edge.

A couple things to note about the table below:

  • I’m using success rate here instead of yards per play. That is to account for down and distance context. A two-yard play on 1st and 10 is bad, while a two-yard play on 3rd and 1 is good. The general idea is that a successful play keeps you ahead of the chains, but an exact definition is available here if you’re curious.
  • I didn’t include Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, or Trey Burton here because they’re almost always on the field; they’re all playing least 83% of the offensive snaps so far. This is more to look at the players who are situational and how they’re impacting the offense.
  • Anthony Miller’s data only includes the 3 games for which he was active.

A few thoughts:

  • On the surface, it looks like Anthony Miller has hurt the offense. Maybe he has. But he basically only plays in 11 personnel groupings, where there are 1 RB, 1 TE, and 3 WRs on the field, and in general that grouping has been the least efficient passing formation in the NFL. In terms of the run game, I don’t actually know much about Miller as a blocker. It’s possible that he’s not blocking well and that’s hurting the run game, but it’s also possible something else is causing the difference.

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Bears at the Bye: What To Make of the Running Back Position

| October 9th, 2018

Now that we’ve seen Chicago’s new offense play four games, it’s time to examine what exactly it looks like. We’ve seen them run 271 plays, and while that’s still a fairly small sample size, it’s big enough that we can begin to pick up trends, search for predictable patterns that opposing defenses might begin to pick up on, and see if there are any situations their current approach could be improved.

Today we’re going to focus on running backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, examining how much they’re playing, how effective they’ve been, and how they’re being utilized.


Snap Counts and Efficiency

First I want to look at how frequently each running back is playing, and how their presence on the field impacts the offense’s performance. Data is from The Quant Edge.

(Note: I’m using success rate here instead of yards per play. That is to account for down and distance context. A two-yard play on 1st and 10 is bad, while a two-yard play on 3rd and 1 is good. The general idea is that a successful play keeps you ahead of the chains, but an exact definition is available here if you’re curious.)

A few thoughts:

  • Howard is actually playing typical lead RB snaps for an Andy Reid offense. As I noted this offseason, Kareem Hunt played 65% of the snaps in Kansas City last year. This is in stark contrast to the Philadelphia Eagles style-rotation I thought would make more sense. It’s worth noting the 2 split snaps almost exactly 50/50 in the Tampa Bay game. I wonder if that’s more what we’ll see going forward.
  • The run/pass splits for when both of these players are in vs. out of the game are too lopsided. A 30% swing when Howard exits the game and 20% swing when Cohen enters the game should not be the case. This is too predictable and makes it too easy on the defense.
  • Some of these numbers are related, since Howard and Cohen basically swap being on the field. They’ve only shared the field on 23 snaps so far this year, so the run game being more effective with Howard off the field is the same as saying the run game gets more effective when Cohen is on the field. Again, I think this might have more to do with defenses gearing up to stop the run when Howard is in the game and not expecting it when Cohen is in.

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Bears at the Bye: The Guy Playing Quarterback

| October 8th, 2018

Now that we’ve seen Mitchell Trubisky play four games under Matt Nagy’s tutelage, it’s time to examine how he’s doing. We’ve seen him play 269 snaps and throw 130 passes, and while that’s still a fairly small sample size, it’s big enough that we can begin to analyze how he’s performing in a variety of situations.


Growth Through Each “Quarter”

Last offseason I looked at Trubisky’s performance in 4-game snapshots, borrowing the idea of breaking an NFL season down into quarters from Lovie Smith. There I found that Trubisky got progressively better in every “quarter.” Since Trubisky has played 4 games this year, he now has 16 in his career, giving him a full 4 “quarters” that we can track. Let’s take a look.

Well that looks pretty good. I said last offseason that, statistically speaking, Trubisky needed to throw more TDs while keeping everything else the same. Here we see that he has managed to throw more TDs, and everything else has stayed the same or improved. That’s good growth to see from a 2nd year QB.

Of course, four games is a small sample size, and this doesn’t look quite as rosy if we remove the Tampa game from the equation. Then his yards per attempt drops to 5.7, TD percentage to 1.9%, and his INT % (2.9%) and sack % (8.0%) both rise a bit higher than they were late in his rookie year.

Through three weeks, the stats suggested Trubisky was actually playing worse than late in his rookie year. That’s not entirely surprising given that learning a new offense often results in a step back at first.

Adding the TB game in there makes this look good, but now the question is whether the TB game was an aberration or a sign of things to come.

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