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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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ATM: Titans Give Reason For Hope, If Pace Is Willing to Admit Mistake

| January 14th, 2020

Purgatory.

The team had just finished a season in which they finished third in their division, with the 27th-best scoring offense and third best defense. Against all odds, they had made the playoffs the year before, but they were stuck.

The young coach seemed like a great leader. The defensive coordinator had his unit set. The offensive play caller was dialing up winners. But they weren’t winning because the No. 2 overall pick quarterback simply could not execute the offense.

There were no easy answers.

Now that team is one win away from going to the Super Bowl.

Most of that probably sounds very familiar because the 2019 Tennessee Titans entered the season in the same spot as the 2020 Chicago Bears. But the Titans weren’t afraid to do exactly what the Bears have to do. They sat Marcus Mariota on the bench.

Through six games, the Titans were averaging 16.3 points and 307 yards per game, but they finished the season 10th in the league scoring 25.1 points 12th averaging 363 yards per game.

And the only major change they made was the quarterback.

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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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ATM: Adding Castillo, Shurmur Would Allow Nagy to Get Back to the Basics of the Offense

| January 9th, 2020


Perhaps the Chicago Bears offense failing to achieve the Version 2.0 Matt Nagy promised before the season was because he had too many people to teach.

Early in Nagy’s tenure, before the first training camp practice, he regularly brought up the fact that it wasn’t just the players who had to learn the offense, but the coaches. Now with Juan Castillo as his offensive line coach and (reportedly, by DBB) Pat Shurmur as the offensive coordinator, Nagy has filled his staff with some of this offense’s finest teachers.

Mark Helfrich and Harry Hiestand are probably very good coaches, but neither was well-versed in what’s commonly known as “The Andy Reid Philosophy”. More to the point, both were hired specifically to bring outside elements to the offense -Helfrich the RPO game and Hiestand the power running. Neither worked out.

For Nagy, the best thing to do was to get back to the offense, to the basics. Whether the team intends on running version 1.0, 2.0 or jumping to 3.0 next season, they now have an offensive coordinator and line coach who have proven track records in accomplishing whatever version is required.

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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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ATM: Bears Offense Close to Breaking Out (If the Quarterback Stops Breaking Down)

| December 17th, 2019


Here is a story about two coaches, in identical circumstances.

Coach A has gone 4-20 and his pathetic offense averaged 19 points per game.

Coach B, however, has had a lot more success. His team has gone 17-5 and his offense has averaged nearly 31 points per game.

Coach B is clearly better than Coach A. Or, at least, he would be, if they weren’t the same person.

That is the story of Kyle Shanahan’s career with the 49ers when he’s had Jimmy Garoppolo and when he has not. Nobody is going to argue that Jimmy G. is a franchise quarterback or one of the best in the league. He’s solid. He’s consistent. He does his job.

The argument can be that every other quarterback Shanahan has had in San Francisco has been bad. It can also be argued that Shanahan’s offense is relatively simple and helps the quarterback out with the running game.

Those arguments are valid, but doesn’t change the simple fact that without adequate quarterback play, Shanahan doesn’t look like a genius and with it, he might be best play caller in the league. You can go throughout the young coach’s career and you’ll find that to be the case.  In fact, you can go through most coach’s careers and find that to be the case.

New flash: The quarterback really matters.

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ATM: Strong Finish Would Earn Trubisky Another Chance

| December 3rd, 2019


Thanksgiving

And just like that, another quarterback has thrown his hat in the ring to be the starting quarterback for the Chicago Bears in 2020: Mitch Trubisky.

It wasn’t perfect, but for the first time this year Trubisky looked like an actual NFL quarterback. It wasn’t just that he threw more great passes on Thanksgiving than he has all season. It’s that he looked composed. He went through his progressions and he made plays even after the defense took the initial look away. The head coach, who is clearly frustrated with the quarterback’s inability to run the offense, came away impressed.

“Today was Mitch’s day. It was his day.”

After noting that his last two touchdown passes were to players who weren’t the initial reads, Matt Nagy said, “That’s growth for Mitchell. Getting through progression one, progression two and making plays happen. I think that’s probably what I’m most proud about.”

For one day, Nagy had an NFL quarterback and the offense made plays when they needed to. And it wasn’t just about statistics, even though the statistics were terrific.

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ATM: QB Market Begins to Take Shape

| November 19th, 2019


As the Chicago Bears once again prepare to dive into the market for a quarterback, the list of players who are going to be available is becoming clear. Which direction the Bears go depends on what, exactly, they are looking to find.

If the Bears are looking for a clear-cut new starter, there should be several options.

If they’re merely looking for competition, there are some good options there too.

If they’re looking for a new franchise-type quarterback, that’s unlikely. But last week may have opened an option there too.

Here is a quick look:


Trade Targets

When Ian Rapoport goes on TV and specifically mentions the Bears as a team Cam Newton would be interested in, there’s a reason for it.

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