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ATM: If Leonard Can’t, Roquan Can.

| August 21st, 2019

Much has been written about the Bears needing one Georgia product — Leonard Floyd — to break out and complement Khalil Mack in the pass rush department. But if that doesn’t happen, perhaps Roquan Smith can ease the pain. While nothing of actual substance can be gained by watching preseason games, seeing Roquan burst through the line faster than anybody could react for a sack two weeks ago was a nice reminder of what the second-year linebacker is capable of when he’s sent after the quarterback.

Floyd’s lack of pass rush has been disappointing. But his ability to drop back in coverage and move in space is extremely rare for players at his position. His exceptional coverage skills will allow new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano to do what he does best: design creative blitz packages. And Roquan has already proven to be exceptional at finding his way to the quarterback. Smith’s very first NFL play was a sack and he followed with four more, many looking similar to his sack in the preseason against Carolina.

Pagano never had a plethora of great pass rushers in Indianapolis, so he had to get creative. One year Jerrell Freeman had a career-high 5.5 sacks. The next year it was D’Qwell Jackson with four. Smith is a lot better than both of them and had five last year despite a coordinator who has been more conservative upfront than Pagano.

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ATM: Nick Kwiatkoski’s Limitations Leave Bears Lacking Depth Inside

| August 13th, 2019

The first two plays of Thursday’s preseason opener gave Bears fans the full Nick Kwiatkoski experience. On the first play, the fourth-year linebacker pushed an offensive lineman back as he made a tackle near the line of scrimmage.



On the second, he got lost in space and allowed a big gain off of a dump off. He later overran a screen pass for another big gain.



Those plays look all too familiar, as it was Kwiatkoski regularly burned in the loss to Green Bay in the 2018 opener. It took less than one full game for Kwiatkoski to lose his job to Smith, despite the then-rookie missing almost all of the preseason. Ten years ago, Kwiatkoski would’ve been a star, but his failures in coverage make him unplayable against good offenses.

Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith are both among the 20 or so best inside linebackers in the league, with the latter likely cementing himself inside the top five this season. But health has always been an issue with Trevathan and last Thursday’s preseason game showed that the Bears simply can’t be without the veteran.

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On the Eve of the Preseason, Grading the 2019 Roster

| August 7th, 2019

Like I did last year, here’s an objective look at this Bears roster, grading each unit on a 1-10 scale. I’m scaling it such that 1 means it’s the worst in the NFL, 10 is the best in the NFL, and 5 is an average NFL grouping. I am going to try to avoid projecting too much for young players who have not yet proven it in the NFL, so some of these rankings might be a bit lower than expected.

Let’s get right down to it!


Quarterback: 6

Key Players: Mitchell Trubisky, Chase Daniel

Roster Depth: Tyler Bray

Trubisky was right around average statistically as a passer in 2018, but added value as a runner. In two games when he was out hurt, Chase Daniel showed that he’s a solid backup, but also reminded us that he’s a backup. I was torn between a 5 and 6 here, but decided Trubisky’s running and Daniel as a backup warranted the higher grade.


Running Back: 5

Key Players: David Mongtomery, Mike Davis, Tarik Cohen

Roster Depth: Kerrith Whyte, Ryan Nall

This was a difficult position to grade because of Tarik Cohen. He’s a really good offensive weapon who produced almost 1200 yards of offense and 8 TDs in 2018, but he can’t handle a huge load and does more damage as a pass catcher than a runner.

Mike Davis is a solid player who fits well in this offense, but he’s probably best suited as a backup.

And while I’m hugely excited about David Montgomery and his fit in this offense, I can’t credit him for anything when he’s yet to play an NFL game. Thus I’ll give this group an average grade for now, but I think this is the position that has the highest potential to outperform its ranking in 2019.

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Causes for 2019 Concern: Volume I

| August 1st, 2019

Most of my writing this off-season has ended up being very positive about the Bears’ outlook for 2019. I’ve been very clear that I think Chicago should be considered one of the Super Bowl favorites this year, and most of the stats I’ve dug into have logically come to conclusions that support that notion, or at least do nothing to refute it.

However, I do think it’s important to try and remain balanced, so with that goal in mind, today I want to think about what might be legitimate reasons for concern for the Bears in 2019. Another way to think of this might be, if something goes wrong and the Bears miss the playoffs, what will be the reason(s) when we look back and figure out why?

I can think of six most likely possibilities, presented in no real order. Here are the first three.


I. Injuries

Injuries are always the #1 cause for concern for a football team. In a salary-capped league like the NFL, even the best team can be completely undone by one or two key injuries, usually to the quarterback. The two obvious players the Bears simply cannot win a Super Bowl without are Mitchell Trubisky and Khalil Mack, but they have a number of stars whose loss would certainly be felt should they get hurt (especially in areas with questionable depth, like tight end and offensive tackle). The Bears are counting on several players with lengthy injury histories to stay healthy and produce in 2019, including Danny Trevathan, Kyle Long, Eddie Goldman, and Prince Amukamara.

And we can’t forget about the cumulative impact of a number of injuries to players who might not be as important. After years of being one of the unhealthiest teams in the NFL, the Bears were the 3rd healthiest in 2018. Given that there’s a strong relationship between health and team success, worse injury luck in 2019 could derail Chicago’s Super Bowl aspirations in a hurry.


II. Special Teams

Given how Chicago’s season ended in 2018, kicker is an obvious cause for concern in 2019. The Bears don’t have one they know they can trust with the game on the line right now, and that’s a problem for a team hoping to win a Super Bowl. The odds of running through 3-4 consecutive playoff wins without needing a kicker to come through in the clutch in any of them seem pretty low.

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2019 Bears: “No Reason to Think They Won’t Be Really Good Again”

| July 29th, 2019

I recently looked at the history of teams to make a significant improvement from one year to the next and found that many of them win fewer games the year after their breakthrough season. This suggests that the Bears might be due for a bit of a letdown from their 12-4 record in 2018 (though they do match the profile of teams that generally stay good after making the jump.)

Today, I want to look more closely at Chicago’s underlying performance in 2018 to see if there’s anything there to suggest they are a team poised for a fall. This is closely modeled after work Bill Barnwell does every off-season, where he uses three factors to identify teams who are likely to improve and likely to regress.


Pythagorean Expectation

The first factor is called the Pythagorean expectation, and it is a measure of how many games a team is expected to win based on how many points they scored compared to how many points they allowed. The exact formula can be seen here, but the general idea is that truly good teams score a lot more points than they give up. Teams that win a lot of games without a large difference in points scored/allowed were considered more lucky than good and are likely due for a fall.

  • 2018 Bears stats: 421 points scored, 283 points allowed, 12 wins
  • 2018 Pythagorean expectation: 11.5 wins

The Bears didn’t significantly outperform their Pythagorean expectation, which means they won a lot of games because they were legitimately good, not lucky. So far, there is no reason to think that significant regression is coming.


Record in Close Games

The 2nd factor looks at how well teams performed in close games, which Barnwell defines as having a final scoring margin within 7 points. I think 8 points makes a lot more sense given that’s still a one possession game, but in this case it doesn’t change anything for the Bears, so we’ll stick with 7.

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Possible Regression in 2019: A Mathematical Analysis

| July 22nd, 2019

For the first time in a long time, the Chicago Bears were legitimately fun to watch in 2018. Following years of terrible, boring teams, they went 12-4, scored some big man touchdowns, had plenty of awesome celebrations, and started the most exclusive club in the country to celebrate their wins.

But 2018 was last year, and now I’ve seen some worry that it will prove an aberration. They point to the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars, who made a similar jump from years of awful to a division win and playoff berth before falling back to Earth in 2018, as a sign of what is to come.

While I’ve been on the record going back to 2017 that this is the earliest year when their title window will fully open, I still wanted to take a realistic look and see if there might be reasons to expect regression in 2019 instead. Accordingly, I’m looking at recent NFL history to see how teams similar to the 2018 Bears followed it up the year after. Since the NFL switched to its current 32 team, 8 division format in 2002, that serves as a nice starting point for this study. I looked at wins per year for all teams from then to 2017 (the last year in which we can track how teams did the year after), and identified teams similar to the Bears in a variety of ways. Full data can be seen here.


12+ Wins

To start out, I looked at teams that won 12 or more games in a season, as Chicago did in 2018. That data can be briefly highlighted like so:

  • Teams with 12+ wins: 74
  • Average # wins: 12.7
  • Average # wins next year: 9.6
  • Net change: -3.1 wins

The average team that won 12+ games decreased by just over 3 wins the following year, which makes a lot of sense. It’s hard to win 12 games in a season, which is why fewer than 5 teams per year, on average, do it. Remaining one of those top 5 or so teams for a 2nd year straight is no small feat.

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Will the Bears Defense Regress in 2019? History Tells Us…Not So Much.

| July 15th, 2019

Chicago’s defense was really, really good in 2018. They led the NFL in points allowed, turnovers forced, touchdowns scored, and passer rating against, and finished 3rd in both yards and sacks. They finished as the runaway best defense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, which is intended to be an all-encompassing metric, and even finished as the 8th best defense ever in DVOA’s database, which runs back to 1986.

Now as we head into 2019, fans are rightly wondering if Chicago’s defense can repeat that performance. While I won’t pretend to be able to predict the future, I can look at the past to see what it might have to tell us. So I looked at top defenses in recent NFL history and measured, through a variety of metrics, where the 2018 Bears excelled. Then I looked to see how they followed that up in the next season. Full data collected can be viewed here for transparency’s sake.


DVOA

The DVOA system is set up such that an average defense gets a score of 0, with negative numbers indicating you are better than average (the farther from 0 the better). The Bears finished with a final score of -26.0, so I looked at other teams in the last decade (2008-17) who finished at -20 or better. This was quite a small list, as it featured only 10 teams. Here’s how they fared in the season following that dominant performance:

  • Average DVOA: -25.1%
  • Average following DVOA: -8.8% (8th in NFL)
  • Change: 16.4%
  • # teams with better DVOA following year: 0
  • # teams top 5 in DVOA following year: 5
  • # teams top 10 in DVOA following year: 8
  • # teams below average in DVOA following year: 1

First, notice that none of these defenses were as good the following year. This isn’t surprising; there were only 10 teams in 10 years who achieved this caliber of DVOA. The odds of doing that twice in a row are very low.

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ATM: Bears Need More From Floyd

| July 9th, 2019

When Khalil Mack wasn’t on the field, the Bears had one of the worst pass rushes in the NFL. That is a direct reflection on former first-rounder Leonard Floyd.

Perhaps the biggest argument for Mack’s Defensive POY candidacy last year was how much the Bears struggled to get after the quarterback when he was limited or not on the field at all. In the four games Mack was playing hurt or not playing at all, the Bears managed a combined 24 quarterback sacks and hits, applying such pressure on just 14.6% of the drop backs (not counting quarterback runs which are often the result of good coverage). That rate would’ve been the second worst in the entire league, ahead of only — surprise, surprise — Oakland.

In all, the Bears pass rush wasn’t bad last year. When Mack was on the field, they hit opposing quarterbacks at the fifth-highest rate and finished 15th overall. Floyd was third on the team in both sacks and hits, but spent too much time doing his best Sam Wheat impression.

Nine times last year, Floyd didn’t even touch the opposing quarterback. Some of those struggles can be contributed to a preseason hand injury — he didn’t record a QB hit or sack in six of the team’s first seven games. But he still had three such games in the team’s final seven and half of his sacks came in one game — both largely the result of pressures by Mack.

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The Most Complete, Data-Driven Breakdown of the 2018 Bears Pass Defense Available

| July 8th, 2019

The Bears had the best pass defense in the NFL last season, finishing 7th in yards, 1st in yards/attempt, 1st in interceptions, and 1st in passer rating against. Now I want to look at the performance of each individual player in coverage, using stats from The Quant Edge.

Where They Lined Up

Let’s start by taking a look at where the CBs lined up. I’m only looking at the CBs here because all of the LB are listed as “LB” and all of the safeties “FS” for pretty much the whole time, thus those designations aren’t particularly helpful.



 

Pretty much the only point I wanted to make here is that the Bears played their CBs in specific spots, not against specific match-ups. Kyle Fuller covered the left (right side from offense’s perspective), Prince Amukamara the right, and Bryce Callahan the slot. Toliver filled in for Prince when he was out hurt (and some for Fuller late in blowouts), and McManis for Callahan.

Of course, Callahan is now gone, so it’s worth noting that 89% of Buster Skrine’s snaps came in the slot in 2018. It’s reasonable to think that will be his role in Chicago as well, but he has played outside a good bit in the past, so maybe he moves if Fuller or Amukamara get hurt and the Bears like McManis or Duke Shelley at nickelback.

It’s also fair to wonder if new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano will ask his cornerbacks to move around a little bit more. When he was the head coach in Indianapolis in 2017, no cornerback played more than about 90% of their snaps in one spot. That’s still mostly intact, but not the 98%/99% Fuller and Amukamara had.

Coverage Statistics

Now let’s look at how well each player did in coverage. The table below shows that data for every CB, S, and ILB who played a meaningful role in 2018 (OLB are excluded because they saw very few targets due to rushing the passer more than dropping into coverage. Yes, even Leonard Floyd). Positions are color coded to make tracking the table easier.


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ATM: Expect A Heavy Workload For David Montgomery

| July 2nd, 2019

Give Matt Nagy credit for saying he wants to use a committee approach when it comes to the running back position, but don’t be surprised if rookie David Montgomery is the bell cow before long. While the Bears have generally been trying to keep their depth chart a secret (and not allowing media members to report on the topic) it seems the rookie has already been getting playing time with the first team, a rarity for any mid-round running back.

Montgomery will still have to earn the job. Running backs, especially those in the 220-pound range, generally don’t show much until the pads come on; it’s impossible to display power and contact balance when the defense can’t hit. But by all accounts, Montgomery has looked the part, opening eyes the same way Tarik Cohen did two years ago, per Adam Jahns on the Hoge & Jahns Podcast.


Montgomery’s currently tied fifth favorite to be Offensive Rookie of the Year. Third among non-QBs.


The Bears signed Mike Davis and it seems that he has gotten most of the reps with the first team offense this offseason. But in the most recent clips released by the team on their website, you can see Montgomery sneaking out of the backfield with Mitch Trubisky playing quarterback. Maybe those are just misleading shots, but they didn’t exist at the start of the offseason program, when even Ryan Nall was shown with the starters in one of the clips.

If Montgomery has already been as impressive as most have said without the pads, the general expectation is that he’ll be even better once they start hitting. After all, his strength is supposed to be his ability to play through contact.

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