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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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A Player-By-Player Examination of Chicago’s 2018 Defense

| July 1st, 2019

As a unit, the Bears defense finished 3rd in the NFL in yards, 1st in points, and 1st in turnovers. Now I want to look at the impact each individual player had on the defense, as much as is possible. To do so, I’m using stats from The Quant Edge.


Defensive Line

Let’s start on the defensive line, where we can get a look at how often each player was on the field and how successful the defense was when they were in or out of the game. This can be measured through yards per carry (YPC), yards per pass attempt (YPA), and success rate, which is generally a measure of how effectively offenses stay ahead of the chains. Higher success rate

The table below shows data for defensive linemen who both played and missed 100 or more snaps, and is set up such that numbers for each category are in game/out of game for an easy comparison. Notable differences are highlighted in green (good) or red (bad).



A few thoughts:

  • First, note that this data does not necessarily mean a player was good or bad, especially when we get to the smaller sample sizes (in terms of snaps played or snaps missed). But it can be really useful for players in the middle, who both played a lot of snaps and rotated out for plenty as well.
  • Speaking of those players, hello Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks! Look at those splits against the run. Those two make up a formidable duo up front for the Bears, and allow them to be stout against the run even in nickel looks when they only have two defensive linemen on the field. If you’re looking for more specifics here, Jack Soble of The Loop Sports did a great film breakdown of Goldman’s impact on the run game.
  • Roy Robertson-Harris had some flash plays this year, but the data suggests he didn’t really have a positive impact on the defense as a whole. That’s plenty understandable in the run game, because he’s not really a typical 3-4 defensive lineman and doesn’t 2-gap as well as the rest of these players.
  • Sometimes the differences between yards/play and success rate can be confusing. Let’s look at Jonathan Bullard as an example. In the run game, teams averaged a lower yards/carry when he was on the field, which is good, but had a higher success rate, which is bad. That tells us that the Bears gave up fewer long runs, but still let teams stay with or ahead of the chains a bit more when he played. That could mean he played in a lot of short-yardage situations, where a 1-2 yard run is a success but keeps the average gain low. On the flip side, teams averaged more yards/pass when he was on the field, but had a lower success rate. That means the Bears didn’t give up completions as much, but gave up more big plays.

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ATM: Defensive Performance Makes Championship Dreams Valid

| December 11th, 2018

After holding one of the ten best offenses in the history of the league to just one legitimate scoring drive, Super Bowl dreams no longer seem far-fetched for the 2018 Chicago Bears.

Yes, they have to take care of business the rest of the season and any playoff run is going to require Mitch Trubisky to be infinitely better than he was Sunday night. But now that we’ve seen the defense be that good, there’s no reason to put a cap on what the Bears can accomplish this season.

Say what positive you will about the Bears teams of the early-to-mid 2000s, but they never faced — much less beat — an offense like the 2018 Bears just did.

  • 2005 Bears held a Carolina team that averaged more than 24 per game to just three but then got smoked in the playoffs by a legendary Steve Smith performance.
  • 2006 Bears limited the fifth-ranked Saints to 14 points, but that’s still not really comparable as indoor Saints and outdoor Saints are very different things.
  • 2010 Bears played two top-three offenses and gave up 26 and 36 points in those games respectively.

While the defense’s performance Sunday makes the games against Brock Osweiler, Eli Manning and gimpy Aaron Rodgers even more confusing, it also gave validity to their claim as a potentially historic defense. If they can do THAT to the Rams, they can beat anybody — especially when you consider the defensive issues the other top scoring teams have.

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ATM: Reason to Distrust the Defense

| December 4th, 2018

The Bears had the Giants in a third-and-23. Even a 20-yard run means New York is punting and the Bears are either going to block it, return it or sit on it and go into halftime with a touchdown lead. Matt Nagy called timeout. It was the kind of aggressive decision we’ve longed for Bears coaches to make.

It didn’t work. Because Nagy learned something we all learned: this defense can’t be trusted.

The vaunted unit folded on the next two plays and then continuously throughout the second half. If it felt like we were watching a re-run it’s because we were. This is the third time the defense — which is supposed to carry the team — absolutely crumbled.

At their best, the Bears defense is legitimately great. But they still might be underachieving. Performances like Sunday (and Miami, and Green Bay) just can’t happen if the Bears are going to be truly relevant this year.

The Bears had a top ten defensive unit last year before adding a top ten draft pick and one of the three best defensive players in the history of the universe. They’ve made a jump, but there are these weird games that are just indefensible and one has to wonder what will happen when the Bears go up against one of the league’s great offenses.

Make no mistake, the Bears can stop the Rams, Saints or Chiefs. They absolutely have the talent to get the job done. But that doesn’t mean they will. And it’s hard to pinpoint what the exact problem is.

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Second Collapse Raises Questions About Defense

| October 16th, 2018

A fumble at the one.

An interception in the end zone.

The questionable decision to settle for kicking a 53-yard field goal in overtime.

None of it would have mattered if the Bears’ much-celebrated defense had done its part.

Just about everybody who had watched this Bears defense was quick to crown them as a great unit. Some went as far as to compare them to historic units of years past. But a collapse against one of the worst offenses in the league certainly raises questions, especially because it isn’t the first time it has happened.

It’s easy to blame the heat, but that would lead one to believe the Dolphins — and likely the Jaguars and Buccaneers — are unbeatable in their element. That isn’t reality. And, if we’re blaming heat for this collapse, what do we blame for the collapse against a gimpy Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay on Sept. 9?

This isn’t to minimize the impact the heat had on the Bears players. It’s certainly conceivable that it slowed them down late. But they still should’ve been good enough to overcome it against Brock Osweiler.

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Midseason Marks: Defense

| November 1st, 2017

The DBB team is evaluating the entire organization at this well-placed, exactly midseason bye week. The catch? Each of us is limited to ONE SENTENCE for each position group. Today we move on to the defense.


Defensive Line

Jeff: Impossible to say a negative word about this group, with Goldman arguably the league’s best run-stuffing interior lineman and Hicks mounting a serious campaign for Defensive Player of the Year.

Andrew: Hicks and Goldman are studs, Unrein is solid and Bullard and Robertson-Harris have both shown flashes.

Data: Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman might be the best interior DL combo in the NFL.

DBB Grade: A


Inside Linebackers

Jeff: This was the position of greatest depth on the roster and that depth has been severely tested through eight games. Christian Jones has looked like a new player in the absence of Freeman, Kwik and Timu. (Yea that’s two sentences but it’s my blog so go away.)

Andrew: Danny Trevathan is having a career year and young inside backers also making an impact.

Data: Chicago has gotten a surprisingly high level of play out of this group considering they’ve had to rotate through 5 different bodies here due to injuries and suspensions.

DBB Grade: A-


Outside Linebackers

Jeff: Bears ask their outside backers to do a lot, including extensive coverage duties, but this group will always be judged by their ability to get to the quarterback and they’re getting there to the tune of 11 sacks.

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Bears Defense Should Take a Big Step in 2017

| May 8th, 2017

While they didn’t attack that side of the ball the way many people thought they should in the draft, the Bears defense should still be significantly improved in 2017.

Just last week the Bears made a significant addition to their front seven adding Jaye Howard from Kansas City. Howard is a bull against the run and has shown some ability to rush the passer, finishing with 5.5 sacks in 2015. He missed half of the 2016 season, but passed a physical and appears to be ready to go. Howard will start for the Bears and has the ability to play in their nickel packages, rotating with Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks, representing a significant upgrade over Mitch Unrein.

Howard will also push second-year player Jonathan Bullard. Bullard has the potential to be a stud but was terrible as a rookie. If the Bears — with one of the best defensive line coaches in the league in Jay Rodgers — can develop Bullard, they might have the best front seven in the league.

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Data: Numbers Prove Pairing Cutler with Top Defense Will Yield Winning Team

| July 11th, 2016

Another guest column from the artist known as Data.

Every offseason (and throughout most seasons) there’s a lot of talk amongst Bears fans about whether or not the Bears can win with Jay Cutler as their quarterback. Today I’m going to attempt to answer that question by looking at Cutler’s peers around the league.

I identified five players who are, statistically speaking, Cutler’s peers: Carson Palmer, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, and Alex Smith. Including Cutler, these six quarterbacks all have started at least 90 games, thrown at least 3500 passes, and posted passer ratings between 83.5 and 88.1.

Basically, they’ve all been around for a while performing, as a whole, at an average to above average level.

Cutler is smack dab in the middle of the group with 134 starts (3rd), 4354 passes (3rd), and an 86.0 passer rating (2nd).

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2016 Bears Defense Could Make Buddy Proud

| July 1st, 2016

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 1: Pernell McPhee #92 of the Chicago Bears celebrates after a sack during a game against the Minnesota Vikings at Soldier Field on November 1, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. The Vikings defeated the Bears 23-20. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

“QB’s are over-paid, over-rated, pompous bastards and must be punished.”-Buddy Ryan.

For the first time in a number of years, the Bears have a chance to have the kind of defense that would make Buddy Ryan proud. They finally have a number of players who can, and should, get to the quarterback.

The Bears’ sack totals since they stopped running Ryan’s defense are a bit depressing. They’ve finished last in the league in sacks more than they’ve finished first and haven’t topped 50 sacks in a season since 1987. This year, however, they have a legitimate chance to top that mark and punish opposing quarterbacks.

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