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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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ATM: Bears Have Fantasy Relevance

| August 29th, 2018

[Editor’s note: Yep, allowing a fantasy column.]

For the first time since fantasy football became truly popular, the Chicago Bears actually have some interesting players.

The Bears have had players who have been highly drafted before, but there was never any debate about them. You wanted Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett. It was pretty easy. This year there is actually a debate about which Bears to take and when.

Below is a short guide for how you should fill your fantasy roster with Bears:

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How Inconsistent was Chicago’s 2017 Ground Game?

| July 16th, 2018

On the surface, the Bears’ running game didn’t change much from 2016 to 2017.

  • In 2016 they ran for 1,735 yards (17th in the NFL) and averaged 4.6 yards per carry (6th).
  • In 2017 that shifted to 1,788 yards (16th) and 4.2 yards per carry (11th).

The total yards slightly increased, the yards per carry slightly decreased, but the overall run game stayed average to above average.

But sometimes total numbers don’t tell the whole story, and some fans felt like Chicago’s rushing attack took a step back in 2017 due to inconsistency. For every dominant game (222 yards and 2 TD against Pittsburgh, 231 yards and a TD against Baltimore) there was an absolute clunker (6 yards against Philadelphia, 20 yards against Tampa Bay). DBB reader Butch thought that this perceived inconsistency was particularly frustrating, and he asked me to look into it.

Quantifying inconsistency is actually fairly straightforward using standard deviation, which is a measure of how much variability exists in a set of numbers. Basically, the higher a standard deviation is, the more inconsistent the numbers in that sample are. To see where the Bears ranked, I looked at their rushing yardage and yards per carry for each game in 2017 and found the standard deviation for both sets; I also did the same thing for the other 31 teams in order to give some context to the Bears’ results.

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The Most Important Bears: Offense

| July 11th, 2018

Unlike the defense, the Bears offense is going to feature a bunch of new players expected to fill big roles. Nearly half of the club’s Week 17 starters are being replaced, some by high-profile acquisitions. But it’s the returning soldiers who figure to be essential to the team’s success this coming season.

Before getting into the list, the name you won’t see here is Tarik Cohen. Cohen is a very talented player and one they’re sure to use 12-to-15 times a game. He’s going to make big plays but the offense isn’t going to be dependent on his skill set. The guys you will see on this list are guys who are going to be more crucial to the functionality of the offense.


5. Jordan Howard

Johnathan Wood did a great job breaking down the Bears running back duo a couple of weeks ago and two of the biggest takeaways were:

  • Kansas City ran between the tackles a lot more than the Bears did last year.
  • Howard was terrific running between the tackles.

There is a general thought the Bears are going to be more pass-oriented in 2018 and that may very well be true. But they’re also going to have to run the ball effectively. Historically, Andy Reid’s offenses have always struggled when they failed to move the ball on the ground.

The other issue is that the Bears don’t have a true backup for Howard. Cohen is a different kind of player and not one they really want carrying the ball 20 times a game. Benny Cunningham has carried the ball a total of 30 times the last two seasons.

It’s been popular to say Howard is overrated, but before he came into the lineup in 2016, the Bears couldn’t run the ball and there’s no real reason to think they could without him two years later.


4. Trey Burton

Making a player with just 63 career catches one of the five highest-paid tight ends in the league doesn’t make much sense unless the team knows they need his skill set. Matt Nagy made it known the Bears absolutely needed a player like Burton. Now that they have him, they absolutely need him to be good.

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If Jordan Howard Wants to Stay in Chicago, He’ll Need to Improve in Passing Game

| July 2nd, 2018

Jordan Howard has surpassed all expectations as a fifth round pick. After a series of injuries gave him an opportunity just a few games into his career, he grabbed the job and literally ran with it. 2400 yards and 15 touchdowns later, Howard is firmly entrenched as one of the best runners in the NFL.

Yet for all his excellence on the ground, there remains a nagging doubt about Howard because of his limitations in the passing game. Fans remember his dropped touchdown against Atlanta in Week 1 last year, and he has only 423 receiving yards through 2 seasons. Catching the ball is an important part of any running back’s job in the modern-day NFL, and especially in the new offense head coach Matt Nagy is mostly importing from Kansas City. So today I want to look a little bit deeper at Howard’s impact – or lack thereof – in the passing game and what that might mean for his future (I’d like to give a special thanks to DBB reader Evantonio for this idea).

Let’s start with the basics, looking at how Howard has done in the passing game. I’m going to compare him to a few different groupings of players:

  • Bell cow running backs who are focal points of the offense and rarely leave the field – Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliot, LeSean McCoy, Le’Veon Bell.
  • Situational running backs known for their running – Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, Carlos Hyde.
  • Kansas City running backs in the Reid offense – Kareem Hunt, Jamaal Charles.

Groups are sorted by color coding in the table below. Charles’ data is only for the years when Reid was in Kansas City (2013-16), and drop figures are courtesy of Player Profiler, which only had them for 2017.

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How Might the Bears Dynamic Running Back Duo Be Deployed in 2018?

| June 26th, 2018

The Bears have two very good and very different running backs in Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. Howard is a bigger, more physical runner, while Cohen is a smaller scatback. Both were effective in different ways last year, and today I want to dig a little bit deeper into:

  • How they were used differently.
  • Where they were most effective.
  • How they might best be used on the ground in Chicago’s new offense.

I’ll start by looking at where each player runs, with a special shout out to DBB reader EnderWiggin for this idea. Using the Pro Football Reference Game Play Finder, I tracked how often both Howard and Cohen ran between the tackles vs. outside last year, and how effective they were doing so.

I also compared this to the NFL average in 2017 and the Kansas City average running Andy Reid’s offense (which Matt Nagy will presumably be doing in Chicago) from 2013-17. Results are shown in the table below (ypc = yards per carry).

A few thoughts here:

  • Tarik Cohen ran outside a whole bunch, and was very ineffective running between the tackles when asked to do so. That’s a potential problem going forward, and it will be interesting to see if it changes in 2018 and beyond. Cohen has noted he got most of his yards in college on inside zone runs.

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The Positional Quick 3: Running Backs

| June 8th, 2018

I’m traveling in Dingle, Ireland years ago and I’m exhausted. This was my first day ever in Europe and I couldn’t keep my eyes open at 4:30 in the afternoon. My uncle turns to me and says, “Have a quick three. You’ll be fine.” I drank three Guinness in the span of a half hour. Seven hours later I’m dancing to a shitty Irish house DJ with Jenny Pye, a local lass who dreamed of being an EMT in New York City.

I’m very tired of this 2018 off-season. And incredibly eager for the season to begin. So I’m taking the quick three approach to each position group as we head into the summer. Not grading the groups or anything. Just making some points.


Running Backs

  • Folks comparing Tarik Cohen to Tyreek Hill need to calm down. They are not similar physically, as Hill’s size is what allows him to line-up outside as a de facto wide receiver. That’s not to say Tarik won’t be productive in the Nagy/Helfrich offense. He will. But I see most of that production coming from either (a) the backfield or (b) creative alignments by the coaching staff. Tarik is a toy the coaches will love playing with but I don’t see him as being one of the top two or three producers in this offense.
  • Jordan Howard is the best player on the Chicago Bears. Offense. Defense. Specials. Howard is their best player and he might be the best hand-off-and-hit-the-line running back in the game. While Nagy is coming from an Andy Reid program that seemed to abandon the run at the first sign of adversity, he and Helfrich need to recognize and embrace this basic fact. With the new weapons assembled on the offense, the coaches should put Howard in position to win MVP or offensive POY.
  • Prediction: Benny Cunningham, if he holds on to make this roster, will double his 20 catches from 2017 to 40 in 2018.

Monday: Wide Receivers

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Data Entry: Establishing Ryan Pace’s draft profile, day 3

| April 17th, 2018

The last in a three-part series, breaking down Ryan Pace’s approach to the NFL Draft when it comes to prospects. Today, day three, rounds four through seven.


Draft History

2015: RB Jeremy Langford (R4), S Adrian Amos (R5), T Tayo Fabuluje (R6)

2016: LB Nick Kwiatkoski (R4), S Deon Bush (R4), CB Deiondre’ Hall (R4), RB Jordan Howard (R5), S DeAndre Houston-Carson (R6), WR Daniel Braverman (R7)

2017: S Eddie Jackson (R4), RB Tarik Cohen (R4), OL Jordan Morgan (R5)


Trend 1

Prioritize Rounds 4-5

Under Ryan Pace, the Bears are averaging two round 4 picks per year and are currently slated to have two in 2018. They will potentially have more if Pace trades down in round 2 again, as is he wont.

The Bears also acquired a fifth round pick in the Brandon Marshall deal. These are the rounds where he likes to operate, and he has done quite well, landing five solid contributors in three years: Adrian Amos, Nick Kwiatkoski, Jordan Howard, Eddie Jackson, Tarik Cohen.

On the flip side, Pace doesn’t seem to care much about round 6 or 7, where he has made only three picks total through three years. He’s made several trades sending these picks out.

  • 6th for Khari Lee
  • Throw-ins for a trade on day two that netted extra 4ths
  • 6th to move up for Kwiatkoski
  • Throw-in 7th to get 5th back when trading Brandon Marshall to Jets
  • Conditional 2018 7th for Inman that they kept in 2018.

Don’t be surprised to see one of those traded away, perhaps to help move up for a coveted player in round 4.

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A Short Statement on Jordan Howard

| April 9th, 2018

From the desk of:

Jeff Hughes, Editor-in-Chief

DaBearsBlog

Jordan Howard is Good

Honestly, I was just going to write the headline and leave it there. Because the growing number of Bears fans across social media who, due to trade “rumors”, suddenly believe Howard is not a great running back…is starting to sicken me.

Is Howard great in the passing game? No. Point conceded.

But in two seasons Howard has amassed more than 2400 yards on the ground and 15 touchdowns, averaging 4.6 yards a clip. For the “anyone can do that” crowd, show me another back who HAS while:

  • Running by second and third-string offensive linemen.
  • Running without the luxury of a passing attack.
  • Running hurt for nearly HALF those games.

Just show me another back with similar achievement. I will actually spare the effort of looking. There isn’t anyone close.

(He also has 52 catches in that time. Ezekiel Elliot has 58. )

I like Ryan Pace and am supremely optimistic about Matt Nagy. But if they looked at Howard’s body of work with the Bears and thought, “Yea, we don’t need this guy” then I seriously question both men’s ability to evaluate personnel. Howard may not be a prototypical modern running back but he reminds one of what a Bears tailback used to look like. Back when they were a winning organization.

If I was starting a team tomorrow, I wouldn’t want Jordan Howard. I’d want 53 Jordan Howards. And I’d like my odds in the Sunday street fight.

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Data Responds: Bears at Vikings

| December 31st, 2017

Sorry for the break the last few weeks. I haven’t been able to watch games live due to various holiday scheduling hijinks. Darn that real life for getting in the way!

Before we get into today’s game specifically, reports are that John Fox will be fired today. I won’t miss you as Chicago’s head coach.

In general, this game looked very much like a disinterested team playing out the string on the road for a soon-to-be-fired coaching staff against a hungry opponent playing to lock up a first round bye.

Offense

  • The Bears got the ball to start and opened with a heavy set Jordan Howard run into a stacked box for no gain. On their 2nd drive, they followed that up with a Jordan Howard run into a stacked box for -4 yards. Shockingly, both drives ended in 3 and outs. Oh how I am not going to miss that.
  • On Chicago’s 3rd drive, they threw the ball on 1st down! You’ll be surprised to find out that not being incredibly predictable actually worked. Of course, the Bears followed that up with a FB dive into a 9 man box on 3rd and 1 (why is Michael Burton still a thing?), which lost yardage and forced a punt. Before they could get the punt off, the Bears took a delay of game penalty, because of course.
  • Rookie QB Mitchell Trubisky had a bad rookie moment that resulted in a safety. Under pressure, he kept backing up until he was in the end zone, which was the mistake. He then threw the ball away to pick up an intentional grounding penalty, which is a safety in the end zone. My complaint is not with the grounding, but with the fact that he backed up into the end zone first. He could have taken the sack at the 3 yard line, and needs to know the field position situation there.
  • Trubisky also had a terrible throw in the fourth quarter where he missed a wide-open Dontrelle Inman because his feet were not properly set. Despite a clean pocket, he did something weird where he torqued his upper body, which caused him to put the ball far too wide and out of bounds. Those mechanical issues, and the corresponding accuracy concerns, have been a repeated problem this offseason, and are the #1 thing Trubisky needs to work on this offseason.

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