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How the Bears Stack Up in the NFC North: Special Teams

| June 16th, 2020

The all-important third phase has mixed reviews for the Bears.

There is no question the Bears are the worst in the division when it comes to kickers, but they’re among the best when it comes to return men and punters, the latter not having much competition.

With an offense still expected to struggle, the Bears will desperately need this third phase to be productive.


Kicker

1. Detroit

2. Green Bay

3. Minnesota

4. Chicago

While he’s 35 and coming off of a bit of an off year, Matt Prater’s ability to make kicks from basically anywhere puts him atop this list. Mason Crosby is coming off of a career year, but entered the season fighting for his job. His made field goal percentage seems likely to dip back down into the low-80s Dan Bailey also had to earn his job in camp, but he did so and missed just two kicks. He was three-for-three on 50-plus yarders.

The Bears still need to keep an eye out for a replacement for Eddy Pineiro, who not only had the worst field goal percentage in the division last year, but had maybe the easiest job with just nine field goals beyond 40 yards. He missed four of them.


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Combine Focus: A Deeper Dive into the Bears Need for Speed

| February 27th, 2020

The NFL gathers this week in Indianapolis for the NFL Combine (or Underwear Olympics, as Jeff prefers to call them), when fans throw out years of game film and focus instead on numbers from a few tests done without pads on watch eagerly to see how well their favorite players perform in a number of drills testing athleticism.

No drill is more popular than the 40 yard dash, the purest measure of straight line speed that we have. While results of these few seconds often get over-weighted, speed is lethal in the NFL, and one of the (many) problems with Chicago’s offense is that they don’t have enough of it among their skill position players – RBs, TEs, and WRs. To better illustrate that, let’s dig into the numbers.


What Counts as Fast?

To start with, let’s figure out what average speed looks like in the NFL.

Defining this is more difficult than you might imagine, because getting an average first requires defining a sample.

I was able to find two different studies that did this, with different samples and thus different results.

  • The first is MockDraftable, which provides the average for all Combine times at every position since 1999. However, not all players at the Combine end up playing in the NFL, and some not at the Combine do.
  • The 2nd study by Topher Doll looked at all players who appeared in at least 5 NFL games since 2000 and found, unsurprisingly, faster averages nearly across the board than just plain Combine averages.

The table below shows the average 40 time for running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends for each study.

As we can see, those are quite a bit different. Since the Doll study is based on players who actually made it to the NFL, I think that’s probably a better reference value to use as average speed for a position.


Chicago’s Speed

Now let’s look at the 40 times for every player who recorded a carry or target for Chicago in 2019.

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Least Explosive Team in the NFL, or the Story of the 2019 Chicago Bears

| February 4th, 2020

I’ve been working my way through the Bears’ 2019 performance to see what changed from 2018 that caused them to slip from 12-4 to 8-8. Today, I want to look at explosive plays, which I found last season have a strong correlation to overall offensive performance.

There are a variety of definitions for explosive plays depending on who you ask, so I want to clarify I’m using parameters laid out by ESPN NFL Matchup, which counts any run that gains 15+ yards or pass that gains 20+ yards as explosive. Let’s start with a preliminary look at how the Bears did in 2019 relative to the rest of the NFL. All data is from Pro Football Reference, with explosive play information coming from the Game Play Finder. Pass percentages were calculated including sacks and pass attempts as pass plays.



That’s ugly.

If you want to compare to 2018, the Bears slipped across the board. They had 71 explosive plays in 2018, with explosive rates of 7% overall, 5.3% on runs, and 8.4% on passes. All of those numbers in 2018 were slightly below average, ranging from 18th to 21st in the league, while they are all bottom 2 in 2019.

So what happened to cause such a slump? Like I’ve done when evaluating both the running and passing games, I want to break down what it looks like for individual Bears players and/or position groups from season to season. That information is shown in the table below, with all cells formatted by 2018 / 2019 data. (I’ll note the pass rates are a bit higher for pass catchers than QBs because they are only out of targets and exclude sacks and throwaways.)


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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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Bears at the Bye: Offense

| October 14th, 2019

With five games under the belt, the Bears are roughly 1/3 of the way through the season. Let’s check in on how they’re doing, starting with the offense.


Explosive Plays

I wrote this offseason about the importance of explosive plays (passes of 20+ yards or runs of 15+ yards) to an offense’s overall success, finding there is a very strong correlation between explosive plays and points scored. Chicago’s offense produced explosive plays at a slightly below-average rate in 2018, and I believed they were poised to improve dramatically in that category this year, and thus improve overall as an offense.

So far, the exact opposite has happened, as you can see in the table below.

The Bears have turned into one of the least explosive offenses in the NFL. They currently have 11 explosive passes and 2 explosive runs, and their current explosive rates would have ranked 31st and 32nd of 32 NFL teams in 2018 (I didn’t have time to compile the numbers for everybody in 2019 so far).

The run game is particularly egregious, as the lowest mark in the NFL last year was 3.1%. 1.7% is not even in the same ballpark. The Bears are 20th in average yards per carry before contact and 29th in yards/carry after contact, but I’m inclined to blame the offensive line more than the runners. Most of the time first contact seems to come not from one player in space, which might give the runner a chance to break a tackle and keep going, but with multiple front 7 players hitting the RB at the same time. It’s worth noting that the Bears’ running backs haven’t been great either though; Player Profiler ranks David Montgomery 36th among running backs in juke rate (evaded/broken tackles per carry), while Tarik Cohen is 55th. In Montgomery’s defense, he is 9th in the NFL in broken tackles per carry, according to Pro Football Reference.

I wrote this offseason that getting rid of Jordan Howard would help Chicago’s run game be more explosive, but so far they’re producing explosive plays on the ground at less than half the rate they did last year. Part of the problem is that Tarik Cohen and Mitchell Trubisky – who combined for 14 explosive runs on 167 carries last year, have no explosive runs so far this year, but David Montgomery only has 1 in his 69 attempts, and that’s far worse than Howard’s rate of 1 every 25 carries last year (which was already one of the worst marks in the NFL).

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In Appreciation of Tarik Cohen

| June 17th, 2019

Tarik Cohen followed up a solid rookie campaign with a really good sophomore season in 2018. Despite playing less than half of the available offensive snaps and getting fewer than 100 carries and 200 total touches, he finished with 1,169 yards from scrimmage, scored 8 touchdowns, and was one of the most explosive players in the NFL. For good measure, he was also a 1st team All Pro as a punt returner after leading the NFL in punt return yards and finishing 5th in yards per return.

Despite all of this, I think Cohen’s limited snaps and touches keep people from appreciating just how valuable he is to the offense. Cohen’s diminutive stature keeps him from being a conventional lead running back, but he still has a substantial impact on offensive production.

And there are actual numbers to back it up. The graph below shows the relationship between the total number of touches (carries or pass targets) that Cohen gets and how many points the offense scores. In order to account for different numbers of snaps in games, I looked at Cohen touches out of total snaps for that game. So if he got 10 carries + targets and the offense played 20 snaps, 50% of the plays went to Cohen.



There’s a pretty clear trend where the offense scores more points when more plays run through Cohen. We see that anecdotally as well, as the Bears scored 27 or more offensive points all 5 times Cohen was involved in 14+ plays in a game, and only 1 time in the other 12 games (including playoffs). An R2 value of 0.65 gives a strong number to support this correlation (a value of 0 would mean there is no relationship, while 1 would mean the relationship is perfectly linear).

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Mathematical Proof the Bears Need More Explosive Plays on Offense

| March 4th, 2019

I recently ran across this Tweet from NFL Matchup on ESPN – a terrific account you should definitely follow on Twitter if you want to be a better educated football fan. It got me thinking about Chicago’s offense and explosive plays.

Seeing as I’ve already written about Mitchell Trubisky’s struggles throwing the ball deep and Jordan Howard’s lack of explosive runs, I figured the Bears probably ranked towards the low end in this area. Using Pro Football Reference’s fantastic Game Play Finder, I was able to track these stats for every team in 2018 (full data here, slight discrepancies for the 17 teams shown in Tweet above, but all were within 1 or 2 plays).

As you can see in the table below, the Bears did indeed not do very well when it came to explosive plays.

We can see here that the Bears were slightly below average in every category, meaning there is need for improvement in explosive plays across the board. I’ll also note that percentages are calculated simply: (explosive plays/total plays)100; I figured this might be a useful metric since there is a some difference in how many plays teams run, especially when you split it up into run and pass plays.


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Week 13: Bears at Giants Game Preview, Volume II

| November 30th, 2018

Should the Bears win? Absolutely. Will they? The game preview continues…


Why the Bears Win

  • Khalil Mack and the pass rush should dominate a Giants’ offensive line that has already allowed 38 sacks. That means forcing Eli Manning into quick, hurried decisions and that usually means turnovers. The Giants can’t beat the Bears Sunday if they don’t win the turnover battle. And they’re not going to win the turnover battle.
  • Jordan Howard. No, I don’t think Matt Nagy is going to suddenly turn into Marty Schottenheimer and give Howard 28 carries. But this New Jersey defense likes to head for the exits a few ticks early at times. And with the forecast calling for rain, limiting the passing attacks, Howard should be able to dominate one of the league’s worst rushing defenses.
  • Third Down. The Giants, once you remove garbage time drives, are one of the worst third-down conversion offenses in the league. Hell, even if you keep the garbage time snaps they are still pretty bad. The Bears make opponents execute long drives to score touchdowns. Long drives mean executing on third down. The Giants don’t do that well.

Why They Don’t

  • Tackling. As strange as it sounds, this basic fundamental (or lack thereof) is not without precedent. If the Bears had tackled well in Miami they’d be sitting at 9-2 and threatening the top of the conference for a bye week in the postseason. Saquon Barkley and Odell Beckham are tough men to tackle. If the Bears are not fundamentally sound they’ll be staring at the backs of their jerseys.
  • Chase Daniel is still a backup quarterback and backup quarterbacks are not expected to win back-to-back road games. Would anybody be surprised if Daniel struggled in the Meadowlands? He’s played three games of note in his 9-year career. Why would anything he does surprise anyone?

Tarik Cohen Audio of the Week

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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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A Dominant Defense: Bears Beat Seahawks on Monday Night Football

| September 18th, 2018

The offense is a work-in-progress. The defense is the most exciting unit the Bears have fielded since 2006. The Bears evened their season record at 1-1 and quieted some of their Week One demons. Here’s a rapid fire recap of Monday night’s events.

  • Here’s how I’d summarize Mitch Trubisky’s evening: he’s not there yet. He’s not fully comfortable in the offense. He’s not processing his progressions quickly or trusting his protection. He’s also missing a few touch passes down the field. (Basically throwing straight heat.) But these are the trials and tribulations of a young quarterback, especially one that has seen his system flipped on its head from year one to year two.

  • But there are so many promising moments that it’s not hard to be optimistic about his development. The sideline floater to Cohen under duress:


  • The rolling left dart to Miller for a touchdown:

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