Data Entry: Self-Scouting Chicago’s Play-Calling Tendencies

| November 7th, 2017

On to play-calling tendencies.

There have been many, many complaints voiced about Chicago’s offensive play-calling this year, especially since Mitchell Trubisky took over at quarterback. With that in mind, I’m going to look at trends by down and distance in those 4 games. All statistics come courtesy of the fantastic NFL play finder from Pro Football Reference.

1st down

This should surprise absolutely nobody, but the Bears have been comically imbalanced on 1st down since Mitchell Trubisky started playing. They’ve had 95 first downs and called runs on 68 of them, good for 72% of the time (if you look only at the 1st 3 quarters, when game situations don’t impact calls as much, those numbers change to 54 runs on 70 plays, running 77% of the time).

Despite the predictability, they’ve actually been fairly successful running on average, picking up 4.5 yards per attempt, though it’s worth noting that drops to 3.0 when you remove two Jordan Howard runs of 50+ yards. 12 of those runs (18%) have lost yardage, and 20 gained 1 yard or less (29%). This has left the Bears consistently behind the chains, a problem that we’ll see compound on 2nd and 3rd down.

On the rare occasions the Bears did pass, good things tended to happen. Between passes, sacks, and scrambles, the Bears averaged 7.8 yards per play on these 27 plays, though it’s worth noting that is also skewed in the positive direction by a few big plays. Still, 10 of these (37%) went for 8 yard gains or more, which puts the offense well ahead of the chains. Part of that success undoubtedly comes from catching defenses off guard, but it would be nice to see them gain a little more balance on 1st down to hopefully continue keeping defenses from honing in on the run too much.

2nd down

When it comes to 2nd down, context is needed. A 3 yard gain is great on 2nd and 2, pretty good on 2nd and 5, and awful on 2nd and 10. With that in mind, I split the data into 4 groups based on the distance required to get a 1st down. The table below shows the results.

Uggh, that is hideously ugly.

First, just look at the run/pass splits. The Bears are basically running if it’s 2nd and 10 or less and throwing if it’s 2nd and 11+. Given that predictability, it’s hardly surprising that the offense is being comically ineffective on 2nd down.

I really don’t have any more complicated analysis than that. The predictability on 2nd down is stifling the offense. There is no context when they get any sort of balance between the pass and run, which makes it too easy for defenses to figure out what’s coming. It should be noted that these are all small sample sizes, but overall it’s just ugly.

3rd and 4th down

I grouped 3rd and 4th down together because the 4th down sample size was too small to do on its own, and on both downs the objective is the same: pick up a 1st down. Because of that, I ignored yards per play, and just focused on how often they met that objective and moved the chains.

And you thought 2nd down was ugly.

Here’s the first thing to notice: look at how often the Bears end up in 3rd and long because of the poor play calling on 1st and 2nd down. They have had 3rd or 4th and short only 4 times in Trubisky’s 4 games, while more than 2/3 of their 3rd or 4th down plays have come needing 7 or more yards to pick up the first down.

That sets the offense up to fail, and it’s unsurprising to see that they have failed indeed. I actually want to highlight how (relatively) effective the offense has been in these difficult situations. They have picked up 11 1st downs on 35 3rd and long plays, a 31% clip that would actually not rank last in the NFL for 3rd down conversions including all plays.

Of course, the Bears have been hideously ineffective on 3rd and short or medium situations, picking up only 6 1st downs on those 17 plays (35%). There should be a much bigger difference in efficiency between those two groupings. Once again, it’s worth noting that these are small sample sizes, and it might spread out over time as we get more data.

Once again, you can look at imbalance in play calling, though it’s a bit more understandable here given that you generally need to throw to pick up a 1st down if you need more than 3 or 4 yards. Still, it would be nice to see the Bears run a little more often (perhaps out of shotgun after spreading the defense out) on 3rd and 3-4. Right now, teams basically know that a pass is coming on 3rd down unless Chicago miraculously gets into 3rd and short or decides to run a draw and punt.

Thus it’s unsurprising that teams are ready for it when the Bears do pass on 3rd down, making it difficult to do so successfully. Trubisky has either been sacked (16%) or forced to scramble (18%) on more than 1/3 of his 3rd down dropbacks, and his completion percentage when he does throw on 3rd down is only 50%. You can’t consistently put any offense in 3rd and long and expect success, much less an offense with a rookie quarterback and poor collection of pass targets.

Lessons learned

Chicago’s offense is agonizingly predictable, rendering it comically ineffective. I don’t think this comes as a revelation to anybody, but I think it’s useful to see the numbers match what our eyes have told us. Out of the 9 data sets I highlighted above, there is only one where the Bears do not either run or pass at least 70% of the time. That comes on 3rd and 1-2 yards to go, which is a nice 50/50 split with a tiny sample size of 4. So for any situation except 3rd and short, opposing defenses know what the Bears are going to do at least 70% of the time, and that’s before you look at the predictability based on personnel groupings and how they line up.

What’s more, I’m fairly confident when I say that this predictability is coming directly from John Fox rather than offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. I say that because it was not an issue last year when I did the same breakdowns of Loggains’ play calling. Despite a MASH unit of offensive linemen, 3 different quarterbacks, and a rotating cast of (mostly inept) wide receivers, he maintained a decent balance in most situations and kept an offense performing above its talent level.

Chicago’s current offensive approach is simply not a valid one. John Fox either needs to let Dowell Loggains go to work or Ryan Pace needs to tell Fox to pack his bags.

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