Bears at the Bye: Examining the Trends of Matt Nagy’s Offense

| October 8th, 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.

Down & Distance

Let’s start by looking at what they’re doing in different down and distance situations. All statistics come from the NFL Game Statistics and Information System unless otherwise noted.

First Down

The offense has been extremely balanced on 1st down so far, with exactly 58 runs and 58 passing plays (passes, sacks, or scrambles).

The passing game has thrived with an average of 7.8 yards per play. According to Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Finder, Mitchell Trubisky is completing 69% of his passes on 1st down, with 6 TD, 2 INT, and a 115.9 passer rating.

The running game, on the other hand, has been extremely ineffective, averaging only 3.0 yards per carry. Most of the running attempts (34) have come from Jordan Howard, who is averaging 3.2 yards per carry, but Tarik Cohen also has 17 carries at only 2.9 yards per clip. It would appear the Bears are either making it obvious when they’re going to run or defenses are worrying about stopping the run first to make Trubisky beat them.

Second 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.

Here we start to see small sample sizes becoming a problem, as there’s simply not too much you can learn from 8 plays on 2nd and short. Still, overall we can see that the run game is doing better on 2nd down than 1st, which to me implies the Bears are doing a better job of keeping the defense guessing.

The only spot where the offense has really struggled on 2nd down seems to be 2nd and medium (3-6 yards), but that’s looking at a sample of 10 passing plays, so it’s hard to say if it’s a trend or just a few random bad plays.

In general, the 2nd down offense has been pretty good, which has set them up nicely on 3rd downs. Let’s take a look at those now.

Third/Fourth 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.

The first thing I notice is that the Bears have generally done a good job of avoiding third and long situations. Roughly 1/3 of their plays are 3rd and short (1-2 yards), 1/3 are 3rd and medium (3-6 yards), and 1/3 are 3rd and long (7+ yards). Last year, 55% of their 3rd down plays came needing 7+ yards to get a 1st down, and only 17% came on 3rd and short.

Overall, the Bears are converting on 41.2% of their 1st downs, which is 14th in the NFL, so average to slightly above average. That’s pretty good for an offense that struggled in 3 of the first 4 games. Staying in manageable situations has helped them out quite a bit in that regard.

One area where I’d like to see the Bears improve is converting on 3rd and medium. They really should be picking up 1st downs more often than they are there. Even last year’s offense converted half the time in those situations.

Formation Trends

Now let’s look at how the Bears’ offense has utilized different formations.

Shotgun vs. Under Center

We’ll start by looking at where the quarterback lines up. These stats all come from NFL Savant unless otherwise noted.

The Bears have largely been shotgun-based, with just over 75% of their plays coming out of shotgun. This is in line with the Andy Reid offense that Matt Nagy brought over from Kansas City; Reid’s Chiefs teams have been 70-75% out of the shotgun in the last few years.

What’s troubling to me is how predictable the offense can be out of shotgun vs. under center. The table below illustrates what I mean. YPA = yards per attempt.

Out of shotgun, they run it only 28% of the time, and under center that jumps to 71%. I think that is too lopsided, and thus it is not surprising that they’re more effective when they do what the defense doesn’t expect and run out of shotgun or pass from under center. A few caveats to that:

  • Reid’s Chiefs teams have had a similar shotgun/under center run discrepancy the last few years, and still been plenty effective.
  • The low yards per carry under center might be partially due to largely doing that in short-yardage situations, where a 2 or 3 yard run is exactly what you’re looking for.

Still, I think a bit more balance in both formations would be good for the offense as a whole. In 2016 the Bears ran it 33% of the time out of shotgun and 49% of the time under center, and that was the most efficient rushing attack the Bears have had in recent years.

It’s also worth noting that this ratio got better in the Tampa Bay game, when Chicago’s offense looked the best it has by far. In that game they ran it 38% of the time out of shotgun, and were extremely effective both running (5.1 yards per carry) and passing (11.6 yards per attempt) out of that formation. We can’t say that correlation equals causation here – two other factors that could have contributed were playing Tarik Cohen more and/or Tampa’s defense just being awful – but I would like to see them have more shotgun runs going forward.

Personnel Groupings

Now I want to take a look at what personnel groupings Chicago’s offense has lined up in. This especially focuses on how many RB, TE, and WR are on the field, because there’s almost always 5 OL and 1 QB, but the combination of Rb, TE, and WR that makes up the other 5 positions can change.

The Bears have stuck almost exclusively to three formations, and the table below shows some information about how frequently and how effectively they’ve been utilized. All data is from Sharp Football.

I should note that 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:

  • The Bears have done a decent job of maintaining run/pass balance in all three formations. They never get too crazily lopsided in run/pass ratio, and if anything their most pass-heavy formation is one with two running backs on the field, when defenses might be expecting the run.
  • They’ve run most of their plays with three WRs, which is the most common formation around the NFL. In fact, the NFL average is to have 76% of plays run out of this formation, so the Bears are a bit low in that category. But it’s been their least successful formation, matching with it being the least successful passing formation in the league. If I had to guess, it’s because defenses are spending most of their time preparing to handle this alignment since teams are spending most of their time with these players on the field. There might be an inefficiency to exploit by going to more looks with other personnel.
  • The Bears in particular might want to consider more looks with two TE or two RBs going forward. It just seems to fit their personnel better given that they have two very talented players at running back and tight end (at least once Adam Shaheen is back).
  • Looking specifically at the formation with two running backs, the extremely high success numbers are probably more of a small sample size than anything. Some of those are undoubtedly with Howard or Cohen at halfback and Michael Burton at fullback, but I’d like to see more of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen on the field together. I’ll be looking in-depth at how those two have been used in an article tomorrow, and will have more to say on this subject then.

Lessons Learned

So what did we learn in this article? If you’re not a fan of wading through all the numbers presented above, here are my three main takeaways:

  • The Bears have done a good job of staying balanced in down/distance situations, which is helping them stay ahead of the chains.
  • They need to run it more out of shotgun and pass it more under center to be less predictable and therefore more efficient in both settings.
  • They should look at running more plays with a 2nd RB or TE on the field instead of a 3rd WR.

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