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.
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).
In the passing game, it’s basically Allen Robinson and then everybody else. Robinson accounts for 6 of the 11 explosive passes on 42 targets, while everybody else has 5 on 123. Tight ends have been completely inept, producing 0 explosive plays on 29 targets and averaging a paltry 5.5 yards/target. Part of this issue is Trubisky not throwing deep much (less than 15% of throws, compared to over 23% in 2018), but it’s also guys not making plays when given the chance. Tarik Cohen and Anthony Miller, for instance, both have at least 1 notable drop on a catchable deep pass.
I don’t know what exactly the fix is, but the Bears need to add a more explosive dimension to their offense. If you don’t produce explosive plays, then you need to consistently execute and avoid negative plays to move down the field, and this offense isn’t capable of doing that. They have 32 combined sacks + penalties, mistakes that are drive-killing if you can’t produce big plays to overcome them.
One of the reasons for the Bears’ offensive struggles has been the offensive line. I wrote this offseason that there was reason for optimism with this unit, but they have been terrible so far. As discussed above, the run blocking has been bad, and unfortunately the pass blocking hasn’t been any better. Kyle Long has the 2nd worst pass block win rate (a measure of how frequently you keep your man from pressuring the QB for 2.5 seconds after the snap) of any guard, and Bobby Massie is 10th worst among tackles. Add in Charles’ Leno’s unexpected struggles – he’s tied for the NFL lead with 4 holding penalties and giving up a pressure every 13 snaps, compared to a pressure every 20 snaps in 2018 (per PFF) – and 60% of the line is playing poorly. It’s telling when the 2 best performances by the offensive line came with Massie (Washington) and Long (Minnesota) missing the game.
So where do the Bears go from here? Honestly, I fully expect to hear that Kyle Long was put on IR sometime next week. He’s just not capable of moving the way he needs to anymore, which is a shame. He’s a great dude who gave his body playing for some terrible Bears teams, and by the time they got good again he couldn’t physically play at a high level anymore. Replacing Long with Ted Larsen (or maybe Rashaad Coward) should help.
I don’t think they can afford to bench Leno or Massie, as Cornelius Lucas doesn’t exactly inspire confidence as a swing tackle. They need to hope Massie plays better with a better guard next to him, and figure out how to help Leno get back on track. Leno’s struggles are the most puzzling to me, as he has gotten steadily better every year of his career before this bizarre downturn. He’s only 28 and has no injury history, so there is no reason to expect he won’t bounce back sooner or later. The Bears can only hope it happens quickly.
This entire offensive line save Long is locked in through at least 2020, so this will more or less be the unit for the next 2 years. They should be better than they are right now. The Bears should have to figure out how to make that “should” turn into reality.
Tarik Cohen is another key offensive player who should be performing better than he is. He’s been a complete nonfactor on offense so far this year with 37 rushing yards and 128 receiving yards through 5 games. That puts him on a 16 game pace for less than 150 rushing yards and 400 receiving yards, which would be his worst season in the NFL by a country mile.
The rushing can somewhat be accounted for by a lack of carries (17), but Cohen hasn’t done much on the ground when given the opportunity, as evidence by his 2.2 yards/carry mark. The run blocking admittedly has been poor, but he fumbled the 1st snap of the season when it looked like he had an easy 40 yard run in front of him, and slipped and fell with a wide open field in front of him in Washington.
In the passing game, Cohen has 31 targets, 2nd most on the team, but he’s not doing anything with them. He dropped a perfect pass from Daniel against Minnesota, and has otherwise mostly been used on underneath stuff that doesn’t really go anywhere. Cohen has been credited with 4 drops already this year after having only 1 all of 2018. He’s supposed to be Chicago’s 2nd biggest playmaker on offense, but instead has been irrelevant, and that needs to change.
Speaking of players who aren’t performing up to expectation, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky hasn’t exactly had a strong start to his season. His completion %, yards/attempt, TD/INT ratio, and passer rating are all miles below where they were in 2018. Let’s look at his advanced statistics, comparing them to different approaches he took during 2018, to see what’s going on.
As you can see from that table, early 2019 Trubisky has looked eerily similar to early 2018 Trubisky. He’s throwing fast and short, yet still into tight coverage quite often, and taking sacks at a high rate. As a result, he doesn’t throw a lot of interceptions, but doesn’t throw touchdowns either. It’s a highly inefficient “safe” approach that avoids turning the ball over but also keeps an offense from consistently moving down the field. This is a sign of a QB who’s not comfortable in the offense. If you’re going to intentionally be a game manager, do it like Trubisky did down the stretch last year, where you’re finding open guys underneath and still being efficient.
Trubisky’s legs have also all but disappeared as a weapon. He has only run the ball 5 times in 3 games after averaging about 5 carries per game in 2018. I don’t know if that’s due to how defenses are covering him or Trubisky being reluctant to run, but that’s an aspect of his game that is a threat, and he’s not using it.
If you want to argue in Trubisky’s favor, you can point to the offense around him. The offensive line is playing poorly, rendering the rushing attack obsolete, and guys like Tarik Cohen and Anthony Miller, who are supposed to be key playmakers, are struggling mightily. As DBB’s Andrew Dannehy pointed out, Pro Football Reference has him with the 2nd highest % of passes dropped this year and the 9th lowest rate of bad throws (though some of that is undoubtedly due to the incredibly short throws he is attempting). Nobody around him but Allen Robinson is playing well, which provides some context to his struggles, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that Trubisky isn’t playing well either.
Miller joins a long list of disappointing offensive players so far in 2019. Before something of a breakout game in week 5, he totaled only 8 targets, 4 receptions, and 28 yards in the 1st four weeks of the season. And even in week 5, when he had 7 targets, 4 receptions, and 52 yards, Miller had a drive-killing 3rd down drop, picked up a dumb penalty after Allen Robinson scored a touchdown, picked up another penalty on the ensuing kickoff, blew his coverage assignment to give up a 50 yard return on that same kickoff, and was in the wrong spot on the game-clinching interception (though Chase Daniel still never should have thrown that ball).
That combination of mistakes makes it a bit easier to understand why Miller is not seeing his involvement in the offense increase from year 1 to year 2. In fact, he’s seeing fewer targets now than he did in the middle of his rookie season. Bears coaches called him out publicly after the New York Giants game last year, and he saw his role in the offense diminish significantly down the stretch in 2018. That continued into 2019, until he finally had a heavily targeted game in week 5. He made one awesome play on a contested deep catch, but had many costly mistakes outside of that, which isn’t exactly a great way to earn your coach’s trust.
The problem with Miller seems to be twofold: he struggles learning the offense and freelances on his routes too much. When I attended the opening practice of training camp, I observed Miller not knowing the play on a few occasions, and others who were there throughout the next several weeks repeated that observation. That helps explain why Miller’s role didn’t change when Taylor Gabriel got hurt. Instead, Javon Wims stepped up as the 2nd starting WR, leaving Miller as a slot guy who only plays in 3 WR sets. It’s clear the Bears don’t trust him to know more of a role than that. In regards to freelancing on his routes, coaches commented about that being an issue last year, and again after the Oakland game.
Miller remains an incredibly talented player, and he is supposed to be very productive in this offense. But until he can be relied on to know where to go and get there consistently, he’s not going to reach his potential.
Basically nobody besides Allen Robinson has performed up to expectations for the Bears’ offense so far this year. As a result, they’ve been one of the worst offenses in the league. They need to figure out a way to get some of their other playmakers – notably Tarik Cohen, Anthony Miller, and David Montgomery – to make plays like they’re supposed to. In the rare instances when that has happened (2nd quarter against Washington, 3rd quarter against Oakland), Chicago’s offense has shown spurts of competence. That can’t just happen for 1 quarter every couple of games if the Bears want to make the playoffs, much less contend for a Super Bowl.