Bears at the Mini-Bye Volume I: Offense

| October 13th, 2020

We’re five weeks in to a wild season in which we’ve already seen the Bears make a quarterback change and post three comeback wins from 13 or more points down. Since they’re on a mini-bye following their Thursday night victory over Tampa Bay, now is a good time to take a step back and see what we’ve learned so far.

Obligatory warnings:

  • These are still small sample sizes, especially given that each QB basically played 2.5 games. So think of any lessons learned here more as observations that are worth monitoring going forward than hard and fast conclusions.
  • Statistics for Bears are updated through 5 games, but all other teams only have 4 at the time of this writing, so NFL ranks may have changed a bit by the time this is published.

I have a lot I want to get to, so let’s dive right in.

Better Lucky Than Good

The Bears may be 4-1, but I don’t think anybody would argue they have played well so far this year (including Matt Nagy). As you can see from the pie chart below, which shows the % of offensive snaps the Bears have taken in a variety of score situations, they have actually spent the majority of the season trailing.

They’ve taken 2/3 of their offensive snaps while trailing (33% by 2 or more scores) and only 19% with a lead. To somehow go from that to 4 wins in 5 games is remarkable, but it should not be expected to continue going forward. The Bears need to play better if they want to keep winning games. The good news is that they started to look better in week 5; the defense in the 2nd half looked the best it had since week 4 of the 2019 season, and the offense was something approaching competent for the last 40 or so minutes of the game.

QB Comparison

The Bears switched from Mitchell Trubisky to Nick Foles in the 2nd half of week 3, which means both QBs have actually played a similar amount of snaps so far this year (Foles is at 168, Trubisky 169). Let’s see how each performed. The table below shows stats for each passer, as well as the average for the entire NFL this year, broken up into deep and short throws (anything that travels 15+ yards in the air past the line of scrimmage is considered deep). YPA = yards per attempt.

A few thoughts:

  • Keep in mind that Nick Foles has played 2 of the best defenses in the NFL the last 2 weeks, while Trubisky played all of his snaps against 3 of the worst defenses in the league. Still, it’s hard to argue Foles has been better so far, at least on a statistical basis. He needs to play better going forward.

  • Both QBs threw it deep quite a bit compared to the NFL average, but neither have been very good at it. Trubisky was atrocious. Foles, while clearly better, has still been bad.
  • Foles has been really bad on the short stuff, at least in terms of yards gained. The completion percentage is right around NFL expectation, so I wonder if this is more of a reflection of the caliber of defenses faced than anything else. Time will tell.
  • It’s telling how the run/pass ratios have shifted with each quarterback. Foles has 117 dropbacks in 168 snaps (70%), while Trubisky had 93 dropbacks in 169 snaps (55%). Some of that might be from Foles facing 2 really good run defenses the last 2 weeks, but the Bears were pretty clearly trying to hide Trubisky early in the season by leaning heavily on the run game, and that has gone away under Foles.

Now let’s look at some advanced passing stats to see how their approach to playing the quarterback position has differed. The table below contains a variety of advanced statistics. A few notes about how I formatted it:

  • Columns in blue look at pass protection, tan highlights where and how they throw, and green examines how much help they get from their pass catchers.
  • How each stat compares to other NFL QBs is in parentheses.
  • Data is from Next Gen Stats (time to throw, air yards to sticks, aggressive throws) and Pro Football Reference (bad throw rate, YAC, drops, pocket time, pressure rate).
  • YAC = yards after completion.

That’s a lot of information to process. A few thoughts:

  • Foles and Trubisky are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to getting rid of the football. Trubisky kept holding it while looking for somebody down the field, while Foles gets it out in a hurry. That helps explain why Foles has a lower pressure rate despite having far less time in a clean pocket than Trubisky. This is also why Foles has taken fewer sacks (4 on 117 dropbacks compared to 7 on 93 dropbacks for Trubisky) despite facing better defenses.
  • Trubisky threw the ball deeper down the field – literally deeper than any other NFL QB so far this year – but that’s not necessarily a good thing given that we saw above how bad he was throwing deep. That gets reflected in Trubisky having the highest rate of “bad throws” of any NFL QB so far this year. Foles is around average in both target depth and rate of bad throws.
  • Both QBs lead the NFL in aggressive throws (into tight coverage). That’s probably because their 2 most targeted players – Jimmy Graham and Allen Robinson – are in the bottom 15% of separation according to Next Gen Stats. Graham and Robinson are both guys who are open even when they’re not open, and both QBs have been more than willing to give them a shot to make a contested catch.
  • Neither QB has had to worry about drops being a major issue, and both have struggled to get yards after the catch (YAC). This has been especially bad for Foles, and bears monitoring going forward. YAC wasn’t an issue for him in past stops, so hopefully that’s just because most of his passes have come against 2 of the top defenses in the NFL so far.

Explosive Plays

I wrote this offseason that the Bears needed to produce more explosive plays, which are hugely important to an offense’s overall production. After producing only 48 in 2019 (3.0/game), the Bears have 20 so far this year (4.0/game). The NFL average over the last 5 years is 4.4/game, so the Bears still aren’t looking great here, but they’re doing a lot better than 2019.

And there’s reason to believe they will improve as the season goes on. 15 of the Bears’ 20 explosive plays have come through the air, and Nick Foles has thrown for 11 of those. He actually had more in about 1.5 quarters against Atlanta than Trubisky did in the first 2.5 games. This is where Trubisky’s deep ball struggles really hurt Chicago, and Foles – while still not great – has been appreciably better in that area.

Explosive runs are a concern going forward, however. The Bears have five so far this year, and four of them are from players who are no longer playing (two from Tarik Cohen, who is out for the year, and two from Trubisky, who is benched). They actually haven’t picked up a single explosive run since Foles replaced Trubisky. Although that is certainly impacted by facing two excellent defenses the last two weeks, Chicago’s run game simply has to be better going forward.

Run Direction

One distinct change I’ve noticed since the Bears swapped their QBs is where they are running the ball. They were primarily an inside the tackles run team in 2019, but clearly switched to more outside zone early this year. In the last two weeks, it looked to me while watching live that they had switched back to running more inside the tackles, and the numbers back that up.

All three runners were mostly outside runners in the first three weeks, when Trubisky was the QB. Tarik Cohen got hurt in week three and hasn’t played since, while Cordarrelle Patterson has seen his usage stay about the same. David Montgomery, however, is now running inside more than out.

This is not necessarily a bad thing; the drop-off in efficiency is a far bigger concern, though again that’s likely driven at least partially by an increase in the caliber of defense faced. Still, I wonder if we’ll see outside runs pick up again going forward.

Lessons Learned

I’m 1400 words in, so that’s long enough for today. Stay tuned tomorrow, when I’ll take a look at some early personnel usage trends based on lineup data, and then I’ll have a quick look at advanced defensive statistics and playoff odds in a third article.

Here are the main takeaways from today:

  • The Bears need to stop playing from behind if they want to keep winning games.
  • Trubisky was benched for being awful throwing the ball deep, and thus not producing enough explosive plays.
  • Foles gets the ball out quick, but still pushes it down the field, but his deep passing performance needs to improve.
  • The run game has sputtered since Foles took over, which has corresponded to a shift back to more inside runs for David Montgomery. Time will tell how much of the difficulties are due to the QB change, the shift in run approach, or the caliber of defenses faced in the last two weeks.

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