Bears at the Mini-Bye Volume II: Offensive Personnel Usage

| October 14th, 2020

I already looked at a variety of statistics for the offense, including QB performance, run game woes, and explosive plays. Today I want to explore how the Bears are deploying their skill position players, using lineup data from the NFL Game Statistics Information System. This tracks how many plays the Bears have played with different combination of 11 offensive players, and splits the data into runs and passes, with yards gained for each. Combing through this data can provide valuable insights into how the Bears are deploying their personnel, and what packages have been most and least effective.

Tight Ends

The Bears completely overhauled this position in the offseason, following a disastrous 2019 campaign in which no player even hit 100 receiving yards. They gave Jimmy Graham a big contract, spent their 1st pick (43rd overall) on Cole Kmet, and brought in veteran journeyman Demetrius Harris.

I want to start by looking at Cole Kmet, who has been very quiet so far as a rookie despite receiving a good bit of training camp hype. Through five games, Kmet has played 102 snaps, seen 3 pass targets, and caught 1 ball for 12 yards. This is hugely disappointing, and worrisome for his future; when I looked at rookie seasons for TEs drafted in the 2nd round this offseason, I found that tight ends who are going to be good are typically involved in the offense right away. The only tight ends drafted in the 2nd round over the last 10 years to receive fewer than 30 targets in their rookie seasons are Vance McDonald, Adam Shaheen, Gavin Escobar, Drew Sample, and Troy Niklas. Of those, only Vance McDonald has done anything in the NFL. Kmet is currently on pace for 10 targets.

It’s fair to argue a rookie should see their production increase as the season wears on, so I looked at all 19 players in that study through the first five games of their rookie season. You can see the full list here, but Kmet has the 3rd fewest targets, least amount of catches, and the least number of yards through that time period. And for all of those categories, the bottom four (not including Kmet) are from the list of five names above. It’s early, but right now Kmet most closely resembles Troy Niklas and Adam Shaheen, which is very not good.

Because I was curious about Kmet, I split out lineups involving him vs. those who don’t, and also sorted by the number of tight ends on the field. The results, as you can see below, are certainly illuminating.

A few thoughts:

  • It would appear that the offense is consistently worse with Kmet on the field than off it. This is true for both 1 TE and 2 TE sets that do and do not include the rookie, and 3 TE sets, which all feature the rookie, have struggled. The sample sizes with Kmet are all pretty small, which keeps this from being an absolute conclusion, but that is a really bad look for Kmet.
  • One of the issues with Kmet might be that they’re using him as a tell for run plays. They run it more than 30% of the time more often when he’s on the field than off for both 1 TE and 2 TE sets. Either they really like his run blocking or they don’t trust him in the pass game.
  • 2 TE looks without Kmet – which are mostly Jimmy Graham and Demetrius Harris – have been remarkably effective so far this year. It’s possible that’s a small sample size thing, but I’d like to see more of this to find out if it’s real or not.
  • The Bears almost never run it with 1 TE on the field, but they’re very effective running it with 1 TE on the field (as long as that TE is not Kmet). Again, it’s a fairly small sample size (35 runs for 252 yards), but I’d like to see them try it more to see if the success can continue.
  • Chicago obviously wants to pass it out of 3 TE a decent amount of the time, as more than half of their plays from this expected running formation have been passes. I’m guessing the thought process is that they’ll catch the defense off guard, but it doesn’t really seem to be working. Factor in difficulties when they do run, and this is probably a lineup that we shouldn’t be seeing as often as we have been. You can’t even blame the low yardage totals on game situations; if they were consistently having successful short yardage plays, you’d see that reflected in how often they pick up a 1st down.

Running Backs

Let’s move now to the running backs. The Bears have deployed 3 main runners so far this year, so I split up usage accordingly in the table below.

A few thoughts:

  • Many of the 2 RB together snaps feature one of the main 3 with Ryan Nall serving as an H-back. Some similar sets show up in the 3 TE grouping above as well, with Eric Saubert playing the lead blocker role. The Bears’ offense is consistently not good when they try to “go big” so far this year, so it’s probably something we should see less of going forward.
  • After Tarik Cohen went down with an injury, David Montgomery pretty much absorbed all of his snaps. Cordarrelle Patterson has seen his snap counts stay consistent at between 10 and 15 snaps/game, while Montgomery saw his play time jump from 50-60% to over 80% of the offensive snaps the last 2 weeks. Based on the data here, I might be interested in seeing a bit more of Patterson. It’s a small sample size, but one that’s intriguing enough to make me want to bump him up to 20 snaps/game and see if it continues.
  • One thing I wrote about last offseason that was a problem was that the Bears rotated their running backs in an extremely predictable way in 2019. David Montgomery played in run-heavy situations, while Tarik Cohen played in pass-heavy spots. Even before Cohen got hurt, that was not the case this year, as you can see in the similar rate of running plays for when all 3 running backs are on the field. That’s a very good thing, and needs to continue.

Wide Receivers

Finally, let’s move on to wide receivers, where I want to make a quick note about rookie Darnell Mooney before mainly focusing on Anthony Miller and Javon Wims. I said after week 1 that Chicago’s WR usage indicated Darnell Mooney was being groomed to take over the WR2 role. Sure enough, Mooney has played at least 60% of the offensive snaps in every game since then. He’ll likely end up playing comparable snaps to Allen Robinson (roughly 80-85%) in each game before too long. That’s what Taylor Gabriel did in 2018, and Mooney is pretty much stepping into that role.

Some might take Mooney’s ascension as an indictment on 3rd year WR Anthony Miller, but the two WRs actually play different positions. Miller continues to play in only 3 WR sets; 157 of his 165 snaps this year have come with 3 WR on the field. Mooney wasn’t competing with Miller for time, but instead he beat out Javon Wims and Ted Ginn for snaps as the 2nd outside WR.

More, the Bears clearly don’t trust Miller as a run blocker. In 3 WR sets, the Bears run it only 24% of the time when Miller is on the field and 43% of the time when he is off of it. This continues a trend from 2019 that makes the offense more predictable. In the 37 runs with Miller as 1 of 3 WR on the field, the Bears have averaged 4.8 yards/attempt, so it’s not like he’s destroying their run game. I’d like to see them get more balanced with Miller on the field.

The Bears may not like Anthony Miller as a run blocker, but they sure do seem to love Javon Wims for that. As you can see in the table below, the Bears are far more likely to run the ball when Wims is on the field than when he’s not.

The Bears clearly value Wims’ run blocking, which should keep some sort of role for him going forward even as Darnell Mooney continues to eat into his snaps.

Lessons Learned

I’ll be back tomorrow with a look at advanced defensive statistics and playoff odds, but for now, here are what I view as the main takeaways from today:

  • The Bears need to stop trying to make Cole Kmet happen, because it’s hurting the offense right now. Stick to Jimmy Graham and Demetrius Harris as the TEs.
  • In general, they need fewer jumbo sets with 3 TEs or 2 RBs. Stick to 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) and 12 (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) personnel groupings.
  • Chicago needs to run it more out of those 11 personnel groupings, which means being willing to run when Anthony Miller is in the game.
  • The Bears are doing a good job of avoiding predictable run/pass splits as they rotate through their RBs. However, they should try increasing Cordarrelle Patterson’s snaps at running back a little bit to see if the efficiency in that smaller sample size can continue.

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