Least Explosive Team in the NFL, or the Story of the 2019 Chicago Bears

| February 4th, 2020

I’ve been working my way through the Bears’ 2019 performance to see what changed from 2018 that caused them to slip from 12-4 to 8-8. Today, I want to look at explosive plays, which I found last season have a strong correlation to overall offensive performance.

There are a variety of definitions for explosive plays depending on who you ask, so I want to clarify I’m using parameters laid out by ESPN NFL Matchup, which counts any run that gains 15+ yards or pass that gains 20+ yards as explosive. Let’s start with a preliminary look at how the Bears did in 2019 relative to the rest of the NFL. All data is from Pro Football Reference, with explosive play information coming from the Game Play Finder. Pass percentages were calculated including sacks and pass attempts as pass plays.

That’s ugly.

If you want to compare to 2018, the Bears slipped across the board. They had 71 explosive plays in 2018, with explosive rates of 7% overall, 5.3% on runs, and 8.4% on passes. All of those numbers in 2018 were slightly below average, ranging from 18th to 21st in the league, while they are all bottom 2 in 2019.

So what happened to cause such a slump? Like I’ve done when evaluating both the running and passing games, I want to break down what it looks like for individual Bears players and/or position groups from season to season. That information is shown in the table below, with all cells formatted by 2018 / 2019 data. (I’ll note the pass rates are a bit higher for pass catchers than QBs because they are only out of targets and exclude sacks and throwaways.)

A few thoughts:

  • Let’s start with the run game, where Trubisky and Cohen both took a nosedive. This isn’t surprising, and matches their overall dip in rushing production from 2018 to 2019. Indeed, we’ll see that most of the trends here match the overall efficiency patterns I’ve examined over the last few weeks.
  • Last offseason I highlighted Jordan Howard’s lack of explosiveness as a serious issue for the offense, but David Montgomery certainly didn’t improve it. He wasn’t really less explosive either, though these numbers make it look like he was. Some places use 10 yard gains as the threshold for explosive runs. In that category, Howard had 18 in 2018 and Montgomery 16 in 2019 (for comparison, Trubisky and Cohen fell from 14/13 to 4, a similar fall as when using 15+ yards as the threshold). So it seems Montgomery randomly had most of his longer runs fall in the 10-14 yard range, but otherwise broke long runs at a similar rate to Howard (which, again, is way too low of a rate). Montgomery did add a few explosive plays as a pass catcher, but he needs to be more involved there for that impact to really be felt (2 explosive plays on 35 targets).
  • Percentages aren’t a great measure for the “other” group (the aggregation of role players) because sample sizes are small. They got more explosive runs (0 to 2) thanks to Cordarrelle Patterson, but fewer explosive passes (4 to 3) despite getting more targets (53 to 71). Like we saw with overall efficiency metrics, the dropoff in production here is puzzling considering the personnel were seemingly upgraded (mainly Josh Bellamy, Kevin White, and Taquan Mizzell to Cordarrelle Patterson, Javon Wims, and Riley Ridley).
  • The main wide receivers didn’t see much change in their explosive play production. Tarik Cohen and the tight ends did. Again, this matches what we’ve seen looking at all plays. Cohen took a step back and/or was misused in 2019, while Trey Burton’s injury crippled the tight end position due to a lack of suitable depth.

Explosive plays basically match what we saw in overall looks at the run and passing games. The main difference in the rushing attack came from Trubisky and Cohen, while the passing attack dropoff was largely driven by Cohen and tight ends. However, we are still able to see quarterback regression in fairly consistent production despite improved play from Miller and Robinson and a dip in production despite personnel improvement from the role players.

The biggest conclusion here that wasn’t explicitly highlighted in my earlier pieces is that the rushing attack has been consistently ineffective and unexplosive for two straight years. Given the personnel changes last offseason, the Bears blamed 2018 on Jordan Howard. Those issues continued in 2019, and now we’ve seen them change coaches. Here’s hoping those scheme changes – plus assumed offensive line upgrades coming in free agency and the draft – are able to fix the problem in 2020.

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