What Changed in the Rush Game: Volume II

| January 16th, 2020

Yesterday I dove into Chicago’s 2019 ground game to figure out where it all went wrong. There I found that the Bears missed Mitchell Trubisky’s legs, didn’t change how they used their 2 main running backs much, and saw the largest regression on runs outside of the tackles.

Today, I want to look a little more closely at directional running.

Let’s start by looking at yards per carry, which can be seen in the figure below. Bar height is proportional to yards per carry (ypc), numbers in parentheses are NFL rank out of 32 teams, and bars are color coded according to that. Green = top 10, red = bottom 10, yellow = middle 12.

A few thoughts:

  • I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the red all comes on the right side and the Bears had injury issues at right guard and right tackle this year. The yards/carry actually improved behind left tackle and left guard compared to 2018.
  • The numbers look even better up the middle and behind left guard when you look at runs after the Bears swapped Cody Whitehair and James Daniels back to their 2018 spots. After that, the Bears averaged a combined 4.7 yards/carry on runs to those areas.
  • Runs outside the tackles were fairly poor on both sides, which is new since 2018. I think this speaks more to the blocking of WRs and TEs than the offensive line. The Bears got fewer fewer snaps from Trey Burton, Josh Bellamy, Kevin White, and Taylor Gabriel in 2019, and it appears the young players who took those snaps may have struggled in run blocking.

Now I want to look at this from another perspective using success rate, which can generally be thought of as a measure of staying ahead of the chains. A run is considered successful if it:

  • Picks up 40% of the yardage needed on 1st down
  • Picks up 60% of the yardage needed on 2nd down
  • Picks up 100% of the yardage needed on 3rd or 4th down

This is a useful metric because it accounts for down and distance situations. A 2 yard run on 3rd and 1 hurts your rushing average but is actually a good play. Sharp Football tracks success rate by run direction, so let’s take a look at Chicago’s chart for 2019. The numbers on the top indicate the success rate for each zone, while the bottom numbers show how that compares to the NFL average.

A few thoughts:

  • Nothing here really changes from the yards/carry chart above. The Bears were bad outside the tackles, good to the left inside (better than 2018, in fact), and bad to the right.
  • Again we see this looking better on the left after the Whitehair/Daniels swap in week 10. Runs behind left guard improved to 13% above league average, while runs behind the center improved to 1% above league average.
  • When we look only at the games in which Bobby Massie was active, running on the right side doesn’t get any better. He definitely had a down year in 2019 and needs to rebound in 2020 (his contract dictates that he won’t be replaced).
  • It’s a small sample size (4 games), but running behind right guard went from bad (5% below league average) to worse (10% below league average) after Kyle Long was put on IR. I am fairly confident in saying the Bears’ starting right guard for next year is not currently on the roster.

In 2018, the Bears were good running outside the tackles and bad inside. They moved on from Howard – who had 71% of their inside carries – in an effort to fix that deficiency, and it worked, at least in areas where their offensive line was healthy. However, personnel changeover at WR and TE seems to have hampered their outside running, and injuries on the right side of the offensive line revealed a glaring lack of depth.

More changes are coming this offseason to try and fix this new problem. They have already replaced the coaches who were primarily responsible for the run game, and general manager Ryan Pace made it clear in his end of season press conference that personnel upgrades will be made on the offensive line and at tight end this offseason. I actually don’t think they’ll change over their wide receiver personnel all that much, so improvement there will have to come from young WRs Anthony Miller, Javon Wims, and Riley Ridley working hard to improve their run blocking this offseason.

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