Deja Vu: Bears Need to Be More Explosive

| February 16th, 2021

I’ve been tracking explosive plays for a few years now because they have a strong relationship to points scored. To put it simply, good offenses produce plenty of big plays. Let’s look at how Chicago did in this department in last season.

Basic Overview

The table below shows how many explosive passes, runs, and total plays the Bears produced in 2020, as well as how those results ranked compared to the rest of the NFL. Explosive passes are those that gain 20+ yards, while explosive runs gained 15+ yards. All data is from Pro Football Reference, and explosive play data is from the Game Play Finder.

A few thoughts:

  • If these results look awfully familiar, it’s because they are. The Bears were the least explosive team in the NFL in 2019 with 49 explosive plays. If you want to look on the bright side, this year actually showed a slight improvement, though they were still one of the least explosive offenses in the league.
  • You can view the full results here, but Chicago’s totals put them right in line with teams like the Washington Football Team, Giants, Jets, and Bengals. Yuck.
  • I found last offseason that there is very little year-to-year correlation for explosive plays. Based on this, you could argue that finishing horribly in this category 2 years in a row is random bad luck, but I’m more inclined to think it’s an indictment on the personnel and/or scheme.

Explosive Players

I also want to look briefly at who produced the explosive plays. I want to caution that I’ve found there is very little year-over-year consistency in these results, so a player having an explosive or non-explosive 2020 doesn’t necessarily guarantee it will repeat in 2021.

Let’s start with a look at the quarterbacks, and I want to note that passes here include sacks for a more accurate reflection of total pass plays.

A few thoughts:

  • Foles was slightly better than Trubisky at producing explosive plays through the air, but neither was good.
  • If you’re somehow still on the Trubisky bandwagon, I’ll note here that he faced the easiest slate of pass defenses in the NFL by a fairly wide margin and still put up these totals. If you think he’s a good NFL QB, I have some lovely oceanfront property in Nebraska to sell you.
  • Upgrading the QB is the biggest thing the Bears can do to improve this offseason. The five most explosive teams in the NFL last year were quarterbacked by Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, and Tom Brady. The 5 least explosive teams in the NFL, meanwhile were quarterbacked by Dwayne Haskins/Alex Smith/Kyle Allen, Nick Foles/Mitchell Trubisky, Daniel Jones, Sam Darnold, and Joe Burrow/Brandon Allen. If you don’t have a QB, you don’t have a chance.

Now let’s look at the players catching the passes. The NFL averages here only include targets, not sacks, which is why the numbers are different than from QBs above.

A few thoughts:

  • Allen Robinson had a great 2020, but he was plenty solid here in both 2018 and 2019 as well. He produced an explosive catch every 8.5 targets in each of those years, which is right in line with the NFL average for WRs of 1 in 9 targets.
  • Anthony Miller, on the other hand, saw a dip in explosive production in 2020. He was right around NFL average for WRs in both 2018 and 2019, but 2020 was easily the worst season of his career. It’s reasonable to think he might bounce back in 2021 if given the chance.
  • Tight ends as a whole produce one explosive target every 11 pass targets, a number that Jimmy Graham and Cole Kmet did not come close to matching. Graham is likely cut, but Kmet is worrisome to me. A big part of this is how he was used; Kmet’s average target was only 6.2 yards past the line of scrimmage, which was the 7th shortest distance in the Next Gen Stats database (RBs not included). His average catch was only 3.8 yards past the line of scrimmage, which is the 3rd shortest mark for any non-RB per Pro Football Reference. Until Kmet proves he can do more than catch dump-offs, his value to the Bears will be extremely limited.
  • Running backs typically produce explosive catches on 1 in every 18 targets, so Montgomery was at about half that rate. This is because he’s nothing more than a dump-off option. Only 42 of his 438 receiving yards were before the catch. He’s good with the ball in his hands (7.3 yards after the catch/catch, 17th in the NFL), but you’re not going to have many explosive plays when your average catch comes within a yard of the line of scrimmage.
  • The role players didn’t produce many explosive catches either, but the three they did come up with were from Cordarrelle Patterson, Tarik Cohen, and Ted Ginn. I think this speaks to Chicago’s need to get more speed in their skill positions, a problem that wasn’t really addressed last offseason when they replaced one fast WR (Taylor Gabriel) with another (Darnell Mooney) and a bunch of slow, bad TEs with two slow but less bad ones.

Finally, let’s take a look at explosive runs.

  • Chicago’s top two running backs combined for six explosive runs on 311 carries. The average NFL running back produces an explosive run about 1 of every 21 carries, but that duo needed 52 carries per explosive run. Blech.
  • That continues a trend from 2019 for Montgomery, and is likely because he’s just not very fast, which will limit breakaway opportunities. If you want to be optimistic, four of his six explosive runs came after Thanksgiving, when Chicago finally seemed to settle their OL and rushing scheme. Of course, they also played a string of terrible defenses, which might have more to do with it.
  • Zero explosive runs for Cordarrelle Patterson could be a fluke. I think it likely points to scheme and/or OL issues, especially taken in larger context of a run game that has been completely non-explosive for three straight years now.

Improvement Needed

One way or another, Chicago needs to get more explosive on offense this offseason. Here are a few ways they can look to improve:

  • Get a quarterback. As mentioned above, the most explosive teams have good QBs, while the least explosive ones do not. The only team in the top 10 of explosive plays who had QB issues last year was San Francisco, and they have perhaps the NFL’s best play caller in Kyle Shanahan. The best QB among the 10 least explosive teams was Ben Roethlisberger, who looked like he had lost his battle with Father Time.
  • Add more speed. This one was also mentioned above. Robinson and Montgomery are slow. Kmet and Miller are around average for their position. Of Chicago’s top six returning skill position players, only Mooney and Cohen threaten defenses with speed. The Bears need to add another 1-2 players who can take the top off the defense. An emphasis on speed at both WR and U TE should be a focal point of the draft.
  • Get Tarik Cohen healthy. Cohen was incredibly explosive in 2018 before having a down 2019 as teams could scheme to stop him by ignoring Chicago’s incompetent TEs. Prior to getting hurt, he had three explosive plays in 23 combined carries + targets. Having a healthy Cohen for all 16 games in 2021 should help Chicago find more explosion.
  • Improve the run scheme. Chicago’s main running back has been terribly non-explosive for three straight years now. Maybe that says more about Jordan Howard (2018) and Montgomery (2019-20) than it does the scheme, but zero explosive runs in 64 attempts for Patterson suggests scheme and OL issues. One way or another, Chicago needs to find some way to put more explosion in their rushing attack.

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