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Data Entry: Zooming in on Coverage Players (LB and S)

| June 30th, 2022

 


Today we’ll switch to look at how linebackers and safeties have fared in coverage.

Like I did with cornerbacks, I’m using data from Pro Football Focus (PFF) that looks at how frequently and effectively individual players are targeted in coverage. I chose to set a threshold of 250 coverage snaps because it both gives a decent enough sample size to judge an individual player and gives a big enough grouping of players at each position to evaluate how somebody performed relative to their peers. This threshold gave a sample size of 68 linebackers (2.1/team) and 82 safeties (2.6/team).


Linebackers

Let’s start with a look at linebackers, where the Bears return Roquan Smith and bring in Nicholas Morrow. The table below shows how they fared in a variety of coverage metrics last year, as well as their rank compared to 68 linebackers who had at least 250 coverage snaps. To give a broader frame of reference, the best, average, median, and worst values among that 68-player sample are also provided for each statistic. Categories highlighted in green indicated the player was in the top 25% relative to their peers, while red indicates the player was in the bottom 25%.

Note: Since Morrow missed the 2021 season with an injury, his data is from 2020, but he is still ranked against his peers in 2021. I know this is not perfect, but these values shouldn’t change that much league-wide year over year, and it saved me a ton of work.

A few thoughts:

  • Overall, both Roquan and Morrow appear to be very good in coverage. This should be a real strength of Chicago’s defense.
  • The two main stats I would use to evaluate effectiveness are yards/target and yards/coverage snap. These encapsulate a bunch of the other metrics to show how many yards the defender gave up overall.
    • In those areas, Roquan is solidly above average, but not great, which honestly surprised me.
    • Morrow, on the other hand, ranks near the top in both. The Bears haven’t had a good coverage linebacker to put next to Roquan since he was a rookie in 2018, so the thought of pairing him with somebody who excels in coverage is enticing.
  • Some of the other stats can give us a glimpse into playing style. For instance, Roquan gives up plenty of catches (high catch %), but they are mostly very short (low target depth and air yards/catch). This is a common trade off in coverage, since shorter passes are easier to complete. Unfortunately, Roquan struggles a bit with giving up yards after the catch – though it’s not due to missed tackles – which is what brings him down overall. In general, Roquan is good at limiting the yards/catch allowed, but the high catch rate brings his yards/target and yards/snap ranks down a bit.
    • Morrow, on the other hand, keeps the catch rate low despite giving up short passes, which gives him stellar coverage marks pretty much across the board.



Now let’s split up the overall data between man and zone coverage, as some players will do better in one than the other. The table below shows most of the same stats as above but split into when the player was in man (blue, top half) or zone (orange, bottom half) defense.

A few thoughts:

  • Let’s start with a look at Roquan, who we can see is elite in man coverage. He gets targeted a lot in man but does a phenomenal job holding up against those targets. That combination of high volume + low efficiency is really bad for the offense, and really valuable for the defense.
    • This strength in man coverage makes sense, as Roquan has the speed and athleticism to stick with running backs and tight ends.
  • Roquan is not quite as effective in zone coverage, where we see the catch percentage and yards after catch values both creep up. This indicates that Roquan is likely not breaking on the ball quite quick enough in zone coverage, which can be an area of growth for him going forward. I do want to note, however, that this does not mean Roquan is bad in zone – he’s still above average in yards/target allowed – just that he is not great here like he is in man coverage.
    • It’s worth noting that new coach Matt Eberflus is bringing his defensive scheme over from Indianapolis, where linebackers played zone coverage about 68% of the time in 2022, so Roquan is likely going to be asked to be in zone more often in 2022 (and beyond). If he can improve his mental processing in that area to get to the ball faster, we could see his game take the next step.
  • Morrow, on the other hand, is consistently strong across the board. He doesn’t seem to struggle in any area, and just does well in pretty much everything, whether man or zone (again, this is his 2020 data since he missed the 2021 season).

Safeties

Let’s switch now to checking out the safeties, where the Bears have two notable veterans: returner Eddie Jackson and newly signed Dane Cruikshank (I’ll note returner DeAndre Houston-Carson did not have enough snaps to qualify). The table below matches the one above for linebackers. The NFL-wide values are different, since this is for a different sample of players, and the ranks are relative to the sample of 82 safeties with 250+ coverage snaps.

A few thoughts:

  • Let’s start with a look at Eddie Jackson, who had some struggles in coverage last year. He has the common trade-off of mainly being targeted on deep passes (high target depth and air yards/catch), which keeps the catch rate down. However, the catch rate is still too high to make that balance worth it, as evidenced by his poor yards/target mark.
    • Jackson was excellent in coverage in both 2018 and 2019, as evidenced by his yards/target marks of 5.8 and 6.1 in those years, but 2021 continued his struggles from 2020 (11.5 yards/target).
  • Cruikshank saw his first real NFL action on defense in 2021, and his coverage metrics are not very impressive. The short target depth is a result of how Tennessee used him, as he lined up in the box or slot on over half of his coverage snaps. Given the shorter passes, you would expect the catch rate to be high, so that’s not a huge concern, but Cruikshank was both targeted very frequently and gave up a lot of yards after the catch, which resulted in his yards/target mark being mediocre and his yards/coverage snap value being very poor.
    • Cruikshank is expected to be a backup safety in Chicago, as 2nd round rookie Jaquan Brisker is the heavy favorite to start opposite Jackson. In that regard, this kind of profile seems perfectly adequate for a backup.

Like we did with the linebackers, let’s split up the overall data between man and zone coverage, as some players will do better in one than the other. The table below shows most of the same stats as above, but split into when the player was in man (blue, top half) or zone (orange, bottom half) defense.

A few thoughts:

  • Let’s start with Jackson, who sees vast differences in how he was used vs. man and zone.
    • In man, Jackson has a fairly low target depth and air yards/catch value indicating he did a good job of forcing players to get the ball underneath instead of beating him over the top. This is the result of Jackson playing a decent amount of snaps in the slot, where he is closer to the line of scrimmage. However, he still allowed a high catch rate, which limited his overall effectiveness, and his overall metrics (yards/target and yards/coverage snap) come in a little below average.
    • In zone, Jackson sees the pattern flipped, as his air yards/catch and target depth are both very high, but that is countered by a low catch rate. This indicates he was used as a deep safety quite a bit in zone coverage.
      • He did an excellent job in that role of both discouraging QBs from throwing at him (high snaps/target) and limiting yards after the catch, but was still around average in effectiveness when teams did throw the ball his way (as evidenced by yards/target).
      • Jackson was asked to do a lot of man coverage in 2021, but that should change in 2022. Indianapolis’ safeties were in zone about 68% of the time, so roughly average for the NFL, and about a 10% increase from what Jackson did last year.
  • Now to examine Cruikshank, who fared appreciably better in man coverage than zone.
    • Like Jackson, Cruikshank did quite a bit of man coverage last year, and he was pretty solid in that area. His ranks for most metrics come in average to above average (sample size of 82, so 41 would be the exact middle).
    • In zone, on the other hand, we see a different story, as Cruikshank was targeted very frequently and struggled to hold up. The damage done per catch was around average, but Cruikshank gave up an extremely high catch rate in zone, which limited his overall effectiveness.
    • Like we saw with Tavon Young at CB, it seems strange to me that the Bears brought in a coach who wants to run more zone defense and then grabbed a few veteran defenders who are better in man than zone. However, Cruikshank is slated to be a backup, just like Young, and having versatile backups who offer a different skill set can be valuable.

Takeaways

Now that we’ve looked at individual players, let’s zoom out to think about how the whole coverage puzzle fits together for the Bears in 2022.

  • We’ve already seen that their pass rush should be fine if all goes according to plan, but it lacks depth, and thus has the potential to turn south in a hurry.
  • We’ve also already seen that the cornerback room, despite having a lot of talent and potential, is likely going to have some struggles in 2022 due to inexperience.
  • The linebackers are one area that we can clearly say should be a strength for the Bears in coverage this year. Both Roquan and Morrow are established veterans who have proven they can excel in coverage. It will be interesting to see how Roquan adapts to a more zone-heavy scheme, since his best coverage work has been in man in the past, but even in zone he has been good (just not great).
  • Safety, like cornerback, is much more of a question mark.
    • We know Eddie Jackson will be one starter, and he showed in 2018 and 2019 that he can be a top-shelf coverage safety, but he has struggled more in that area over the last two years. If the Bears want to have a good overall coverage unit in 2022, he will need to rebound to previous form.
    • The starter opposite Jackson is likely going to be rookie Jaquan Brisker. While he comes in highly regarded as a 2nd round pick, rookie defensive backs have a difficult transition to the NFL, so there will likely be some growing pains in 2022.

If you add all of that up, it is reasonable to think Chicago will not have a good pass defense in 2022. The secondary has no proven stars and will start 3 inexperienced players, the pass rush lacks much juice, and the strong linebackers are probably not going to be enough to overcome that.

The Bears aren’t trying to win in 2022 anyway, so this isn’t a big deal. What’s exciting is that there is real growth potential for the future. Eddie Jackson is the “old man” of the back seven, and he’s only 28, so this unit has the potential to grow together into a real strength for 2023 and beyond.

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