Almost everything I’ve looked at so far this offseason has been about the offense, so now I want to shift gears and give some attention to returning players and new veterans on defense. That starts today with a closer examination of the pass rush.
In order to do this, I’m using data from Pro Football Focus (PFF) that examine pressures, wins, sacks, and pass rush productivity. Here’s a quick explainer of what PFF means by some of those that are less obvious:
- Pressure: This is a measure of how often a player bothers the QB – makes him move off his spot, hits him, or sacks him. It will be defined through the % of pass-rushing snaps that count as a pressure, QB hit, or sack.
- Win: this is a measure of how often a player beats their block to impact a play within 2.5 seconds. It will be defined through the % of pass-rushing snaps that count as a win.
- Pass Rush Productivity: this accounts for all sacks, pressures, and QB hits on a per-snap basis, with an added weight given to sacks. PFF doesn’t give an exact formula for how much extra sacks are weighted, but generally a higher number is better.
I’ll examine both all pass rushing snaps and only what PFF defines as true pass sets. These are basically set up to only look at 4-man rushes on standard passing plays, so all screens, play action, designed rollouts, blitzes, 3-man rushes, and exceptionally fast (ball thrown in <2 seconds) or slow (ball thrown in >4 seconds) plays are removed. PFF says that these values tend to be more stable year-to-year, since they are more indicative of actual pass rushing ability.
Let’s start by examining edge rushers, where the Bears have three notable NFL veterans: returners Robert Quinn and Trevis Gipson and newly signed Al-Quadin Muhammad.
The table below shows how all three fared in a variety of pass rushing stats in 2021, as well as their rank compared to 93 NFL edge rushers with at least 200 pass rush opportunities. To give a broader frame of reference, the best, average, median, and worst values among that 93-player sample are also provided for each statistic.
Categories highlighted in green indicated the player was in the top 25% of edge rushers (top 23), while red indicates the player was in the bottom 25% (bottom 23).
A few thoughts:
- If you ignore sacks and look more at the pressure and win rates – which are more stable season to season – Quinn was more good than great as a pass rusher in 2021. That feels weird to say for somebody who finished 2nd in the NFL in sacks, but the extremely low pressure/sack ratio tells us that he produced more sacks than expected based on the pressure he generated, and pressures are generally more consistent than sacks.
- This tracks with other data showing that Quinn generally took longer to get to the QB than the NFL’s elite pass rushers.
- Quinn also has a fairly established track record of season-to-season inconsistency. He’s never produced an above-average pass rush productivity ranking in two consecutive years during his career, and he hasn’t had back-to-back seasons with 8+ sacks since 2014.
- Add it all up, and I think a regression from Quinn is highly likely in 2022. The Bears would be wise to sell high on him now rather than waiting for the trade deadline if they are hoping to get value in return.
- Trevis Gipson honestly was fairly comparable to Robert Quinn in most of these statistics, which is pretty impressive. He had a very solid year in 2021. His sample size was much smaller (229 pass rush snaps vs. 402 for Quinn), so I’m eager to see if he can repeat that performance. It’s worth noting, however, that his pressure/sack ratio was about as low as Quinn’s, so he could play better this year and still see a dip in sacks.
- Al-Quadin Muhammad is a bad pass rusher. I really hope the Bears aren’t planning on him doing much to bother the QB, because 2021 was actually the best season rushing the passer of his career, and it was still bad.
Let’s move now to the interior of the defensive line, where the Bears have two notable veterans: returner Angelo Blackson and newly signed Justin Jones (I’ll note that returners Khyiris Tonga and Mario Edwards Jr. did not have enough snaps to qualify). The table below matches the one above for edge rushers. The NFL-wide values are different, since this is for a different sample of players, and the ranks are relative to the sample of 94 interior defensive lineman with 200+ pass rush snaps.
A few thoughts:
- Interior defensive linemen generally are not as good at rushing the passer as edge rushers, which you can see by comparing the NFL-wide values between the two tables. As one quick example, the average interior lineman generates pressure on 7.5% of snaps, while that jumps to 10.6% for edge rushers. Thus it is important to note here that I am evaluating Blackson and Jones relative to their peers only.
- Blackson was pretty much the definition of average in terms of pass rush ability for an interior lineman in 2021. With a 94 player sample, 47 would fall right in the middle, and his average ranking is a 50, with 9 of his 10 statistics falling between 41 and 57. He’s not great as a pass rusher, but he’s not bad either. He also seems to have settled into that range fairly consistently, as most of his results were pretty similar in 2020.
- Justin Jones doesn’t offer much as a pass-rusher. The average for his 10 values was around 60, with none of them coming in above average and a few falling in the bottom 25% (highlighted in red). He’s also been fairly consistently at or near those values for all four of his NFL seasons.
Now let’s move to thinking about what this tells us regarding Chicago’s pass rush as a whole:
- Robert Quinn was good, but not great, in 2021, but has a history of dropping off substantially following a strong season.
- Trevis Gipson was good, but not great, in 2021, and now has to prove he can do it in a full-time role.
- Angelo Blackson is average for an interior lineman.
- Justin Jones and Al-Quadin Muhammad consistently offer very little in the way of pass rush.
In regards to the backups who did not qualify because they had less than 200 pass rush snaps last year, Mario Edwards Jr. stands out as somebody who could provide some pass rush help on the interior. He has settled into a role as a reserve pass-rush specialist over the last few seasons, and in that time has produced an above-average pressure rate (albeit in limited snaps) for three straight years, with a cumulative pressure rate of 9.5%, which would have ranked 20th among interior defensive linemen last year. Of course, he’s also struggled with suspensions and stupid penalties, which is part of what has kept his role to a minimum. If Chicago’s coaches can keep him in line, he should be able to provide some pass-rush boost in his reserve snaps.
Still, Chicago’s pass rush in 2022 ultimately comes down to Robert Quinn and Trevis Gipson. If they can continue – or even improve on – their 2021 levels, the pass rush should be adequate. If Quinn is traded or at least one of Quinn/Gipson struggle in 2022, Chicago’s pass rush is going to get ugly in a hurry.