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Data Entry: Zooming in on the Run Defense

| July 1st, 2022

 


Wrapping up our look at returning players and new veterans on defense, today we’re going to explore stopping the run.

This can be difficult to quantify, because much of what goes into run stopping doesn’t get measured. When Eddie Goldman holds his own against two blockers, he frees up a linebacker to make the tackle, but nothing Goldman did there shows up on a stat sheet. So I want to be clear from the start that this is not going to be a perfect science, and I make no claims that it is.

However, Pro Football Focus (PFF) does track some data that can give us an idea of how often a defender is directly involved in stopping a run play. We’ll look at basic metrics that are fairly self-explanatory, like how often a player makes a run tackle or misses a tackle, but also some more advanced data including how far downfield the average run tackle they make is.

One unconventional stat PFF uses that I want to briefly discuss is a “run stop.” PFF defines this as a solo tackle that counts as a “win” for the defense. I can’t find anything definitively saying what makes a play a “win,” but you can imagine this is probably similar to success rate, where it keeps the offense from picking up a certain % of the yards needed for a 1st down. In other words: a defender made a tackle to keep the run short and force the offense behind the chains.

I will examine every Bears defender who had at least 200 run defense snaps last year, whether in Chicago or somewhere else. This allows for a large enough individual sample size that the values have some meaning, but also a large enough sample size for comparing players from a position to their peers. The 200 snap threshold gave a sample of 74 interior defensive linemen (2.3/team), 52 edge defenders (1.6/team), 66 linebackers (2.1/team), 75 cornerbacks (2.3/team), and 70 safeties (2.2/team). That adds up to 10.5 defenders/team, or roughly those who played starter-level snaps.


Interior DL

Let’s start with a look at the defensive line, where the Bears return Angelo Blackson and added Justin Jones in free agency. The table below shows how they both fared in a variety of run-stopping metrics last year, as well as their rank compared to 74 interior defensive linemen who played at least 200 run snaps. To give a broader frame of reference, the best, average, median, and worst values among that 74-player sample are also provided for each statistics. 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%.

A few thoughts:

  • Angelo Blackson seems like a decent enough, if not great, run defender. He’s not overly good or bad in any of the areas. His missed tackle rate is a little higher than you would like to see, so hopefully that can improve a bit going forward.
  • Justin Jones is very active in run defense, as evidenced by his high amount of run-defending tackles. However, he struggles with missed tackles, and very few of his tackles count as “wins” for the defense, which means they’re happening farther down the field than you would like.


Edge Rushers

Let’s switch gears and examine the edge rushers now, where the Bears have three notable players: returnees Robert Quinn and Trevis Gipson and newly signed Al-Quadin Muhammad. The table below shows their performance against the run in a variety of metrics, including their rank compared to 52 positional peers.

A few thoughts:

  • Robert Quinn is a very good pass rusher, but he struggles defending the run. He doesn’t make run tackles very often, and he has a high rate of missed tackles. The one good thing is that, when he does tackle the ball carrier, it tends to be pretty quickly, as evidenced by both his high % of tackles as stops and low average tackle depth.
  • Trevis Gipson was right around average as a run defender last year. Like with his pass rush statistics, I will be watching closely in 2022 to see if he can maintain that production in what will hopefully be more of a full-time role. His 2021 season showed him as a good pass rusher and adequate run defender. If he can prove that was no fluke, the Bears will have a very good player on their hands.
  • Al-Quadin Muhammad, on the other hand, does not appear to be very good. His pass-rush stats were awful, and his run-stopping data isn’t any better. I don’t have high hopes for him as a Bear.

Linebackers

Let’s move now to linebackers, where the Bears return Roquan Smith and added Nicholas Morrow. The table below shows their stats and ranks relative to 66 linebackers who had at least 200 run defense snaps in 2021. I should note that Morrow’s stats are from 2020, since he missed the 2021 season with an injury.

A few thoughts:

  • Hello Roquan Smith! The Bears’ best player is known more for his pass coverage abilities, but here we see clearly that he is no slouch in the run game either. He is one of the most active LB in making tackles and stops (solo tackles for short gains), and does very well at avoiding missed tackles in the run game.
  • Nicholas Morrow, on the other hand, is not as strong against the run. He is one of the least active linebackers on a snaps-per-tackle basis, and when he does make a tackle, it tends to be farther down the field, which is not what you would like to see.

Cornerbacks

Moving back in the defense, let’s take a look at the cornerbacks, where the Bears return both Jaylon Johnson and Kindle Vildor. I’ll note the pass coverage section included Duke Shelley and Tavon Young, but neither played nearly enough run snaps to qualify here, as they were used primarily in pass-heavy defensive packages. Like with the other positions above, the table below shows how the two cornerbacks fared in a variety of run-defense stats compared to 75 of their peers.

A few thoughts:

  • Neither Johnson nor Vildor stand out much. They are both adequate across the board, without any areas that are particularly strong or weak. Before compiling this data, I was worried that Johnson would struggle with missed tackles due to his shoulders, so it’s good to see that didn’t happen last year.

Eddie Jackson

Finally, let’s take a look at safety Eddie Jackson. The pass coverage section also included Dane Cruikshank, but he was primarily used in passing situations in Tennessee last year, and thus did not have nearly enough run defense snaps to qualify. The table below shows how Jackson fared defending the run compared to 70 of his peers.

A few thoughts:

  • Eddie Jackson gets a bad rep in run defense, but he actually comes off looking pretty solid here. He’s right around the middle of the pack in the majority of run-defending stats.
  • The one area where he did fare poorly is that his tackles were fairly far down the field. It’s possible that’s a result of how Jackson was used, since we saw in pass coverage stats that he was often the deep safety in coverage. That makes it difficult to get up and make a short tackle.

Takeaways

Based on this analysis, stopping the run could be something of an issue for Chicago’s defense this year. Only Roquan Smith stands out as a clear-cut plus run defender, while several players expected to play regular roles have struggled in that area, including Al-Quadin Muhammad, Robert Quinn, and NIcholas Morrow.

It is worth noting, however, that there are several unknown variables here:

  • Run defense is difficult to quantify, and it’s possible that some players do well here without it showing up in the stat sheet by consistently eating up blockers and/or funneling the ball carrier to other defenders for an easy tackle.
  • Most of the defenders examined here will be playing in a new defensive scheme, which could perhaps suit their strengths better (or worse).
  • The Bears are likely to start three players in the secondary who didn’t show up in this analysis – rookies Jaquan Brisker and Kyler Gordon and second-year player Thomas Graham – meaning we don’t really know how they’ll perform against the run.

Based on all of these unknowns, I don’t want to say definitively that the Bears will be a bad run defense, but I do think it’s fair to say this is an area of concern that is worth monitoring for Chicago in 2022.

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