Fields in Focus (6/8): The Explosive Plays

| May 10th, 2023

Today is the sixth of eight articles taking a closer look at Justin Fields’ 2022 season.

All data comes from Pro Football Reference‘s Game Play Finder, unless otherwise noted.

Explosive Plays

I’ve been tracking explosive plays for several years because I found they have a strong correlation to total points scored by the offense. Therefore, they’re an important indicator of offensive success; by and large, good offenses produce more explosive plays.

The exact criteria I use for explosive plays are runs that gain 15 or more yards and passes that gain 20 or more yards. This is borrowed from ESPN Stats.

The table below shows how the Bears ranked in explosive runs, explosive passes, and total explosive plays compared to the other 31 NFL teams last year. Areas where they were in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while those in the bottom 25% are highlighted in red.

A few thoughts:

  • Fans might remember that Justin Fields missed two games with injury last year, and these numbers change ever so slightly if you look only at the 15 games Fields started and extrapolate those to a 17-game season. That would bring them to 73 total explosive plays, which would rank 16th.
    • Most of this series has been looking at Fields from week 5 on only, since there was such a noticeable change in his performance after a dismal first month. Focusing on those games would slightly bump the Bears up to 74 explosive plays (15th) when extrapolated to a full season.
  • These numbers are not different enough to change the general conclusions. The Bears had one of the most explosive rushing attacks in the NFL but were one of the least explosive passing games. This is probably not a surprise to any Bears fans who watched the games last year. Overall, that worked out being around average in total explosive plays.

Points Scored

Explosive plays are important to track because of their strong relationship with points scored. I last published data on that three years ago, but as you can see in the graph below, this trend continued in 2022.

The Rvalue is a measure of how strong the relationship between the 2 variables is on a scale from 0-1. Loosely speaking, an R2 of 0.5 means that roughly half of a teams’ scoring output can be explained by producing explosive plays.

Given this strong relationship, you might expect that the Bears were around average in scoring as well, but they finished 23rd in the NFL at 19.2 points/game, about two points below the league average. This did have a pretty significant change if you only look at Fields’ starts from Week 5 on. In those 11 games, the Bears averaged 21.7 points/game, which was right around the NFL average. This highlights that things other than explosive plays are important as well. The explosive plays didn’t change much after the first four games, but the points scored did (they averaged 16 points/game for the first month), because the rest of Fields’ performance got significantly better.

Explosive Play Rate

It stands to reason that the Bears need to produce more explosive plays if they want to score more points. Therefore, let’s look at a few more specifics about how they can do that. To start with, let’s look at how frequently they produced explosive plays on a per-snap basis. That information is given in the table below, including splitting run and pass plays (including sacks) and showing how the Bears fared relative to the rest of the NFL in each category.

A few thoughts:

  • I’ll note that explosive play rate is not a measure of a better offense, since total explosive plays has a stronger relationship with points scored than this does (R2 here was only 0.35 last year, continuing a trend from prior years). Think of this instead as a way to figure out how to produce more explosive plays.
  • As you can see, passing plays tend to be explosive far more often than running plays, with the NFL average being 1 explosive play per 14 pass plays vs. 22 run plays.
    • So one way the Bears can produce more explosive plays is by throwing the ball more. They had only 493 pass plays (including sacks) last year, the 2nd lowest mark in the NFL and more than 150 below the NFL average of 646.
    • Compared to their peers, the Bears were more explosive on the ground than in the air, but they still produced explosive passes more frequently than explosive runs. And that is even including sacks as pass plays.
  • Of course, the Bears had a lot of scrambles last year, as Pro Football Focus credited Fields with scrambling 70 times. Those were initially called as passing plays, and accounted for 10 of Fields’ 17 overall explosive runs. If you switch those to pass plays, you get the following data:
      • 488 runs, 23 explosive runs, 21.2 runs/explosive run
      • 563 passes, 48 explosive plays, 11.8 pass plays/explosive play
    • I can’t directly compare this to other teams since I’ve manually adjusted the scrambles to pass plays for only the Bears, but it really highlights the difference in how explosive run and pass plays are. The Bears need to call more passing plays in 2023 to get more explosive and score more points. Matt Eberflus has already said the passing game will be a bigger offseason focus than it was last year, indicating that the Bears understand they need to throw the ball more frequently to take the next step as an offense.
  • It’s also worth noting that some personnel changes on offense should help the Bears be more explosive.
    • DJ Moore has produced 52 explosive catches in the last three years, 7th most of all NFL wide receivers. He has produced an explosive play once every 7.7 targets over that span, 9th among 41 WRs with 250+ targets since 2020. As was pointed out earlier in this series, Moore has never played with a QB who can throw the deep ball anywhere close to as well as Fields does, so that explosive factor should only increase going forward.
      • For comparison, Darnell Mooney (27) and Chase Claypool (34) have combined to produce 61 explosive plays in the same span, barely more than Moore has by himself. And they have gotten them only once every 9.7 targets, a much less efficient rate than Moore.
      • Add in Allen Robinson producing 30 explosive plays in the same span (1 per 9 targets), and it’s clear that Fields has never played with a deep threat the caliber of Moore before either. Those two’s skill sets line up very nicely, and they are going to be fun to watch.
    • David Montgomery had 3 explosive runs on 203 total carries last year, making him the least explosive running back in the NFL of 42 backs with 100 or more carries. Giving Montgomery’s carries to Khalil Herbert (explosive run every 18 carries, 14th) and D’Onta Foreman (explosive run every 17 carries, 12th) will make Chicago’s rushing attack significantly more explosive (and just overall better, since Montgomery is a bad runner in more ways than just lacking explosiveness).
      • Montgomery’s inability to be explosive is even worse when considering how much easier it is to run when defenses have to worry about the opposing QB as a runner. There were 42 running backs in the NFL with 100+ carries last year, and they combined to average 1 explosive run every 21 carries. Over the last three years, there have been 13 running backs (not including Montgomery) who received 100+ carries in a season in which their QB ran for at least 700 yards, and those backs averaged an explosive run every 17 carries.
      • With that in mind, I am looking forward to seeing Foreman play alongside Fields, which should open things up for him significantly in the running game. To look at that another way, Next Gen Stats had Foreman at 3.7 expected yards/carry in Carolina last year, while Herbert was at 4.2 and Montgomery 4.1. So Foreman definitely should have more room to run in Chicago.
      • 4th round pick Roschon Johnson is a bit of a wild card here, as he will likely end up earning a fair number of carries as well. He has no NFL sample size to draw on, but a 4.58 40 yard dash suggests his long speed isn’t great, which could limit how explosive of a runner he is.

Lessons Learned

If you didn’t track everything in the article above, here’s a nice quick summary of the most important takeaways:

  • Last year, with Fields under center, the Bears featured their most explosive offense since 2018. Unfortunately, that still only put them around average in the NFL, and their scoring (at least once Fields settled in around Week 5) followed suit.
  • One way to produce more explosive plays will be to pass the ball more. The Bears were quite explosive when they did pass, especially when you factor in Fields’ explosive scrambles.
  • There is also hope for explosive play improvement from personnel upgrades:
    • WR DJ Moore and RB D’Onta Foreman both have a track record of producing plenty of explosive plays, so giving them touches should lead to an increase in explosive plays.
    • David Montgomery is the least explosive RB in the NFL, so removing him is addition by subtraction for the run game.

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