Zooming in on Chicago’s Pass Rush, Part 1: Team Performance

| June 10th, 2024

This is the start of a 3-part series examining Chicago’s pass rush in 2023 and what expectations should be for 2024. The content covered in each part roughly breaks down as follows:

Part 1: Overall team pass rush, and the impact of trading for Montez Sweat.
Part 2: Defensive end individual pass rushing efficiency.
Part 3: Defensive tackle individual pass rushing efficiency, including rookie progression for Gervon Dexter Sr. and Zacch Pickens.

Let’s dive right in!

Overall results

We’ll start by examining Chicago’s overall team performance rushing the passer last year. The table below shows how the Bears ranked out of 32 NFL teams in generating sacks and pressures, as well as how often they blitzed. All values in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while those in the bottom 25% are in red. All data for this article, unless otherwise noted, is from Pro Football Reference.

Side note: sorry if the tables don’t show up well in the article. You can click on them to view in full on a separate page. 

A few thoughts:

  • Well that’s not good. The Bears were last in the % of opponent dropbacks that resulted in a sack, and 26th in the percent of dropbacks that resulted in a pressure. Those are numbers that put them firmly in the conversation for worst pass rush in the NFL.
    • This probably won’t surprise anybody who followed the Bears much last year. They finished 31st in the NFL with only 30 total sacks, and only had one player reach 5 sacks.
    • It’s worth noting that pressure is a somewhat subjective stat, and Pro Football Reference’s totals are vastly different than those from Pro Football Focus (PFF). PFF doesn’t have team-wide pressure data readily available, but they did have the Bears ranked last in team pass rush grade, so they generally saw things similarly to the official NFL stats from Pro Football Reference.
  • I find it interesting that, despite the Bears’ struggles to generate pressure, they blitzed at a well below average rate.
    • This matches Matt Eberflus’ tendency. When he was the defensive coordinator in Indianapolis from 2018-21, they only blitzed an average of 19.4% of the time (4th lowest) despite only generating pressure 20.9% of the time (7th lowets).
    • He simply doesn’t want to have a blitz-happy defense, but has shown he can make it work without generating a ton of pressure – the Colts averaged giving up the 12th fewest points/game over that span.

Sweat Trade Impact

Of course, the Bears made a big move midseason to bolster their pass rush by trading for DE Montez Sweat. That trade happened after week 8, so Sweat played 9 games – almost exactly half the season – in Chicago, and ended up leading the team in sacks and pressures. It makes sense to think his acquisition changed the overall team pass rush, so let’s break up Chicago’s performance to see how things changed before and after the trade.

The table below shows that data, but I further broke up the season into segments due to some other interesting differences that I will expound on below. Games 1-8 (the 1st two samples) are before the Sweat trade, while games 9-17 (the last two samples) are after the Sweat trade.

I want to note that the pressure and blitz rates here are going to be different than in the table above, because I had to compile these manually from individual players in Pro Football Reference game logs. The best I can figure for why these pressure/blitz rates are higher is that they count each player instead of the whole team, so two players blitzing on one snap counts as two blitzes here and only one in the table above (same for pressures).

Long story short, don’t compare these numbers directly to the 1st table; instead look at how they change compared to each other throughout the season.

A few thoughts:

  • Let’s start by looking at those blitz rates, which tell us a lot about how the defense approached rushing the passer.
    • In the first month of the season, the Bears didn’t blitz a whole lot, and their defense was really, really bad. This included time with both Alan Williams and Matt Eberflus calling plays, but the play caller didn’t seem to matter.
    • Starting in week 5 – well before the Sweat trade – Eberflus realized the status quo wasn’t working, so he changed gears, and the Bears began blitzing a whole lot. It didn’t help them generate any more pressure, but it nearly tripled their sack rate and helped the pass defense as a whole become much more effective (yards/pass and TD/INT ratio plummeted), which in turn helped them give up 10 points/game less.
    • That heavy blitz rate continued – for a while – after the Sweat trade, with the Bears maintaining a fairly consistent 37-38% blitz rate from weeks 5-14. Once Montez Sweat was added into the mix though, the pressure rate jumped significantly, and the sack rate increased with it. This made the pass defense even more effective, as the yards/pass and TD/INT ratio continued to fall, and allowed the defense to give up even fewer points/game.
    • Something weird happened in the last 3 weeks, though: Eberflus stopped blitzing. It brought the pass rush back to comparable levels as when the Bears blitzed heavily before the Sweat trade, and led to a slight decrease in pass defense efficiency (though 6.4 yards/attempt is still quite good; it would have ranked 6th in the NFL over a full season last year). The defense as a whole remained quite effective, giving up only 17 points/game in the last 3 weeks
      • It’s worth noting that this is a very small sample size, and  two of those 3 opponents ranked in the bottom 9 NFL teams in points/game last year, but generally the end of the season looked like a typical Eberflus defense: very little blitzing, not much pressure, but pretty effective anyway.
    • I am curious to see what Eberflus does with Chicago’s defense this year. Does he revert to his normal, safe measures, like he did the last three weeks of 2023? Or does he get a bit more aggressive and blitz frequently, like he did in weeks 5-14 of 2023?
      • My guess is that he will lean on the conservative side until he has reason not to. He only went blitz-heavy last year because his defense was getting torched when he didn’t, and then reverted back when he thought he could.
      • It’s worth noting that new defensive coordinator Eric Washington comes from a more blitz-happy background. He blitzed 30% of the time in his 2 years as a defensive coordinator (2018-19 Carolina Panthers), and Buffalo blitzed 27% of the time when he was the defensive line coach there the last 4 years. Eberflus is still calling defensive plays, but it’s possible Washington could help with blitz designs if they decide that is necessary.

Lessons learned

We’re 1100 words in, so let’s call it a day. Here’s a quick recap of some of the main takeaways from this article:

  • Chicago had one of the worst pass rushes in the NFL last year. It got a bit better after trading for Montez Sweat, but still was well below average in sack rate.
  • Despite struggling to generate pressure, Matt Eberflus doesn’t like to blitz. He did it for a bit out of necessity in the middle of last year, but went back to his conservative ways late in the season.
  • Eberflus has shown in the past he can produce an effective defense even without a lot of pressure, which is exactly what he did the last few weeks of 2023. The expectation is that will be the plan going into 2024, but perhaps the Bears could revert to heavier blitzing ways if the defense finds itself struggling during the season.

Now that we have the team-wide pass rush covered, stay tuned for tomorrow when we’ll start to examine individual players as pass rushers with a look at the defensive ends.

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