Zooming in on Chicago’s Pass Rush, Part 3: Defensive Tackles

| June 12th, 2024

This is the final installment of a 3-part series looking at Chicago’s 2023 pass rush.

  • In part one, we learned that the Bears had one of the worst pass rushes in the NFL, though it improved a bit after trading for Montez Sweat, especially when they were willing to blitz.
  • In part two, we saw that Montez Sweat is a good but not great pass rusher, while all of the other defensive ends on the roster are bad at rushing the passer.

Today, we’re going to end the series by exploring Chicago’s defensive tackles.

Overall Efficiency

We’ll start with a season-long look at how Chicago’s main defensive tackles performed when rushing the passer. The table below shows a variety of per-snap metrics, including how they ranked compared to the 98 DTs league-wide who had at least 200 pass rush snaps. A few quick notes:

  • All data comes from Pro Football Focus (PFF).
  • Win rate is the percentage of snaps where PFF determines that the rusher has beaten the blocker at any point in the snap. This is admittedly subjective, and thus should not be used on its own, but can be a helpful part of a larger picture.
  • Pass Rush Productivity is a unique PFF stat that accounts for all sacks, QB hits, and pressures on a per-snap basis, with an added weight given to sacks; a higher value is better.
  • True pass sets look only at plays that do not give offensive linemen a built in advantage: no play action, no screens, and the throw time has to be at least 2 seconds. This lets us see how effectively a player rushes the passer when they most likely know they are getting after the QB, and the offense knows they have to block for a while.
  • Values in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while those in the bottom 25% are highlighted in red.

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:

  • That was an impressive rookie season rushing the passer for Gervon Dexter Sr., as he ranked above average (which would be 49th) in every single category. He was especially good in true pass sets, where he ranked in the top 25% in every area.
    • I’ll have a more in-depth look at Dexter and his progression throughout his rookie season below, so I’ll save the rest of my commentary for there.
  • Andrew Billings was generally a fairly solid pass rusher, with the exception of his complete inability to get any sacks.
    • The lack of sacks is not new – Billings had a 0.5% sack rate over his last three seasons prior to 2023 – but the other pass rush impact certainly was. From 2019-22 (Billings missed 2020 due to Covid), Billings posted a 4% pressure rate, 5% win rate, and 2.2 pass rush productivity.
    • This is generally fine. Billings is a nose tackle, so his job is more about run stuffing that rushing the passer. The Bears used him accordingly in 2023, as 47% of his snaps were run plays (for comparison, Gervon Dexter Sr. and Justin Jones saw less than 33% of their snaps be run plays).
  • Justin Jones wasn’t a particularly good pass rusher, but he wasn’t a terrible one either. He was generally below average in most categories, which matches what he did for the Bears in 2022 as well.
  • Jones did play over 700 snaps for Chicago though, and they haven’t really added anybody to replace those.
    • I assume part of the plan here is to increase the snaps for both Gervon Dexter (432 in 2023) and Zacch Pickens (264 in 2023), who should see their roles grow in year two compared to their rookie seasons.
    • The Bears also signed Byron Cowart in free agency, who has played 689 snaps across three NFL seasons since 2019. He’s also spent entire seasons unable to get off a practice squad and on the field, so I think DT4 is about the best case scenario for him.
      • Cowart should also be expected to be more of a run stuffer than a pass rusher, as 54% of his career snaps have come on run plays and he has only pressured the QB on 4% of career pass rush snaps.
    • The Bears might also be thinking about playing DE DeMarcus Walker more at DT this year. He played only 10% of his snaps at DT in Chicago in 2023 after playing about 35% of his snaps at DT in 2021-22. If he kept his total snap count from 2023 and played 35% of them at DT, that would be an extra 175 DT snaps.
      • Of course, Walker likely played DE more in 2023 out of necessity due to the Bears’ lack of other options there, and as we saw in part 2, that problem has not changed for 2024, so I would guess he remains mostly a DE this year.
    • Given all of the above, I think adding a DT who Chicago is fairly confident can handle significant snaps would be a wise move before FA.

Trade Impact

Of course, the Bears traded for Montez Sweat halfway through the season, and we saw in part one that the team pass rush improved quite a bit after that trade. It seems likely individual players would see their performance improve as well, since Sweat drew more attention and should have freed them up to rush the passer more easily.

To check that hypothesis, the table below shows pressure rates and pass rush productivity for Chicago’s main 4 DTs before and after the Sweat trade. NFL averages for the 98 DTs with 200+ pass rush snaps are included to give context to the values.

A few thoughts:

  • This split makes Gervon Dexter Sr. look really good, as his numbers spiked after the Bears added Sweat.
    • As we’ll see in the rookie development section below, that was also a sign of a rookie improving, which started before the trade, but it’s still good to see.
    • Dexter’s production after the Sweat trade was nearly elite, as his 13% win rate (15th), 12% pressure rate (16th), and 7.6 pass rush productivity (9th) would each have ranked in the top 16 among DTs for the full season.
    • If he can continue that level of production in a (presumably) larger role in 2024, the Bears will have two quality starters on the DL, which helps significantly.
  • This also makes Justin Jones look a bit better, as he was an average to slightly above average pass rusher after the Sweat trade. Again, that is production the Bears have not yet replaced this offseason.
  • One option to help ease Jones’ loss in-house is Zacch Pickens, who also saw his pass rushing production increase to near average levels after the Sweat trade.
    • Pickens didn’t qualify for the 1st table due to a small sample size, as he only saw 148 pass rush snaps on the year, but my guess is we’ll see his role increase significantly in year two.
  • We see the opposite trend for Andrew Billings, who actually saw his pass rushing impact decrease after the Bears added Sweat.
    • Like we saw above, Billings’ production as a pass rusher was quite low before 2023, so I am inclined to see the falloff late in the season as more of a regression to the mean, and the pre-trade production as a bit of an outlier that should not be expected to be replicated in 2024.

Rookie Development

Two of Chicago’s four DTs last year – Gervon Dexter Jr. and Zacch Pickens – were rookies, and ideally these players should be expected to improve throughout the season as they adjust to the NFL. With that in mind, it’s worth taking a closer look at how their production changed as the season wore on.

Gervon Dexter Jr.

We’ll start with Gervon Dexter Jr., who played the larger role of the two rookies. The table below splits Dexter’s rookie season into 4-game segments (with 5 games housed in the last sample) to see how his role and pass rushing efficiency changed throughout his rookie season.

A few thoughts:

  • The 1st thing that stands out to me is that the % snaps pass rush, which is the % of Dexter’s snaps on the field when he rushed the passer, spiked significantly after the 1st month.
    • This suggests that coaches started the season thinking Dexter was more of a run stuffer (since the other 49% of his plays that were not pass rush would be run defense), which makes sense given his 313 pound frame.
    • However, they switched his role to primarily a pass-rusher and tried to limit his snaps defending the run after the first month, which suggests they think he was a bad run defender.
  • Dexter struggled as a pass rusher in the first four weeks, but took off pretty quickly after that once his role shifted.
    • The pressure rate was already slightly above NFL average in the 2nd quarter of the season, but took a nice bump to 12% in the 2nd half of the year, which also coincides with when Montez Sweat was added into the mix.
  • I would ideally have liked to see Dexter’s snap counts increase later in the season, but that didn’t happen.
    • My guess is that coaches only wanted him on the field in pass-heavy situations, which limited his opportunities but also allowed him to focus more extensively on rushing the passer.
    • Will he be able to maintain the pass rushing production when he has to worry about defending the run too?

Zacch Pickens

Let’s end with a similar look at Zacch Pickens. The table below matches the setup for the one above for Dexter, splitting the season into quarters and seeing how his role and pass rushing production evolved.

A few thoughts:

  • Like with Dexter, Pickens didn’t really see his snap counts increase over the course of the season, which is disappointing.
  • Unlike with Dexter, we see the coaches trusted Pickens to play in balanced run/pass situations, as he was on the field for much lower % of passing snaps (and thus a higher percentage of running snaps).
    • For what it’s worth, Justin Jones rushed the passer on 2/3 of his snaps last year, so if Pickens is going to help step into some of that void, he will not only see more snaps, but also a higher % of those snaps turn into pass rush opportunities.
    • Byron Cowart, then, could be a candidate to step into Pickens’ role in more run-heavy situations, since that matches what he has done in his career.
  • When he did rush the passer, Pickens was really bad for the first half of the season, but generally improved to slightly below NFL average (9% pressure rate, 4.8 pass rush productivity) in the back half of the year. He will need to build on that performance to continue earning a rotational role beyond 2024.

Lessons Learned

We’re now 1800 words in today, and over 4000 words in this series. Let’s wrap it up now with what we’ve learned about Chicago’s pass rush.

  • Overall, the team pass rush was quite bad in 2023, and they’ve lost more than they gained this offseason, so they should be expected to be bad in 2024 as well.
  • Matt Eberflus showed he can cover up for that by blitzing more last year, but his history makes it clear he would rather not, and he’s generally able to get solid results for the overall defense even without much blitzing or pressure on the QB.
  • Montez Sweat is a good but not great pass rusher, but the rest of Chicago’s defensive ends are quite bad in that area.
  • Gervon Dexter Sr. showed the potential to be a high-level pass rusher from the interior, but has to show he can hold up against the run in order to earn more of an every-down role.
  • Andrew Billings will likely play a lot of snaps inside, but should not be expected to provide much pass rush.
  • Zacch Pickens Jr. showed some pass rushing potential in a limited role late in his rookie season, but is something of a wild card as his role is expected to expand significantly in 2024.
  • The Bears still need to sign both a DE and DT capable of playing 500+ snaps before training camp in order to round out their rotation.

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