For all the talk of parity in the NFL, the NFC is not complying in 2021. Six of the seven seeds in January’s postseason tournament are all but spoken for, with Arizona, Los Angeles, Green Bay, Dallas, Tampa and New Orleans creating a sizable gap between themselves and the rest of the field. There will now be a scrum, a scramble, a scrape for the seventh seed, and the honor of getting absolutely thrashed on the road come Wildcard Weekend. (Personal note: I’ll be celebrating my 40th birthday in Atlantic City that weekend and gambling heavily against this seventh seed.)
The Bears are not going to be that team. First, they are not very good on either side of the ball.
Defensively, they survived the first stretch of the season with exemplary pass rush from Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn. When that rush evaporated, due to a combination of injury, Covid and Trent Williams, the secondary has been revealed as what it is: Jaylon Johnson, DHC and a collection of practice squad guys.
Offensively, they just don’t have enough talent. Their wide receivers are mediocre. Their offensive line can’t pass protect. Their running backs can’t stay on the field. Sunday was the most inspiring loss in Bears history, with Justin Fields looking every bit the part of star quarterback, but it was also plainly obvious how much help he needs.
Second, this team’s schedule doesn’t get easier. They will be significant underdogs at Pittsburgh, home to Baltimore, home to Arizona and at Green Bay. Their best case record scenario when they arrive at games against Minnesota and Seattle, teams also fighting for the seventh seed, is 5-8, assuming they win in Detroit on Thanksgiving. That record would require this team to RUN THE TABLE to get into the tournament.
So, let it go. It’s over. There will be no playoff football for the 2021 Chicago Bears. And you know what? That doesn’t matter! They’ve got the horse that matters; they’ve got the quarterback. Now they need to try and unload any player not part of the long-term Justin Fields Project. The Bears should have a sign on their lawn in Lake Forest that reads “(Just About) Everything Must Go”.
I don’t pretend to understand the complexities of the NFL salary cap. I do understand that trading big contracts is exceedingly difficult, and thus happens rarely in-season. But the Bears need to unload whatever they can, and they should be willing to take financial hits in 2022 to do so. This team will be better next season because the quarterback will improve and the coach should be different, but they still won’t be contenders yet. They need more draft picks to replenish this secondary and wide receiving corps. And they need them next spring.
Who can they deal?
#Bears Pro Bowl pass-rusher Khalil Mack is not expected to play this week, per @MikeGarafolo and me, as the team will allow his ailing foot to rest. Giving him three weeks while on Injured Reserve to heal and rehab is being discussed. A significant blow to the Chicago defense.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) October 27, 2021
The Bears were significant underdogs in Las Vegas. And they won the game by double digits. There is plenty to criticize about this performance. (And you’ll find much of that below.) But one thing can not be stated clearly enough: this was a massive win for the 2021 Chicago Bears and their head coach, Matt Nagy. They now have a chance for a season.
Those are the only five players with more sacks on this early season than Robert Quinn, the early frontrunner for Comeback Player of the Year in the NFL. (Being that he “played” most of 2020, he’s probably not even eligible for the award but symbolically the point is made.) A second look at the players above Quinn reveals an even more significant truth.
Garrett has 6 sacks, but recorded 4.5 in a single game, against the Chicago Bears. Jones has 5 sacks, all coming in the season opener against the Tennessee Titans. Hunter had 3 of his 5 against the Arizona Cardinals.
Only Hargrave, Watt, and Robert Quinn have delivered as pass rushers in each of the first four games of the 2021 season. They have been the most consistent performers off the edge, with Quinn’s teammate Khalil Mack a half-sack behind and right there in the same conversation. But Quinn’s appearance on this list is something of a revelation, and a shocking revelation at that. Let’s follow the timeline.
Now, through four games of the 2021 season, Quinn has 4.5 sacks and could easily have 2-3 more. He’s well on his way to the double-digit sack campaign the Bears paid him to reach. But from a gameday perspective, Quinn’s reemergence is going to allow the Bears to stay competitive in at least 75% of the games they play this season. With a secondary comprised of Jaylon Johnson, a mediocre Eddie Jackson and a bunch of street guys, the only hope for this defense is a multidimensional pass rush and Quinn is finally providing that needed second dimension opposite Mack.
This will also allow the Bears to start Justin Fields without him needing to throw 50 passes a game to stay competitive; a completely untenable situation with the offensive line as currently composed.
Yesterday began a series of joint practices with the Miami Dolphins that will culminate in the preseason opener Saturday. Weather delayed the day. Quick thoughts.
I really like the way Justin Fields is getting the ball out there. He appears to be the real deal.
— David Furones (@DavidFurones_) August 11, 2021
Nobody who has physically watched the Bears practice this summer has come away with any other opinion. It is a matter of time, and that matter of time should be around four days.
First joint practice between the Bears-Dolphins has concluded. I spent it watching the Dolphins offense vs. the Bears defense. We’ll have plenty of takeaways up later but two main things here:
1. Khalil Mack is a game-wrecker.
2. WR Mack Hollins was a problem for Bears D.
— Adam Jahns (@adamjahns) August 11, 2021
Mack’s practices have not been significantly valued due to the injuries on the Bears OL. Hearing he dominated the Dolphins should provide hope that he’s finally beyond his injury issues and ready to rejoin the best pass rushers in the sport at the top of the sack sheet.
For those of you who don’t remember, this is the Joe Anderson Boner. Johnson seems to catch a big pass from Fields in every single practice.
This whole “Player to Watch” concept is a bit tired, isn’t it? What exactly is there to watch in camp when it comes to Robert Quinn? Or Danny Trevathan? There’s no production to monitor. Nothing the team shows to fans and media means anything. So what are we watching?
But there are things of note, and those things usually involve who is getting reps where. (Hence, yesterday’s focus on which player will be returning kickoffs in a few weeks.) This summer, when it comes to the Bears defense, there is one thing to watch: health.
Khalil Mack has been wrestling with back (and other) injuries for two seasons.
Akiem Hicks is constantly in and out of the lineup.
Robert Quinn never got his season started in 2020 due to a series of knocks.
Jaylon Johnson is being asked to assume the top corner role but, while he is immensely talented, he is also chronically-injured.
Eddie Goldman just took a year off from playing football. That’s not easy and his body’s response will be something to monitor.
Danny Trevathan is aging (aren’t we all?) and slowing.
This is an older group, with it unlikely Mack, Hicks, Quinn and Trevathan will be on the roster in 2022. But if the Bears want to be a playoff team this season – no matter who is playing quarterback – they need almost all of the aforementioned players to stay on the field (with the plausible exception of Trevathan).
Is it important which corner settles into the slot role? Sure. But if Kindle Vildor wins the job this summer that doesn’t mean he’ll still have the job come October. What’s important to watch this summer is the health of the aging stars. Because that will have the greatest impact on 2021 success.
Over the next few days, I want to look at advanced defensive statistics from Pro Football Reference to better examine some of Chicago’s individual defenders as we prepare for the 2021 season. Today will focus on pass rush, while upcoming articles will examine missed tackles and pass coverage.
On the surface, Chicago’s pass rush was not terribly impressive last year. The Bears finished with 35 sacks (17th in the NFL) and 137 pressures (23rd). They pressured QBs on only 22.4% of dropbacks, which ranked 21st of 32 NFL teams. I’ll note here that pressures can be a somewhat subjective stat, and thus they differ a bit from source to source. Pro Football Focus, for instance, had the Bears as the 4th best pass rush in the NFL.
I don’t have access to PFF’s data, however, so I’m going forward with Pro Football Reference numbers. I specifically want to hone in on pressures today, because those tend to be a more reliable measure of pass rush effectiveness than sacks. Last offseason, I found that, on average, NFL players get about 3.8 pressures per sack. This allows you to get a feel for expected sacks (pressures/3.8), which you can then compare to the actual sacks to see which players got lucky (more sacks than expected) or unlucky (less sacks than expected). I found there is no carryover from one season to the next in this stat, so it gives us an idea of what players we might expect to bounce back the upcoming season.
When looking at league-wide data for 2020, I noticed that total sacks seemed lower. The pressure numbers were about the same (105 players had 15+ pressures in 2020 compared to 107/year in 2018-19, 36 players had 30+ pressures compared to 32 per year in 2018-19) but I found there were 4.3 pressures per sack in 2020. My hypothesis is that the NFL calling fewer holding penalties led to more pressures where the pass rusher couldn’t finish the play. Either way, I used the 4.3 pressures/sack number to get the expected sacks for Bears players in 2020, and you can see how they did compared to their actual sacks below. Players in green outperformed their expected sack total by at least 1 sack, while those in red underperformed by at least 1 sack.
A few thoughts:
There, it’s out of my system. We can move on.
2021 is very unlikely to be a championship-caliber campaign for the Chicago Bears. Andy Dalton doesn’t win Super Bowls. Rookie quarterbacks don’t either. But that doesn’t mean the whole of Chicago needs to resign themselves to a middling, meaningless 17 games of football. Because while all the excitement around this franchise seems centered on one side of the ball – and more specifically one position – the Bears are still paying an awful lot of men and awful lot of money, to stop the other team from scoring.
So what if Khalil Mack does more than generate pressures and receive analytical praise? What if he actually buries a dozen quarterbacks this season?
What if Robert Quinn looks like the Robert Quinn that played in the NFL for all those years previous to landing at O’Hare and trying his first Portillo’s hot dog?
What if adding Eddie Goldman back into the mix does what it should: devours opposing internal linemen, freeing Roquan and Trevathan to shut down rushing attacks?
What if Eddie Jackson doesn’t get multiple pick sixes called back for penalties this season?
What if Akiem Hicks has one more year in those legs?
What if Sean Desai is the next great defensive coordinator for an organization that’s had a bunch of them?
One might read that list of questions and think, “Well that’s a lot of what ifs, isn’t it?” And maybe it is. But all of these individuals have set precedents for success. They have all done the things in the league they are being paid to do in 2021. It’s not unfair to ask them to be the players they are being paid to be.
Yet again in 2020, we see that the Bears have one of the best defenses in the NF,L coupled with one of the worst offenses. This combines to give them a team that is not good enough. It’s Groundhog Day all over again, a continuation of 2018-19, all of the Lovie years, and the 1980s after Jim McMahon got hurt.
Normally I’d use the bye week to do an in-depth look at the numbers for Chicago’s offense and defense, but honestly I don’t see the point. Their defense is really good, their offense is really bad, and you don’t need advanced stats to tell you more than that. I’m sure I’ll still do some of that analysis in the offseason but for right now I want to focus on a bigger question: WHY is the defense so much better than their offense?
The answer here is really not that surprising: the Bears are investing more in the defense. The table below shows how much money they have invested in the defense compared to the offense, as measured in 3 ways:
The table below shows the Bears’ values for offense and defense in each category, as well as the NFL average and where the Bears rank. All data is from Spotrac.
A few thoughts: