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For Bears Defense, Offseason Needs Quickly Coming into Focus

| September 27th, 2022


Thinking about 2022 as a developmental season means thinking about what the primary roster needs will be heading into 2023. And just three weeks into the season, those needs are becoming clear on the defensive side of the football.

First things first. The Bears should not even consider letting Roquan Smith play elsewhere next season. Does that mean signing him to a $100 million contract? Not necessarily. While a happy Roquan is the best possible outcome for both sides, it was obvious Sunday that Roquan is more than capable of delivering a professional (and brilliant) performance even without the (somewhat absurd) guaranteed money he seeks. The franchise tag is awful for players, but it exists, and the Bears should not hesitate to use it on one of the best defensive players in the league. Unless another team approaches with a knockout trade offer Roquan should be wearing #58 in Chicago next year.

Second is the secondary, which looks solid at the very back and sketchy everywhere else. At corner, there are too many questions. Can Jaylon Johnson stay healthy for a season? Kindle Vildor has shown an ability to make plays, but can he display the consistency required to be a starting NFL corner? Kyler Gordon is a rookie, and rookies struggle, but some of Gordon’s struggles are, let’s just call them…eye-popping. Yet there are still plenty of moments that show why Gordon was selected in the second round, including several in the second half Sunday. Can he overcome the former and produce more of the latter? Corner is a position where you can’t have too much talent and the Bears need to add several quality bodies.

Last, and the opposite of least, is the defensive front. There is some talent on this line, but it’s hard not to notice two alarming trends.

  • For as good as the Bears have been running the ball, they have been equally bad defending the run. They’re getting pushed off the ball and it’s now very clear why their first free agent target was Larry Ogunjobi. They lack heft in the middle of the line.
  • The Bears are struggling to get off the field on third downs, primarily because their pass rush disappears in those spots. (Robert Quinn seems like he’s been a few feet from about ten sacks.) There is no such thing as a great defense absent a great pass rush. The quickest route to a great pass rush is finding yourself a great pass rusher. It will likely be their second biggest need this offseason.

Through three games, the Bears are firmly a mid-table defense, which should give fans confidence in what Matt Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams are building in Chicago. They don’t have top of the league defensive talent. But they might only be three or four players away from being among the game’s best.

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Four Positives, Three Concerns from Sunday’s Victory Over the Niners

| September 13th, 2022


There is no reason to overreact to the first game of an NFL season, especially when a substantial period of that game is played in a deluge. But when a season is going to be defined by the development of a young roster, it is worth tracking that developing week-to-week. Tuesdays will be the day we do that on DBB.

Four Positives

  • Dominique Robinson. Scout friends, with much more developed football brains than my own, have been telling me about Robinson since the Bears took him in the fifth round. Well, Robinson had a jump off the screen debut Sunday and Senior Bowl Jim Nagy took notice.

  • Justin Fields. The quarterback was brutal in the first half against San Francisco, but once again he has shown the ability to forget the bad plays and forge ahead. His second half line? 5-for-8, 102 yards, 2 TDs, 0 sacks and a 145.8 passer rating. (And this second half would have likely been even better if the fourth quarter didn’t feature a large boat and two of every animal.)
  • Eddie Jackson. Not only did Jackson make the game-changing interception, but he was active and aggressive in run support, even making some noise on contact. This wasn’t EJ the finesse player. This was EJ the defensive leader and after one game it seems no Bears defender has been more significantly (read: positively) impacted by the implementation of Matt Eberflus’ program.
  • Khalil Herbert. After struggling this summer, Herbert was the best Bears running back Sunday and he seems to have a burst that David Montgomery lacks. It will be worth monitoring the allocation of carries moving forward.

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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.

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Data Entry: Zooming in on Coverage Players (Corners)

| June 29th, 2022

 


Today we’re going to shift from examining players who rush the passer to those who defend passes that are thrown. We’ll start by looking at the CBs, with an upcoming article to look at linebackers and safeties.

In order to do this, I’m using data from Pro Football Focus (PFF) that looks at how frequently and effectively individual players are targeted in coverage. I chose to set a threshold of 250 coverage snaps because it both gives a decent enough sample size to judge an individual player and gives a big enough grouping of players at each position to evaluate how somebody performed relative to their peers. This threshold gave a sample size of 106 cornerbacks, or 3.3 per NFL team.


First Look

The Bears have four notable veteran cornerbacks: returners Jaylon Johnson, Kindle Vildor, Duke Shelley, and newcomer Tavon Young. The table below shows how they fared in a variety of coverage metrics last year, as well as their rank compared to 106 cornerbacks who had at least 250 coverage snaps. To give a broader frame of reference, the best, average, median, and worst values among that 106-player sample are also provided for each statistic. 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:

  • Let’s start with Jaylon Johnson, who is probably not as good as many Bears fans have made him out to be. To be fair to Johnson, he often shadowed the other team’s best WR in 2021, so quite a bit was asked of him, but his overall profile here shows a CB who is more average starter than great. Still, he is at least an average starter, and that’s something.
    • You can also see Johnson’s stylistic approach to CB show up through a few of the stats. Passes thrown at him are generally pretty deep because he plays tight man coverage and doesn’t give up easy stuff underneath. That leads to a low catch percentage, but also a high yards/catch value.
    • Overall, Johnson ends up around average in both yards/target and yards/coverage snap, which are probably the best 2 overall metrics to go to when evaluating CB play.
  • It’s a very different story for Kindle Vildor, who was the worst CB in the NFL in yards/target. Like Johnson, he likes to play tight coverage, which gives him a high average target and catch depth. Unlike Johnson, Vildor gave up a really high catch percentage, which is really bad when passes are deep. One good thing is that teams didn’t throw at him very often, but they were hugely successful when they did.
  • Finally, let’s take a look at Duke Shelley and Tavon Young, who have similar profiles because they both primarily play nickel. That means they see more short passes (low target depth and air yards/catch) but give up more catches (high catch %). Young was appreciably better at limiting yards after the catch, which meant his overall metrics (yards/target and yards/coverage snap) were around average, while Shelley’s were terrible.
    • It seems weird that Shelley was the worst CB in the NFL giving up yards after the catch despite being very good at avoiding missed tackles. That must mean many players who caught the ball had so much space between them and Shelley that they could keep moving without him having an attempted tackle to miss.

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Dannehy: Young Bears I Just Cant Quit, Volume II (The Case for Kindle)

| June 10th, 2022


Kindle Vildor, CB

Vildor has been ruthlessly dogged by fans, mostly deserved, but he was also hurt by the decisions of the previous coaching staff.

The Bears really liked Vildor after his rookie season and he played well in the playoff game against New Orleans. But why Sean Desai felt comfortable leaving the second-year corner from Georgia Southern on an island game-after-game last year is a mystery. A reasonable expectation would’ve been for Vildor to be a reserve in his second season. Instead, he barely had to compete for a starting job and was left to his own, oft-limited resources.

When Vildor played well as a rookie it was in Chuck Pagano’s zone concepts. As a result, they held a 13-win Saints team to 14 points through three quarters. Vildor gave up four catches on four targets, but limited receivers to just 24 yards. He was also seven-for-seven on tackle attempts.

The 2021 coverage statistics for Vildor look horrendous — he allowed a passer rating of 136.1 — but the tape isn’t nearly as bad. He was often in position to make plays but failed at what some refer to as “the moment of truth”. (This is when the ball arrives, and the receiver and cornerback have to battle to get to it.)

It’s also worth mentioning that several of the touchdowns blamed on him appeared to be coverage breakdowns, including the Week 15 game in which he jammed Ihmir Smith-Marsette and went to cover the flat before realizing nobody followed the Vikings wide receiver into the end zone.

Vildor was benched midway through last season but came back and played well. He played 133 snaps combined the last four games and allowed a total of 57 yards, while fan favorite Thomas Graham Jr. played 112 snaps and allowed 67 yards. (It’s worth noting that much of the yardage Graham gave up was on a 41-yard touchdown pass because Dasai left him on an island with fricken D.K. Metcalf).

As bad as he was at times last year, the new staff seems to like Vildor. While we maybe shouldn’t read a lot into the decision to demote Jaylon Johnson to the second team in an OTA, it is worth noting that it was Vildor who replaced Johnson in the starting lineup. If Vildor can be disciplined in zone coverage, make plays when they’re available and continue as a sure tackler, he can have a future with this team.

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Bears Beat Bengals to Guarantee Tie for First Place: Rapid Fire Recap

| September 20th, 2021


The story will be Justin Fields. Every week, from here out. Fields played how a rookie with no first-team reps should play. Bad interception. Cadence issues with the line. Some brilliant throws (that the receivers didn’t catch). Extended a crucial drive with his legs. Now the season becomes about his progression. And if the Bears can win while he progresses, this becomes a fascinating season.

Other thoughts. Rapid fire is back, baby.

  • The other progression to track is Kindle Vildor. Vildor made enough plays Sunday to provide hope but also looked lost at times. If the Bears can find a second corner on this roster it’ll make the offseason so much easier to navigate.
  • Roquan Smith and Jaylon Johnson are young cornerstones for this defense. Roquan is a weird combination of Briggs and Urlacher – an attacking run stuffer who’s also brilliant in space. Johnson, if he stays healthy, has All Pro corner talent.
  • Robert Quinn’s hit on Burrow out of bounds was absurd but this was his best game as a Bear.
  • Allen Robinson has to catch the touchdown pass from Fields. He just has to. It’s not only pivotal in the game but it would have given the organization a huge moment to celebrate. Don’t complain about the quarterbacks you’ve played with in your career when you can’t make plays like that.
  • Cole Kmet. One target. That just isn’t enough. The Bears have to get their tight ends consistently into the game plan.

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2021’s Ten Most Important Bears (Other Than Justin Fields)

| September 8th, 2021

The 2021 season probably won’t be one the Bears highlight, but it could be important for determining the future of the franchise. They have an odd mix of veterans and young players, all needing to prove themselves. They have key positions that didn’t have battles, but also don’t have sure things locked in.

We know Justin Fields is ultimately going to be the straw that stirs the drink, hopefully for the next two decades. But the Bears need to determine two things: (a) who will be surrounding Fields and (b) how will they make life easier for the quarterback.

With that, here are the ten most important Bears of 2021, other than Fields, of course.


10. Akiem Hicks

Hicks flashed greatness last year, then seemed to run out of gas.

His job was different last year without Eddie Goldman; teams were able to focus more on him in the running game. But then you’d see the spurt; he’d throw a guard three yards back and take out a running back in the backfield.

Hicks is in a contract year and the Bears have to know what he has left before deciding what to do.


9. Sam Mustipher

Mustipher was a legitimately good center last year and could be a building block going forward. The team didn’t consider replacing him. He needs to reward that confidence.


8. Darnell Mooney

If teams are going to take Allen Robinson away, Mooney needs to make them pay. The wide receiver needs to take a significant step in his sophomore season.

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Three Lessons Learned From the Three Practice Games

| August 30th, 2021


Lesson #1

Bears don’t have an answer at second corner spot.

Kindle Vildor was the darling of the practice sessions but thoroughly underwhelmed in game action. Desmond Trufant has wanted to prove he still has it but hasn’t been able to prove he can stay healthy. Duke Shelley? Tre Roberson? Thomas Graham? Artie Burns? They’re just bodies.

What the Bears should do is play Graham and live with his learning on the job. But that would require the organization understand where they are in the championship timeline and their handling of Justin Fields has proven they do not. They will go with the lowest risk option opposite Jaylon Johnson and be vulnerable there all season long.


Lesson #2

Rodney Adams can play NFL football.

Adams’ preseason performances were better than anything former Bear Javon Wims and should-be-former Bear Riley Ridley have put on tape during their careers. And his rapport with Fields can not be overlooked. If Adams does not find a space on the final 53, it’s safe to say Matt Nagy put no import on anything that happened in preseason games.


Lesson #3

Justin Fields is the club’s most exciting player.

Khalil Mack is great. Allen Robinson is steady. But Fields is a needle mover at the sport’s most important position. Every snap he takes under center brings the entirety of Chicago to full attention. Every snap he doesn’t play in 2021 is a complete waste of time.

Fields is ready. Every single analyst objectively watching the Bears knows it. If only the head coach did.

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Training Camp Diary: Feisty Practice, Ferocious Defense, Forecasting the Preseason Opener

| August 13th, 2021


Thursday was apparently a feisty practice throughout, which is actually nice to see. I don’t know why every team in the league doesn’t orchestra more of these joint practices. They are so much more valuable than in-house scrimmages.


Another day, another Fields gem. Why would any team leave a talent like this on the bench?


Bears corners have been good so far this summer, and the defense is playing healthy and fast across the board.


Is There Anything to Watch Tomorrow?

The truth is, who knows?

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Training Camp Diary: As Players Report, CB Position Battles Pivotal

| July 27th, 2021


With two of the team’s three starting cornerback positions up for grabs, this summer’s positional battles could be crucial for the immediate and long-term future of the team.

There is little question that the Bears prefer for Kindle Vildor and Thomas Graham Jr. to win the starting jobs because while the competition features some interesting names, the options themselves are relatively unappealing.

Early reports from the offseason program have indicated Vildor played well, though it’s way too early to know what that means. He figures to be battling Artie Burns and Desmond Trufant for the job opposite Jaylon Johnson but could also compete with Graham and Duke Shelley at the starting slot spot. Vildor struggled as a rookie, allowing completions on 12 of the 17 passes thrown his way in the regular season, but that is to be expected from a raw fifth-rounder.

If he stays healthy, Trufant could be interesting. He has five interceptions in 15 games the past two seasons, but has also surrendered passer ratings higher than 100. He hasn’t been in good situations, playing with teams that haven’t had much for pass rush and Detroit liked putting cornerbacks on an island. It’s possible that Trufant has enough to give the Bears a good season, but that would do nothing to answer the long-term question.

If Burns win the job, the Bears will be in big trouble. The former first round pick has never played like a starting-caliber cornerback.

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