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Dannehy: Bears Defense Could Be Good

| September 28th, 2022

If the Chicago defense is going to establish itself as a good unit, Sunday in New Jersey is the perfect time to do so.

The unit’s numbers are a bit mixed, which probably best describes their performance. The team is 11th in points allowed and 20th in yardage. They’re 9th in passing defense, 30th against the run. That’s all fine, especially considering their talent. But a deeper dive is less encouraging.

They are 17th in points allowed per drive, 22nd in yardage. However, because they’re seventh in takeaways – The Eberflus Effect – they are 11th in DVOA.

At the very least, this defense is mediocre. They have a chance to be better than that. They struggled in the first half against San Francisco and Green Bay and had some issues early against Houston. But they have been lights out in the second half, another effect of having Eberflus at the helm. (A lot of this is due to Kyler Gordon’s second half performances being far superior to his first halves.)

They need to put it together for four quarters. Sunday is a prime opportunity.

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Dannehy: Opener Displays the 2022 Recipe for Success

| September 14th, 2022


If you are hoping, for the first time in your life, to see a Chicago Bears team air it out, the 2022 edition is unlikely to fulfill those desires. But there does exist an offensive recipe for this vintage to succeed and it was almost on full display Sunday. The defense will fly to the football. The offense will generate big plays in the passing game. The Bears will run it a ton. They did two of three successfully against San Francisco and laid the groundwork for the rest of the season, monsoon or not.

With a defensive head coach, the defense is probably going to remain the straw that stirs the drink. While that may bring a collective groan from Bears fans, it shouldn’t. If they can run the ball and Justin Fields can keep making big plays, they will be competitive each week. But perhaps the most interesting part of the postgame reaction, though, was Matt Eberflus saying flat out that the team needs to be better.

There were a number of blown coverages that Aaron Rodgers is going to take advantage of in Week Two, assuming his receivers catch the football.

Fields put the team on his back at times, but he also had one horrible interception and barely avoided a couple more – including on his first pass attempt of the game, a screen in which the ball was thrown high with several Niner defenders closing in. He has to learn from those mistakes in a way past young Bears quarterbacks haven’t.

While it was Flus’ first win, the coach wasn’t puffing a victory cigar. He has an eye on next week and the future of the team. We’ll see what’s cooking for the rest of 2022. The recipe looks simple enough.


Herbert v. Montgomery

The hottest take to come from Sunday’s game was that Khalil Herbert is better than David Montgomery. That is a conversation that has more layers than their yards per carry averages though.

There is no question that Herbert was better running with the ball on Sunday. He was decisive and got whatever yardage was available. Montgomery seemed to have a difficult time finding the line of scrimmage at times.

But there is another factor. While NFL GSIS shows Herbert as having the most positive influence on the Bears running game, he was the biggest negative in the passing game. Herbert’s struggles in that regard aren’t just about catching passes. He has also had issues as a blocker.

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Week One Victory a Significant Moment for Head Coach Matt Eberflus

| September 12th, 2022


It was a dreary affair.

My cat, Bear, hides under the bed when he’s not feeling particularly well. I know this is pretty common for cats, but I love Bear and I don’t like it when he’s under there. In the second quarter, when the football game was unwatchable, I spent a few minutes laying on the cold wood of my bedroom floor, petting him as he purred. This seemed to me, at the moment, a far better use of my time.

Then halftime happened.

And the Chicago Bears that emerged from the locker room bore little resemblance to the team that went in fifteen minutes earlier. The offense, which looked like it was trying to operate in a phone booth over the first two quarters, expanded from sideline-to-sideline and let their athletic quarterback maneuver his way through the game.

Three drives.

5 plays, 72 yards, touchdown.

10 plays, 84 yards, touchdown.

5 plays, 21 yards, touchdown.

The defense had been doing their job. The offense finally showed up for work. And in those three drives, each uniquely odd, Matt Eberflus established, without argument, the Bears have a capable professional in the head coaching gig. Pioneering sports talker Mike Francesa has always defined the role of NFL head coach as having two tasks: giving players a plan for success and motivating them to execute that plan.

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Dannehy: Upside is Evident, Especially at Coach and Quarterback

| August 31st, 2022


While the most likely scenario is the 2022 Chicago Bears being out of contention before December, last Saturday’s preseason game was a reminder that the outcome of this campaign is far from certain.

There are plenty of question marks on the roster. Will Larry Borom, Teven Jenkins or Kindle Vildor end up being quality players? Flip a coin. Will Justin Jones and Nicholas Morrow stay healthy? Who knows? But there is a world in which a lot of these roster decisions go right, and fans caught a glimpse of that world on Saturday night. The talent on this roster may be better than it has been given credit for, especially considering some think it’s the worst in the league.

But there are two positions on every team that can drastically improve the outcome of any season: head coach and quarterback. That’s where fan focus should rest.

Eberflus.

It has been said over and over that Flus had top-10 defenses with worse talent than he has now. Of course, Eberflus isn’t the defensive coordinator (still a question mark) but his scheme is relatively easy to learn and the principles that made him successful in Indianapolis are being taught in Chicago.

What we’ve seen from the preseason is a Bears team that plays fast, but in control. Control is everything. They’re disciplined and assignment sure. Gone are the days of overcomplicated systems. The Bears will be simple, and they will play harder than their opponent.

Fields.

Enough has been written about his struggles as a rookie.

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Data Entry: Zooming in on Coverage Players (LB and S)

| June 30th, 2022

 


Today we’ll switch to look at how linebackers and safeties have fared in coverage.

Like I did with cornerbacks, 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 68 linebackers (2.1/team) and 82 safeties (2.6/team).


Linebackers

Let’s start with a look at linebackers, where the Bears return Roquan Smith and bring in Nicholas Morrow. The table below shows how they fared in a variety of coverage metrics last year, as well as their rank compared to 68 linebackers who had at least 250 coverage snaps. To give a broader frame of reference, the best, average, median, and worst values among that 68-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%.

Note: Since Morrow missed the 2021 season with an injury, his data is from 2020, but he is still ranked against his peers in 2021. I know this is not perfect, but these values shouldn’t change that much league-wide year over year, and it saved me a ton of work.

A few thoughts:

  • Overall, both Roquan and Morrow appear to be very good in coverage. This should be a real strength of Chicago’s defense.
  • The two main stats I would use to evaluate effectiveness are yards/target and yards/coverage snap. These encapsulate a bunch of the other metrics to show how many yards the defender gave up overall.
    • In those areas, Roquan is solidly above average, but not great, which honestly surprised me.
    • Morrow, on the other hand, ranks near the top in both. The Bears haven’t had a good coverage linebacker to put next to Roquan since he was a rookie in 2018, so the thought of pairing him with somebody who excels in coverage is enticing.
  • Some of the other stats can give us a glimpse into playing style. For instance, Roquan gives up plenty of catches (high catch %), but they are mostly very short (low target depth and air yards/catch). This is a common trade off in coverage, since shorter passes are easier to complete. Unfortunately, Roquan struggles a bit with giving up yards after the catch – though it’s not due to missed tackles – which is what brings him down overall. In general, Roquan is good at limiting the yards/catch allowed, but the high catch rate brings his yards/target and yards/snap ranks down a bit.
    • Morrow, on the other hand, keeps the catch rate low despite giving up short passes, which gives him stellar coverage marks pretty much across the board.

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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: New Bears Regime Chose Familiar Path

| May 11th, 2022


You’ll never hear an NFL front office proclaim, in rich detail, the specific team they’re going to build, but the first offseason of the new Chicago Bears’ regime made it clear. The hiring of Matt Eberflus was the start of what turned out to be an entire offseason emphasis to build a defense-first team. That plan culminated at the draft when the team spent both of its second-round picks on that side of the ball. There’s an old saying that teams are built in the image of their coaches. The Bears seem to be embracing that line of thinking.

And while the 2022 season has been seen from the outside as one in which the Bears would write off as a losing campaign, securing the back end of their defense could help them field a competitive team. The picks of Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker put what should be high-level players at positions that were serious question marks. The Bears did not have a viable option across from Jaylon Johnson or next to Eddie Jackson. Now, they believe they do.

Cornerbacks can be hit or miss as rookies, but a scheme that emphasizes zone coverage – similar to what Gordon played in at Washington – should make his transition relatively seamless. Safeties are typically able to transition to the NFL quickly and Brisker gives the Bears a versatile player; a sure tackler who can cover a lot of ground. With Jackson, Johnson and Tavon Young in the slot, the Bears should have a solid secondary, with tremendous upside.

While they’re probably still a high-level front four player away from elite, it isn’t an overstatement to say Eberflus has had top ten defenses with less. In fact, Eberflus has almost always had top ten defenses. In four years with the Colts, his units had average rankings of ninth in scoring, second in takeaways and eighth in DVOA. For the sake of comparison, Vic Fangio’s Bears units were 14th, 19th and 17th in those same categories.

The Bears also selected two players who figure to be explosive return men. It isn’t unlike the 2006 draft when the first two players the team selected both excelled on special teams, including the greatest return man in NFL history. Both Velus Jones Jr. and Tristan Ebner give the Bears home run hitters on specials.

The offense is going to struggle this year, just like the offenses of Lovie Smith’s time with the team did. Hopefully, Justin Fields continues to show his ability to make big throws down the field and the running game can keep the defense fresh. The Bears will be relying on the defense to create takeaways and the special teams to give the offense good field position. That’s a terribly flawed long-term plan, but if Fields is as good as many think he is, it’s a plan that will have the team contending for a playoff spot in 2022, enabling them to load-up on the offensive side for 2023.

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Dannehy: Expect New Bears Leadership to Target “Trench Guys” Next Week

| April 20th, 2022


While fans debate which wide receiver the Chicago Bears should draft, the trench guys running the team just could go in a different direction. Matt Eberflus indicated as much in his interview with Cris Collinsworth, released last week:

“Ryan (Poles) and I are really clear on our vision for the football team,” Eberflus said. “He’s an ex-offensive lineman so we believe in the line play, we think that it starts up front and we believe in that. We believe in the physical punch that it takes from the offensive line running off the ball and same thing on defense. So that’s going to be a very important part to us in terms of determining who we are, what our identity is as a football team.”

It could be pre-draft manipulation, but that doesn’t really seem to be the new coach’s style. It seems more likely than not they’re going to beef up the offensive and defensive lines.

As Eberflus said, Poles is a former offensive lineman. Have you ever heard of a former offensive lineman who doesn’t think building up the offensive line is one of the two most important factors in having a successful offense? Flus was a linebacker. How many linebackers gush about the importance wide receiver play? These are trench guys and you can bet that they won’t tolerate fielding a team that is weak at the line of scrimmage.

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Dannehy: If Bears Sincerely Like Montgomery, Expect Extension

| April 13th, 2022


If the Chicago Bears actually like David Montgomery, you can bet they’ll end up paying him.

The team will likely wait until after the season, though that could be a mistake if they’re able to get their running game going. While fans have argued about if Montgomery is good enough or if any running back should be paid, in general, the fact of the matter is teams who run the system the Bears are going to run usually end up paying their running backs.

Offensive coordinator Luke Getsy comes from Green Bay where the team spent a second-round pick on AJ Dillon and then paid Aaron Jones a contract that averaged $12 million per year. That wasn’t an exception to the rule. Other running backs from the same system who have gotten large contracts include Dalvin Cook, Todd Gurley, Jerick McKinnon, Arian Foster, Davonta Freeman and Derrick Henry. The Cleveland Browns paid both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

The people who run this offense value running backs, even if fans do not. The question isn’t if they’ll be willing to pay a running back, it’s if they’ll be willing to pay Montgomery.

Getsy didn’t say much when he was introduced; at one point he even questioned the idea of what a playbook is. Head coach Matt Eberflus was effusive in his praise of Montgomery when he met the media at the owner’s meetings.

“You talk about motor and mean, yeah, he is that guy,” Eberflus said. “Serious. A pro. Worker. He’s going to be exciting to work with, and he’s going to fit right in. He’s the kind of guy that just says, ‘Hey, watch me go. I’m not going to say a whole bunch of things, but just watch me do my job.'” Eberflus has spoken about adding more running backs to the mix, but it’s clear he likes Montgomery. A lot.

Perhaps it’s just offseason talk or a smoke screen; we can’t really rule anything out right now. But if Eberflus is sincere, and Montgomery plays well in 2022, he’s going to be in Chicago beyond next season.

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Dannehy: Bears CAN Be Competitive in 2022

| April 6th, 2022


If the Chicago Bears are going to be competitive in 2022, they have some work to do. But it is doable.

There’s little argument that, on paper, the roster is worse right now than it was at the start of the 2021 season, but that doesn’t account for the expected leaps young players can make. The last two draft classes have produced some promising players; the most important of which is quarterback Justin Fields.

If Fields isn’t good, the Bears don’t have a chance at being competitive in 2022. Other young players like Darnell Mooney, Cole Kmet, Jaylon Johnson and Trevis Gipson could take big steps. The 2021 draft class oozes with potential (even beyond Fields) as nobody would be shocked if Teven Jenkins, Larry Borom, Khalil Herbert, Thomas Graham and Khyris Tonga were all plus players in 2022.

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