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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 (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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What Happened in Vegas: Bears Beat Raiders, Give Themselves Chance for a Season

| October 11th, 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.

Rapid fire.

  • Everything starts with Justin Fields and he was getting annihilated early. And most of it was NOT the result of poor play on the offensive line. The Raiders came into Sunday with the clear directive to hit Fields, whether the play was alive or dead. And Fields almost didn’t survive it.
    • As brutal as the hit was later in the game, don’t think for a moment those early hits didn’t play into Roquan Smith’s mindset when he knocked Derek Carr from the game. That was a teammate having the back of another teammate. You hit my guy up top, I hit yours up top. That’s how football used to be played.
  • Fields was good in this game, but the Bears have to let him do more moving forward. At several moments late, Nagy could have told his quarterback, “Make a play here and the it’s over.” He didn’t Sunday. He will have to soon.
    • I would have loved to see a replay of Fields’ touchdown pass to Jesper Horsted from any angle but the one shown on TV. (Apparently the only camera working at the time was on the other side of the field.) It looked like a bold decision, perfectly executed.
    • The Fields-to-Mooney 3rd down toss on what ultimately became the game-sealing drive was an absolute thing of beauty. If Fields can make that throw, in that moment, there’s nothing he can’t do physically out there.
  • As for Roquan, what a performance. He broke up a touchdown in the end zone. He stopped Carr on what looked like an easy first down run on a pivotal third down in the first half. And he’s called for two big penalties – a PI and an unnecessary roughness – neither of which were actually penalties. In the modern NFL, teams need to be wary when paying inside linebackers. The Bears should hand him a blank check.
  • There’s very little left to say about Khalil Mack. The Raiders tried to hold him early but the refs called it. Then they tried to double, and sometimes triple him. He beat it all. Some days he’s unblockable. Quite frankly, there aren’t enough of those days. But Sunday was one of them.

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Advanced Defensive Stats: S and LB Pass Coverage

| June 30th, 2021

Let’s continue our quick tour of Chicago’s defense by honing in on pass coverage.

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At a surface glance, Chicago’s pass defense was just about the definition of average in 2020. They gave up 64% completion (14th in the NFL), 7.2 yards/attempt (16th), 28 touchdowns (16th),  had10 interceptions (23rd), and allowed a passer rating against of 94.9 (20th). They were 21st in Pro Football Reference’s Adjusted Net Yards/Attempt, which accounts for sacks, touchdowns, interceptions, and yards, and 13th in Football Outsider’s pass DVOA rankings, which is intended to be a one-stop measure of pass defense overall.

A closer look at advanced statistics from Next Gen Stats shows how QBs playing against the Bears played relative to the rest of their games and the NFL average.



A few thoughts:

  • Opposing QBs generally didn’t see any change against the Bears in terms of how long they held the ball before throwing it. This means that Chicago’s pass rush wasn’t forcing them to get rid of the ball quickly, but also didn’t let them hang onto it forever. Again: average.
  • In terms of where QBs threw the ball against Chicago, opposing QBs typically threw it slightly deeper against the Bears than other opponents, though the difference is pretty subtle (for context, individual QBs ranged from 5 to 11 yards for average pass depth). That small difference was completely eliminated when looking at average completion depth.
  • Opposing QBs also threw into tight coverage (aggressive throws) slightly more than normal against the Bears, though again that’s not a huge difference. For a little context, individual QBs on the year ranged from averaging 11% to 22% on aggressive throws.

Now that we’ve firmly established the overall pass defense was around average, let’s look at how individual players fared in coverage last year to see where Chicago might have strong and weak spots. We’ll go position by position, using advanced data from Pro Football Reference.

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The Roquan Smith Game: Rapid Fire Reaction to Bears 41, Jags 17

| December 28th, 2020


Playoff scenario is clear. If the Bears win Sunday, they are in. If the Rams beat the Cardinals, the Bears are in. Simple as that. Somehow the team that many of us left for dead after an absurd collapse against the Detroit Lions is alive and well and living in January.

Some thoughts on Bears 41, Jaguars 17.

  • Yes, Trubisky is going to have several moments in almost every game that leave the world scratching their collective heads. But Mitch’s stat line for the season is now 1,803 yards, 16 TDs, 7 INTs, 95.3 rating. His 2018 stat line was 3,223 yards, 24 TDs, 12 INTs, 95.4 rating. This is what he is as a player and the Bears can win with that.
    • Until yesterday, I had never seen a quarterback attempt a Hail Mary from the 10 yard line. But that’s exactly what Trubisky did. How do you coach this out of a player? Is it even possible?
    • But it’s difficult not to be impressed with his bounce back drive coming out of the half. He had one incomplete pass, was pinpoint accurate and used his legs to get six. His short memory is becoming a real asset.
    • So is his hard count.
  • Was Roquan Smith motivated by his Pro Bowl snub? After a slow start from the defense, Roquan delivered his most dominant performance as a Bear. It will never make any sense that this franchise – which hasn’t had a franchise QB in sixty years – consistently churns out Hall of Fame inside linebackers. Oh and hey, I have a crazy idea! Maybe we should wait to choose who makes the Pro Bowl until after the season is actually over? If voting started today, Smith walks onto the Pro Bowl roster.

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  • The Bears’ identity on offense is quickly becoming clear: they are tough to tackle. David Montgomery. Cole Kmet. Even Darnell Mooney. These guys almost never go down on first contact. This has become a physical group.

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Bears Must Address Imbalanced Roster Construction

| November 20th, 2020


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:

  • 2020 cap dollars. How much current money is being spent.
  • Average yearly salary. This accounts for the fact that contracts don’t have even distribution of cap hits every year. For instance, Robert Quinn has an average salary of $14M per year in his contract, but only has a 2020 cap hit of $6M. This will give a better picture of true spending.
  • % of salary. This looks at how much of your total spending is focused on one side of the ball, based on the average annual salary of players. It’s a good measure of how lopsided your investment is on offense vs. defense.

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:

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Positivity at the Bye: In Praise of Roquan Smith

| November 19th, 2020


Another Great Inside Linebacker.

It should come as no surprise that in this painfully-typical Bears season, a season defined by terrific defensive play and non-professional offensive output, it has been a middle linebacker, the franchise’s most-storied position, that has proven to be the revelation. And Roquan Smith has been nothing short of that in 2020.

There’s a bit of Brian Urlacher in Roquan. His ability to play in space, cover sideline-to-sideline, and track the sport’s best backs in the screen game have been hallmarks of his campaign. This is not just about speed, which Roquan has in abundance. It is about awareness. It is about football intelligence. And Smith displays both weekly.

There’s also a bit of Lance Briggs in 58. Roquan sheds blockers and attacks the line of scrimmage in the run game. (This is something Urlacher struggled with once the Bears changed to Lovie Smith’s system took the big bodies out from in front of him.) If there’s a criticism to be made of his season, it’s that Roquan has several times blown up runs behind the line of scrimmage and failed to finish the play. He finishes those 2-3 plays and his statistics land him as a no-brainer All-Pro in 2020. As it is, he should still be in the discussion for that prize. Per Kevin Fishbain’s Twitter feed from Monday night: The stop behind the line on Dalvin Cook on the screen was TFL No. 13 for Roquan Smith this season, one behind T.J. Watt and Vince Williams for the NFL lead.”

When reaching out to a scout friend who had to prepare for the Bears this season, I asked him what he saw when looking at Smith on tape. His answer: “He might be the most talented, versatile inside backer in the league right now. And he’s not reached his potential yet.”


Thayer Breaks Him Down.


There are many reasons to be dejected about the Chicago Bears. But even as higher-priced veterans leave this defense in the years to come, there is still a young core that can anchor this unit and keep them near the top of the league. Eddie Jackson. Jaylon Johnson. Eddie Goldman. But no player on this defense will be more important moving forward that Roquan Smith.

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Week 8 Game Preview: Oh When the Saints, Come Marching In!

| October 29th, 2020


Why Do I Like the Chicago Bears This Week?

I always like the Chicago Bears…

…defense.


Definitive Week for Matt Nagy, Caller of Plays

A friend of mine works for the New Orleans Saints in their scouting department. When discussing this week’s game, and the prospect of Matt Nagy relinquishing the role of play caller, he noted, “If they can’t move the ball vs our secondary next week…then it’s really time.”

Last week, Mike Davis had 7 carries for 12 yards against the Saints front. Let me just repeat that. Mike Davis, the starting running back for the Carolina Panthers, had 7 carries. For 12 yards. (New Orleans is the fourth-ranked rush defense in the league.) One would think that such a porous running game would have made it impossible for Teddy Bridgewater to execute the passing attack. But the opposite was true. Bridgewater – who pitched to a quarterback rating of about 50 against the Bears – was nearly perfect against the Saints. 23-28. 254 yards. 2 touchdowns. QB rating of 128.3.

You don’t need a running game to move the ball and score points on these Saints. And that’s good. Because the Bears don’t have one. If Nagy can’t draw up production from the passing game this week, it would be very difficult to see him calling the plays against the Tennessee Titans next week.


Nine Favorite Films of 1979, the Year of Drew’s Birth

(9) Monty Python’s Life of Brian

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(8) The Jerk

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(7) …And Justice For All

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Bears at the Mini-Bye Volume III: Defense & Playoff Odds

| October 15th, 2020

I already looked at a variety of statistics for the offense, including QB performance, run game woes, and explosive plays, and explored how Chicago has deployed their skill position players. Today I want to look at advanced defensive statistics from Pro Football Reference and think about Chicago’s playoff odds.


Missed Tackles

I highlighted missed tackles as a concern in the secondary heading into the season. As a team, the Bears are actually doing quite well with missed tackles right now; they rank 7th in the NFL with 22 through 5 weeks. The table below shows missed tackle stats (from Pro Football Reference) for all players with at least 10 tackle attempts, as well as cumulative totals for each position group.

For context, here’s how the positional averages compare to NFL peers over the last 2 years:

  • The median starting NFL DB misses right around 11% of their tackles, so Chicago’s secondary is about average here so far. That’s actually pretty good for them given the tackling concerns heading into the season with Kyle Fuller, Buster Skrine, and Eddie Jackson. Fuller in particular has struggled so far this year, but everybody else has been ok.

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ATM: 2019’s Five Most Indispensable Bears

| August 26th, 2019

The Bears roster is interesting because it’s incredibly deep at positions like running back, wide receiver and defensive line, but have almost no depth at cornerback, tight end and offensive tackle. Perhaps a trade could be in the works, but it’s much more likely that what we see is what we get. So, here are five players the Bears can’t be without:

Roquan Smith

I thought about using Danny Trevathan here because Trevathan makes the defensive calls — an underrated aspect of any defense — but I have little doubt that Smith could take that over. Smith is so good, I think he’s going to be what Ryan Pace considers a multiplier (players who make those around them better) very soon.

I’ve highlighted issues with depth before so I don’t need to go into it too much. I will say that it was nice to see Joel Iyiegbuniwe making plays last week.


Kyle Fuller

The Bears survived much of two games without Fuller’s counterpart Prince Amukamara last year but Fuller is a different story.

Both of the team’s starting cornerbacks are good, but there were times when Prince looked a step slow and committed some silly penalties down the field. Still, Kevin Toliver II was a noticeable downgrade from him last year, so it would be even more significant should they lose their best corner.

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