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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 Young Bears Off to Cold Starts (Non-Quarterback Category)

| September 20th, 2022

Again, Tuesdays are a good spot in the week to assess the development of young players on this young roster and a few concerning trends have begun to emerge.


Darnell Mooney/Cole Kmet

Where are they?

That’s serious question worth asking after two games.

Where are they?

There was no scenario wherein the Bears could be a productive offense in 2022 without serious production from Mooney and Kmet and, through two games, they have been utterly invisible. How much of that do they own? How much of that is on the quarterback? How much of that is on two difficult defensive opponents?

Whatever the reasoning, it has to stop. The next two games – home to Houston and at the Giants – need to be games where these two players are fed the football. Scheme them open if necessary. The Bears need to find out just how many weapons they need to acquire this off-season.


Roquan Smith

In the winter, Aaron Judge played hardball with the New York Yankees. He wanted a zillion dollars over a zillion years. The Yankees only wanted to give him 3/4 of a zillion over slightly less than a zillion years. Nobody budged. No deal. And now Judge is having the greatest contract year in the history of professional sports.

Roquan Smith is off to the opposite campaign. He is getting blown off the ball repeatedly, including by backs and receivers. He looks slow in coverage, normally a major strength. And the tenacity that has come to define his game is absent. Roquan is 25 years old and should be a long-term answer on this defense. But playing at this level, it’s becoming more and more likely he is elsewhere in 2023.

Imagine the criticism that would befall Ryan Poles were Smith to be playing at this level after being given $100 million.


Larry Borom

With a nod to Dave Wasserman, I believe I’ve seen enough. Borom is not a starting offensive tackle.

Teven Jenkins looks good inside. Braxton Jones is holding his own at left tackle. But Borom is a severe liability on the right side and the Bears need to start thinking about an upfront construction that doesn’t land him in the starting five. (This might take Alex Leatherwood’s return from mono.)

This shouldn’t be read as a striking criticism, either. Borom was a late-round pick and is a perfectly capable swing tackle. He is a roster asset. But in a league where the athleticism on the defensive edge seems to increase tenfold yearly (have you seen Micah Parsons play?), Borom simply can’t handle the role four quarters a week for 17 weeks plus.

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Prelude to a Preseason Game: Things to Watch Saturday Night

| August 26th, 2022


Last one!

Last practice game of the 2022 off-season!

And with the starters expected to play a majority of the first half (supposedly), might there by more to watch in this practice game than in previous ones? Not really. But here’s what I’ll be watching.

  • INJURIES. This season is not going to be a fun one if the young talent isn’t on the field and that includes the quarterback, the three defensive backs, the left tackle, the right side of the line, etc. It would be devastating to not have this full complement when the scores actually count.
  • SPECIALS. The Bears seems to have decided upon Velus Jones Jr. as their primary kickoff and punt return man, with Dante Pettis the reliable alternative for the latter when they require a fair catch guy. It will be interesting to see if they deviate from that plan Saturday night. (Also, pay attention to which players are being used on the coverage units. It’ll be a strong clue as to who will be on this roster for the regular season.)
  • ROQUAN’S RETURN. Is this interesting to watch? No. Roquan Smith is a great player. He’ll be a great player against San Francisco in a few weeks. But it’ll be nice to see him again, I guess.
  • THE ACTUAL OFFENSE. David Montgomery hasn’t played in a preseason game. Byron Pringle hasn’t played in a preseason game. Equanimeous St. Brown doesn’t have a preseason catch. Velus hasn’t run a go route. Is there any chance we’ll see the actual offense tomorrow night? Doubtful. But maybe with the extended playing time, we get a hint of what’s to come?

It is a practice game. And there are still two weeks until the regular season. But hey, it’s something to do on a Saturday night that doesn’t involve drinking too much. (Spoiler alert: I will watch the game and also drink too much.)

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Dannehy: Poles Needs to Extend Roquan Smith

| August 10th, 2022


If Ryan Poles has made one thing clear during his short time as the general manager of the Chicago Bears, it’s that he never wants to spend more than he thinks a player is worth. But, when it comes to Roquan Smith, getting him signed should be a no-brainer.

Smith is the best player on the Bears roster, without question. He is also unquestionably one of the five best linebackers  in the entire league and a perfect fit for what the head coach Poles hired wants to do.

It is hard to see where the disconnect is. Good players cost money and Smith is a really, really good player.

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Training Camp Thoughts, Volume VI: Lynx Edition

| August 9th, 2022


No practice for the Bears on Monday. So here are some things I wasted time reading on Monday.

  • The Jahns and Fishbain practice report at The Athletic seems to suggest an order is forming along the offensive line and that order has Braxton Jones at left tackle and Riley Reiff at right tackle. If Braxton ultimately wins the job, and is on the blindside come opening day, he immediately becomes one of the two or three most interesting players on this roster in 2022.
  • It feels like the drama surrounding Teven Jenkins has come to an end and the focus will now be back on the field. (Courtney Cronin details the whole ordeal here.) If Braxton is one of the most interesting players heading into this regular season, Teven is THE most interesting of the preseason. When will get into these games? Where will Getsy and Morgan play him? How will he respond?
  • Unsung Tweet from Brad Biggs: “#Bears DC Alan Williams praises LB Joe Thomas – saying he is leading that group in takeaways. He has a shot to compete for strong side job and has been a previous core special teams player in the league.”
  • With N’Keal Harry’s comeback derailed by what looks like a serious injury, I wanted to read more about the kid. Sometimes we fixate on the football player without paying any respect to the human being. Harry seems a very, very good young man. From a blog post by Bernd Buchmasser in 2019: “[I want to] give back in any way that I can,” Harry said during the photo op and Q&A session inside Gillette Stadium yesterday. “Definitely help my family, help some people on the island. I feel like with this platform I’ve been given, it’s my duty to do something good with it. God has blessed me to be in this position. So it would be a disservice if I didn’t give back and if I didn’t show appreciation, so that’s my biggest goal.”
  • Somehow, I missed the report that Nicholas Morrow, and not Roquan Smith, would be the signal caller in the new defense, as that duty is exclusively handled by the middle linebacker. (Somehow = I didn’t look.) Patrick Finley in the Sun-Times wrote about this about a week ago. From the piece: “That’s a pretty standard thing, I think,’’ Morrow said. ‘‘I think the biggest thing is making sure we’re all on the same page and we’re over-communicating. Sometimes you get those young guys in there, and there are certain calls where it’s gotta be communicated consistently. Just getting that together is probably bigger than the calls, I think.’’
  • ACTUAL BEAR NEWS: “Danvers residents are being asked to take precautions after a bear was spotted in the Massachusetts town on Sunday. A Danvers resident shared video from her Ring video camera that showed a black bear roaming across her driveway Sunday morning. The bear ended up scaling a short stone wall before moseying along.”
  • Per Alex Shapiro at NBC Sports, the Bears coaching staff thought they’d get pushback for their H.I.T.S. program. But that hasn’t happened. “…the team’s response to Eberflus’ demanding philosophy got its challenge over the weekend, when the team was put through two long padded practices, with plenty of running around, in the hot sun. Cole Kmet said it was the toughest practice of his life. Khalil Herbert said players were “laid out” in the locker room afterwards. Yet, by all accounts, the players gritted through it.”

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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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