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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 the Pass Rush

| June 28th, 2022

Almost everything I’ve looked at so far this offseason has been about the offense, so now I want to shift gears and give some attention to returning players and new veterans on defense. That starts today with a closer examination of the pass rush.

In order to do this, I’m using data from Pro Football Focus (PFF) that examine pressures, wins, sacks, and pass rush productivity. Here’s a quick explainer of what PFF means by some of those that are less obvious:

  • Pressure: This is a measure of how often a player bothers the QB – makes him move off his spot, hits him, or sacks him.  It will be defined through the % of pass-rushing snaps that count as a pressure, QB hit, or sack.
  • Win: this is a measure of how often a player beats their block to impact a play within 2.5 seconds. It will be defined through the % of pass-rushing snaps that count as a win.
  • Pass Rush Productivity: this accounts for all sacks, pressures, and QB hits on a per-snap basis, with an added weight given to sacks. PFF doesn’t give an exact formula for how much extra sacks are weighted, but generally a higher number is better.

I’ll examine both all pass rushing snaps and only what PFF defines as true pass sets. These are basically set up to only look at 4-man rushes on standard passing plays, so all screens, play action, designed rollouts, blitzes, 3-man rushes, and exceptionally fast (ball thrown in <2 seconds) or slow (ball thrown in >4 seconds) plays are removed. PFF says that these values tend to be more stable year-to-year, since they are more indicative of actual pass rushing ability.


Edge Rushers

Let’s start by examining edge rushers, where the Bears have three notable NFL veterans: returners Robert Quinn and Trevis Gipson and newly signed Al-Quadin Muhammad.

The table below shows how all three fared in a variety of pass rushing stats in 2021, as well as their rank compared to 93 NFL edge rushers with at least 200 pass rush opportunities. To give a broader frame of reference, the best, average, median, and worst values among that 93-player sample are also provided for each statistic.

Categories highlighted in green indicated the player was in the top 25% of edge rushers (top 23), while red indicates the player was in the bottom 25% (bottom 23).

A few thoughts:

  • If you ignore sacks and look more at the pressure and win rates – which are more stable season to season – Quinn was more good than great as a pass rusher in 2021. That feels weird to say for somebody who finished 2nd in the NFL in sacks, but the extremely low pressure/sack ratio tells us that he produced more sacks than expected based on the pressure he generated, and pressures are generally more consistent than sacks.
    • This tracks with other data showing that Quinn generally took longer to get to the QB than the NFL’s elite pass rushers.
    • Quinn also has a fairly established track record of season-to-season inconsistency. He’s never produced an above-average pass rush productivity ranking in two consecutive years during his career, and he hasn’t had back-to-back seasons with 8+ sacks since 2014.
    • Add it all up, and I think a regression from Quinn is highly likely in 2022. The Bears would be wise to sell high on him now rather than waiting for the trade deadline if they are hoping to get value in return.
  • Trevis Gipson honestly was fairly comparable to Robert Quinn in most of these statistics, which is pretty impressive. He had a very solid year in 2021. His sample size was much smaller (229 pass rush snaps vs. 402 for Quinn), so I’m eager to see if he can repeat that performance. It’s worth noting, however, that his pressure/sack ratio was about as low as Quinn’s, so he could play better this year and still see a dip in sacks.
  • Al-Quadin Muhammad is a bad pass rusher. I really hope the Bears aren’t planning on him doing much to bother the QB, because 2021 was actually the best season rushing the passer of his career, and it was still bad.

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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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The Reemergence of Robert Quinn

| October 5th, 2021


Myles Garrett.

Chandler Jones.

Danielle Hunter.

Justin Hargrave.

TJ Watt.

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.

  • March 2020. Bears sign Quinn to a 5-year, $70 million contract. After years of Leonard Floyd failing to fulfill his pass rush promise, the Bears had seemingly solved the issue opposite Mack.
  • May 2020. Quinn is already dealing with injury issues. (Folks forget how early the injury word began trickling out of Halas Hall.) Was it his back? His hip? Why wouldn’t anyone say definitively?
  • Camp 2020. Quinn is nowhere to be found. He never practiced, never appeared in the preseason and things seemed to be pointing in consistently bad directions for his season.
  • Season 2020. Useless, and it is coupled with that fact that Leonard Floyd’s 9-sack performance in Los Angeles. Ryan Pace takes the majority of the criticism.
  • December 2020. Brad Biggs cracks the code, finally reporting that Quinn is suffering from something called “drop foot”. The article landed me on the Mayo Clinic’s website, learning that “Foot drop, sometimes called drop foot, is a general term for difficulty lifting the front part of the foot. If you have foot drop, the front of your foot might drag on the ground when you walk..”

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.

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Training Camp Diary: Preseason Opens, Fields Electrifies, Now What?

| August 16th, 2021

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO THE FIRST LADY OF DBB, SARAH K. SCULLY. 

I have never approached any preseason game with anticipation. That changed Saturday. Here are notes on what could prove to be an important weekend in Chicago Bears history. (Side note: They should knock off one more of these preseason games. Get that schedule to two games, one home and one away.)


The Story is Fields

Penalties and drops around him. Losing track of the play clock. Spin move in the open field, taking unnecessary contact, fumbling the football. It was the definition of a slow start.

But what did Fields say in his post-game presser? “So after that, I think I’m going to officially retire the spin move.” 

None of the struggles bothered him. Fields maintained his composure, displayed his command of the offense and let his athleticism take over the football game. Yes, he was playing with backups. Yes, he was playing against backups. But Fields did what he is supposed to do in that scenario: he was clearly the best player on the field.

  • Two quotes from Adam Hoge’s excellent game story:
    • On the 8-yard touchdown run: “They were playing man coverage. My man Jesse got tripped up. I was looking to go to him,” Fields said. “Of course, I knew my routes were coming my way backside, but I knew they were in man coverage so I knew nobody really had me so I just went to the left.” Does anyone think this kid isn’t ready for regular season action?
    • “Keep stacking days like he had today and understanding that in this whole process and this plan, as we go, what’s the ultimate goal for us as an offense? Scoring touchdowns, right? So keep leading the team down, keep getting first downs, keep getting touchdowns,” Nagy said when asked what Fields needs to do to be named the starter.” This is Nagy leaving the door open for Fields to be the Week One starter. This is the first time he’s done that, to my recollection.

Bears have no choice. Fields should be throwing to Robinson and Mooney today. He’s got to be given a chance to win this job with the folks who will actually be on the roster.

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