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Sunday, June 16, 2024

How avoiding sacks, entrusting QB Justin Fields has injected life into Bears offense


After a home loss on Thursday night to Carson Wentz in Week 6, the Chicago Bears dropped to 2-4 on the season.  Aside from a fluky fourth-quarter comeback against Trey Lance and the San Francisco 49ers in a monsoon in Week 1, the Bears had just one win on the season — and that was at home against the lowly Houston Texans.

The season seemed to be quickly spiraling out of control. They were averaging 15.5 points per game, No. 31 in the NFL. Justin Fields was being pressured on 50% of his dropbacks, the highest in the NFL. And he had taken 23 sacks, No. 1 most in the NFL. 

Worse than just the sheer volume of sacks, it was the sack rate.  Because the Bears were not passing the ball very often, 23 sacks are even worse than it sounds:

  • Fields was sacked on 16.7% of his dropbacks, most in the NFL.
  • The NFL average was 6.5%.

The next closest QB, Daniel Jones, had a 10.7% sack rate, which was closer to the NFL average than he was to Fields (16.7%).

Where does 16.7% rank?

It’s the No. 1 highest sack rate we’ve seen in the NFL since at least 2000, which is as far back as TruMedia records go (min 150 attempts). In other words, Fields had a historical sack rate in the modern passing era of football. The next closest for a season was Alex Smith (14.9%) in 2005 and David Carr, of the expansion Texans (14.6%) in 2002.

If you isolate only the first six weeks of the season, Carr had a slightly higher sack rate than Fields’ 16.7%, but Fields would rank as the No. 2 most-sacked quarterback.

But then we watched  Fields go into Foxboro in Week 7 to take on Bill Belichick in primetime, and he pulled an outright upset as the Bears beat the Patriots, 33-14. And then Fields put up 29 points and 32 points in back-to-back games, losses to the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins.

And we’re scratching our heads at how this same team that once averaged only 15.5 points per game and had historical sack rates is now:

  • Scoring on 53% of their drives ( No. 1 in the NFL) and averaging 31.3 points per game (No. 5 in the NFL).

Wildly, a lot of it is related to avoiding sacks on third down and entrusting Fields more in the red zone.

Let’s begin our forensic analysis by looking at early-down efficiency, as so much of a team’s ability to score points relate to bypassing third downs.

Early Downs Weeks 1-6:

  • % of early downs to gain a first down: 21.1% (#30)
  • EPA/play on early downs: -0.08 (#27)
  • Early Downs Weeks 7-9:
  • % of early downs to gain a first down: 21.8% (#28)
  • EPA/play on early downs: -0.05 (#25)

This probably doesn’t look as outrageous to you as it does to me. When I see a team has shifted from 15.5 points/game to 31.3, and from scoring on 32% of drives to 53%, I would be expecting a massive improvement in early down performance.

But that’s not the case for the Bears. These sets of numbers are strikingly similar. As are the rankings.

So, if it’s not early-down efficiency, it must be third-down efficiency. And sure enough:

Third Downs Weeks 1-6:

  • % of 3rd downs to gain a first down: 35.6% (#24)
  • EPA/play on 3rd downs: +0.09 (#12)

Third Downs Weeks 7-9:

  • % of 3rd downs to gain a first down: 55.1% (#3)
  • EPA/play on 3rd downs: +0.61 (#3)

There it is. The Bears are converting way more third downs into first downs over the past three weeks. Normally, a massive improvement on third down is on account of much shorter distances to-go, considering no stat is more correlated to third-down conversion rate than distance-to-go.

But that’s not the case with the Bears:

  • Weeks 1-6 distance-to-go on third down: 7.4 yards (#24)
  • Weeks 7-9 distance-to-go on third down: 7.3 yards (#21)

For all intents and purposes, the Bears are averaging essentially the same distance-to-go on third down the past three weeks as they did the first six. And yet they are converting 55.1% (#3) of their third downs instead of only 35.6% (#24).

So what is accounting for the massive improvement? Let’s look at the end results of the third down pass plays for the Bears:

Weeks 1-6, on 55 Fields dropbacks:

  • Sacks: 8 (15% of all plays)
  • Scrambles: 12 (22%)
  • Passes: 35 (64%)

Weeks 7-9, on 31 dropbacks:

  • Sacks: 1 (3% of all plays)
  • Scrambles: 9 (29%)
  • Passes: 21 (68%)

This is massive. Fields just isn’t taking sacks. And it’s not just not taking sacks.

When you can AVOID a sack and turn it into a SCRAMBLE for a first down, you’re turning a sure punt into potential points. It’s almost like avoiding a turnover but to a much lesser degree. 

Benjamin Solak wrote about the value of scrambles in his article at The Ringer. In addition to a higher scramble rate and a much lower sack rate, Fields was more efficient with his scrambles. Weeks 7-9, Fields has turned 89% of his scrambles into first downs, as opposed to 67% of scrambles in Weeks 1-6.  

These runs are also gaining larger chunks, with 78% gaining 7+ yards vs 58% gaining 7+ yards in Weeks 1-6, and an average of 16.9 YPC the last three weeks vs 8.8 YPC in Weeks 1-6. Obviously, third down sacks don’t convert first downs.

As such, when you combine sacks + scrambles, look at what Fields has done:

  • Weeks 1-6:  8 first downs on 20 dropbacks (40%) which weren’t actual attempts (sacks or scrambles)
  • Weeks 7-9:  8 first downs on 10 dropbacks (80%) which weren’t actual attempts (sacks or scrambles)

That right there has been the major difference in this Bears offense: Justin Fields’ ability to avoid sacks on third downs and use his legs to scramble to convert first downs.

Sure, there’s a slight passing efficiency bump on third downs by Fields the past three weeks: they’re converting 38% of pass attempts into first downs the past three weeks as opposed to 31% the first six weeks of the season.  And efficiency is up to +0.17/att and 43% success the last three weeks vs +0.10 and 34% success the first six weeks.

To summarize the Bears’ first-down rate on all third-down plays, let’s examine the splits, and we’ll do so using the format of: # of plays (first-down conversion rate).

Weeks 1-6:

  • Sacks: 8 (0% first down conversion rate)
  • Scrambles: 12 (67%)
  • Passes: 35 (31%)
  • Non-QB runs: 13 (39%)
  • QB runs (non-scrambles): 3 (67%)
  • Overall: 73 (35.6%)

Weeks 7-9:

  • Sacks: 1 (0%)
  • Scrambles: 9 (89%)
  • Passes: 21 (38%)
  • Non-QB runs: 12 (42%)
  • QB runs (non-scrambles): 5 (100%)
  • Overall: 49 (55.1%)

So, what is the end result of more third-down efficiency, driven largely by Fields ability to avoid third downs? Because they’re converting more third downs into first downs, they aren’t punting as much:

  • Weeks 1-6: 40% of drives ended with a punt (#24)
  • Weeks 7-9: 28% of drives ended with a punt (#6)

And they’re sustaining longer drives, which get them into scoring territory:

  • Weeks 1-6: 19% of drives scored points before reaching the red zone (#11) and 4% of those were TDs (#23)
  • Weeks 7-9:  28% of drives scored points before getting to the red zone (#3) and 11% of those were TDs (#11)

And far more often, these drives are not just getting into scoring territory, they’re getting into the red zone:

  • Weeks 1-6: 24% of drives reached the red zone (#25)
  • Weeks 7-9: 44% of drives reached the red zone (#3)

This is all almost entirely centered around their improved third-down efficiency thanks to Fields’ ability to turn sacks into scrambles and convert more first downs.

But they’re also massively improved in the red zone over the past three weeks:

  • Weeks 1-6: 47% red zone conversion rate (#28)
  • Weeks 7-9: 64% red zone conversion rate (#13)

Inside the red zone, they’ve trusted Fields more.

  • Weeks 1-6: 81% of red zone yardage coming on the ground (#1, NFL avg = 44%)
  • Weeks 7-9: 56% of red zone yardage coming on the ground (#15)

Fields is passing more down in the red zone and the results are improved:

  • Weeks 1-6:  4-of-11, -0.91 EPA/att, 17% success, 2:1 TD:INT, 1 sack taken
  • Weeks 7-9:  9-of-10, +0.64 EPA/att, 55% success, 5:0 TD:INT, 1 sack taken

That’s correct — despite playing half as many games in Weeks 7-9, Fields has almost exactly the same number of red-zone passing attempts as the first six weeks of the season. And he’s clearly been far more efficient on them.

How have the Bears turned their fortunes and provided a far more exciting product these last three weeks?

How have they shifted from a team that averaged only 15.5 points per game (#31) and saw their quarterback take sacks at the #1 highest rate (16.7%) since at least 2000, to now scoring on 53% of their drives (#1 in the NFL) and averaging 31.3 points per game (#5 in the NFL)?

Almost exclusively by having that same quarterback prioritize avoiding sacks on third downs, scrambling for first downs, and entrusting him more in the red zone and increasing their red zone efficiency.

Ravens on a Historic Pace

The only teams to lead by 10+ points in each of their first 9 games: 

  • 2022 Ravens
  • 2011 Packers – 0-1 in playoffs (exit in Divisional Round)
  • 2009 Saints – 3-0 in playoffs (Super Bowl Champion)
  • 1989 Giants – 0-1 in playoffs (exit in Divisional Round)
  • 1984 Dolphins – 2-1 in playoffs (exit in Super Bowl)
  • 1964 Bills – 1-0 in playoffs (AFL Champion)
  • 1961 Chargers – 0-1 in playoffs (exit in AFL Championship)
  • 1942 Bears – 0-1 in playoffs (exit in NFL Championship)
  • 1934 Bears – 0-1 in playoffs (exit in NFL Championship)

In the Super Bowl Era, every one of these teams made the playoffs. Two made the Super Bowl. One won the Super Bowl.

The Ravens have the second-easiest schedule of remaining opponents in the AFC, and sitting at 6-3 are the top team in the AFC North. This team still has a lot to resolve on both sides of the ball.  But they’re getting the job done thanks to Lamar Jackson.

Against the Saints, the Ravens starting offense:

WR1 – Devin Duvernay

WR2 – DeSean Jackson

RB1 – Kenyan Drake

TE1 – Isaiah Likely

TE2 – Josh Oliver

We can talk all we want about the seasons of Jalen Hurts, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Tua Tagovailoa, Kirk Cousins and even Geno Smith.  But I guarantee you look at those WR1-WR2-TE1 combinations and tell me you wouldn’t rather have those offenses than what Lamar Jackson has worked with.  

And yet the Ravens are the only team to have 10-plus point leads in every game. Jackson isn’t having his best year, and he’s also played some of it while playing through injuries.  It’s not just the passing element that Jackson brings. It’s the rushing element that has been invaluable. And in addition, it’s his presence on the field which allows the team to run the style of offense that it does — which no other team in the league runs and which produces big upside for the running backs. Statistically, Jackson is having his worst passing season since becoming a full-time starter, but he’s been invaluable to the Ravens’ success thus far.

Warren Sharp is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He is the founder of Sharp Football Analysis and has worked as a consultant for league franchises while also previously contributing to ESPN and The Ringer, among other outlets. He studied engineering before using his statistical acumen to create predictive football models. You can follow Warren on Twitter at @SharpFootball.

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