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Deeper Number Crunching: The Bears Screen Plays Versus Deep Throws

The Bears' offense continues to stall, game after game after game. We dig a little deeper into the Bears' offensive numbers to pick out why.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The way I see it, articles when the team is bat-spit bad, and playing terrible football, fall into roughly three categories.

  1. Fire everybody
  2. Your team is bad and you should feel bad, and we should organize fan boycotts to demonstrate how bad the team is.
  3. Hey guys, the team's still mathematically alive, so here's one example in infinity-plus-one years of the NFL to show why these teams don't pack it in.

Okay, I suppose there's a fourth category - explaining why a bad team is bad. So let's talk about why the bad Chicago Bears are more Bad News Bears, and let's do it without firing anybody. Yet.

Something that I've maintained over the course of the season, between the streams and Notes, is that a lack of progression and opening the offense up a bit more downfield would get the offense in a better place, where they can score touchdowns a little more consistently, instead of running so many short plays. So this week, it seems like a good time to dig into some numbers, especially flipping between 2013's offense and 2014's offense, with our good pals over at Pro Football Focus and Advanced NFL Stats.

As I see it, the Bears' top four targets all share about the same production. Brandon Marshall has the fewest receptions of the Big Four (!) with 58, which also speaks to how he may not yet have been completely healthy from his ankle injuries. Matt Forte still leads the team in receptions, which makes sense, as his screens and short throws have been the bread, butter, and bacon and tomato of this offensive sandwich. Alshon Jeffery now leads the team in yardage, which makes sense, given how he is the main deep target (when they go to it). And Martellus Bennett's numbers are generally right with everyone else.

Really, the balance is fine. I would like to see a higher conversion rate on some of those throws to Marshall, especially (that reception to target rate is just... yuck), but balance isn't the issue. Let's quickly look at yards-per-reception, because Alshon Jeffery's 12.7 yards per reception leads the team.

Alshon Jeffery is 55th in the NFL in yards per reception, tied with Jordan Matthews of the Eagles. Ahead of him are such noted speedsters as Eddie Royal (13.3), tight end Niles Paul (13.4), Julio Jones (13.6), Rob Gronkowski (14.0), Coby Fleener (15.1), Marquess Colston (16.3), and Malcolm Floyd (16.8). Yes, there's a lot of tight ends on that list.

In 2012, Jeffery was a 15.3 YPR receiver, and a 16.0 YPR receiver last year with a better working deep ball.

Now, yes, pass protection is certainly worse this season than last year, and there's no denying that could have an effect on playcalling and executing some of those deeper plays, especially on timing. But what does that say when a screen that's designed to delay pass rush or short passes designed to null a quick pass rush doesn't influence later plays?

It gets better. From the did you know file (and taken with whatever grain of salt it's worth), according to PFF, the Bears' passing game has their best PFF rating in the 10-20 yard target area in the middle of the field (and negative or neutral everywhere else - it's not even close), and their worst passer ratings and PFF ratings on anything going further than ten yards to the right side?

Looking at last year's numbers under Jay Cutler, everything north of ten yards is lit up positively in PFF ratings and with high passer ratings, though throwing to the deep right was still the weak spot. That's all partly explained by the sheer number of snaps where Cutler is pressured, and that certainly can do with the injuries and changes up and down the offensive line, as well as the somewhat weaker play of Jermon Bushrod. But even adding in the number of snaps last year where Josh McCown was pressured, as well as the rest of McCown's playcalls, it doesn't seem to completely explain why the intermediate to deep game has fallen so spectacularly.

(Also another fun note, for what it's worth - Cutler, so far, has the same number of pressured dropbacks according to PFF as he did all last year - 151 - to go with about an extra hundred no-pressure snaps.)

I'd like to say that the Bears just aren't getting the ball downfield enough, after looking at that - there's not a significant difference really in total snap counts, so let's look at the next really big "significant difference."

Looking solely at Jay Cutler's numbers, the Bears have run a similar number of deep throw attempts (defining as anything 10+) this year as they did last year with Cutler under center. That holds true in the 10-19 depths as well as the 20+ depths. So it's not the quantity of plays run.

Another main congruity with this is that Alshon Jeffery's deep pass percentage according to Advanced NFL Stats is 35.5%, which is 11th in the league, just a notch above 12th-place DeSean Jackson at 35.4, who currently leads the league in YPR. This ties quite well with Jeffery's 30.4% last season, indicating he's being sent deep more frequently this year.

Given the available data, as well as the complaints I keep having in Notes, the problem is the timing of the plays as well as simply the execution of those plays, which seems to jive with how poorly timed some of these screen calls seem to be as well as the general inaccuracy of the deep throws. Deep throws late in the game when you have no chance aren't as effective as deep throws early in the game when you've progressed into them.

For admission's sake, when I started doing this, my thesis was simply that the Bears weren't calling enough deep plays to take advantage of sucking the defense in with runs and short screens. Clearly, as shown above, statistically that's not the case, although I'd love to be able to find depth-of-target separated by quarters to test these progression problems. It's a combination of Cutler, Marshall, Bennett and Jeffery not executing the deep throws that are out there, weird playcalling that hasn't taken full advantage of the game situation or created an advantage, and an increase in sacks that's influenced playcalling early in games.

How do the Bears get their offense back on track? I'd say all three of the above, because it's not the quantity, it's the quality. Fix the playcalling timing, take better advantage of situations to get your targets open, adjust some of those deep calls to earlier in the game and not save them until you're down by 20 points, have those targets catch things instead of dropping them or batting them around, as well as better Cutler throws, and the offense should be better.

The numbers are there, but the deep attempts need to come earlier, and not when things are out of reach.