Since Sunday’s failed effort against the Atlanta Falcons, there has been a strange fixation on the offense. Mike Glennon’s play has been dissected to the point that it would not surprise me to find out that there is a theory out there that he threw the ball at the line of scrimmage to get Kevin White hurt (thereby fulfilling some strange master plot to bring on Tanner Gentry). For that matter, there might even be a theory out there that Jordan Howard dropped the ball intentionally because he has a stronger personal connection with Mitchell Trubisky. However, the offense is only part of the story from Sunday.
Still, let’s get that out of the way first.
Because it was the first game of the year, there are not other games from the same season to use as a point of comparison, but it seems like 2016 could at least provide a general framework for understanding 2017. The Atlanta Falcons defense allowed 25.6 points per game in the regular season last year, per Sporting Charts; that was good for 27th in the NFL. In their last three games of the regular season, that number dipped to 25 points per game (but they were facing the offensive juggernauts of the Rams, the 49ers, and the Panthers). By comparison, those final three opponents averaged barely 16 points per game across their last three competitions each. For those who like a little bit of flavor and context in their metrics, Atlanta’s defense ranked 26th in the NFL per Football Outsiders in 2016.
Perhaps significantly, they were a little bit better (19th) in preventing “big plays” in 2016, in that they allowed nearly five “big plays” per game (big play in this case being defined as a run over 10 yards or a pass over 25 yards).
For the sake of argument, let’s see how the Bears offense played against this unit. One measure is simple--they scored 17 points. Let’s redeem the offense a little and pretend that the final touchdown happened. The “coulda-shoulda-woulda” Bears then scored 24 points. At best, that is in the ballpark of what teams managed against this same team in 2016. Of course, there were probably “almost” touchdowns in the Falcons’ last season, as well. Still, if we conveniently forget that and add that “almost touchdown” to the total, then the Bears’ offense was “almost” average.
Next, the Bears had three big plays, all runs. That’s fewer total than the Falcons allowed per game in 2016 in total, but double what they allowed on average on the ground. In fact, with only three big plays out of 63 made, the Bears’ big play rate (around 4.7%) was below the league low attained by the Vikings in 2016 (5.07%). Is this still a really small sample size? Absolutely.
However, big plays are part of football. On average, they happen about 7-8% of the time. The Bears under-performed in this regard, but only in the passing game. On the ground, the two extra big plays correspond nicely with the fact that the Bears gained 20 rushing yards more than Atlanta’s typical 2016 opponent (125 to 105). This is shaky given the conjecture it involves from year to year, but it also corresponds well with what most people report seeing--the Bears offense was hardly impressive, but it wasn’t obviously bad. Still, it had no bite. The running game over-performed and the passing game was poor. The offense thus fell short of mediocrity. For the sake of this analysis, I am not worried about how to split the blame among quarterbacks, linemen, or receivers. I have actually already weighed in on this issue, even if I did so before the season began.
Ultimately, this was a weak offensive performance. It is possible that the Falcons have dramatically improved on defense, but the reality is that this offensive outcome is, at best, typical, even if we magically grant a missing score.
Next, let’s turn over to the defense. This is a radically different story.
The Atlanta Falcons led the league in 2016 with 33.8 points per game. They had nearly six big plays per game, and more than half of those were rushing big plays. If I want to handcuff them, statistically, I can give them the average of their last three regular-season games (35 points per game) or their average away-game total (32 points per game). In short, this was a potent offense that was able to break the field open last year.
That was not the story of the season-opener. Instead, the Falcons were held to a modest 23 points. That is almost pedestrian. In fact, the average in the NFL for 2016 was 22.77 points per game. September 10th saw the Falcons achieve a total that was two scores behind their average for 2016. To truly take numbers out of context, had the Falcons been held to 23 points in all of the 2016 games, they would have gone 5-11 instead of 11-5. However, Chicago’s defense was not uniformly effective. Instead, the defense was clearly targeted.
Chicago did very little against the passing attack of the Falcons. The Bears allowed 308 passing yards compared to the 310 yards managed by the Falcons on average last season. In half of Julio Jones’s games last season, he had at least 100 yards, and he had essentially 17 yards per reception. The Bears held him to only 66 yards, which was good news. However, he still had 16.5 yards per reception. The defense took him out of a couple of plays compared to what might have been expected. Unfortunately, the missing yards went to Austin Hooper, instead. Not surprisingly, then, the Falcons had three big passing plays on Sunday, which is equal to or a bit better than their 2016 averages. To round it all out, Matt Ryan had a 116.1 passer rating at Soldier Field, compared to his 117.1 passer rating for the 2016 season.
It was actually the rushing game where the Bears defense made its impact. Instead of allowing 120 rushing yards (the average for the Falcons in 2016), Chicago only allowed 64 yards. The only big rushing play they allowed was Matt Ryan’s 13-yard scramble. The Falcons were therefore short of their average from last season by two big rushing plays.
Is this circumstantial? Sure. However, the raw yards achieved, the passer rating, and the big plays allowed all tell the same story. The Bears did little to slow down the pace of the Falcons’ passing game, even though they severely limited the running game. The result was that a potent offense was reduced to mediocrity. However, that mediocre performance was enough, because it was not matched by the Bears’ offense.
On one level, it is fair to say that a single missing big play on offense could have tilted the game in the Bears’ favor: eliminate either of Hooper’s big receptions or Julio Jones’ 25-yard catch, and the game looks different. If the defense stops Matt Ryan from picking up a first down in the red zone with his legs, then the game tilts. However, only a league-average 7% of Falcons plays were big plays (unlike the 9+% they normally managed in 2016). The Bears defense took away exactly one facet of the NFL-leading offense, and the other facet simply held even with its normal potency.
The defense did its job. Would it have been nice to see Leonard Floyd get a sack? Sure. However, the defensive strategy was to constrain the Falcons and to make them one-dimensional. It worked. The Falcons were one-dimensional. Unfortunately, that one dimension was still one of the most potent passing offenses in the NFL. If a team is only going to have a single dimension to its attack, that’s a pretty good dimension to have. “Make the league MVP quarterback beat us with his passing efficiency” is, ultimately, a low-percentage strategy.
This gets us to the real reason the Bears lost on Sunday, and it has nothing to do with an individual player’s failings. The Bears lost because they played had a gameplan and had the misfortune of executing it well.
The Chicago Bears won the running game. The had twice as many yards in the ground and more than twice as many yards per carry. They made Trevon Coleman and Devonta Freeman look pedestrian, while at the same time Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard provided a solid 1-2 punch. The Bears lost the passing game. Matt Ryan needed only a handful of plays to undo the hard work of Fangio’s defense, because that is how the NFL is set up.
September 10th was a perfect demonstration of the limits of Fox-ball. The Bears did not commit a single turnover. They won the penalty battle, as well (4 penalties for 40 yards compared to 8 penalties for 73 yards). The had more first downs than the Falcons, and even with the long opening drive taken into consideration (and with the Bears forcing a field goal instead of allowing a touchdown), the time of possession was barely different at all (30:34 versus 29:26). The Bears kept the scores low, and for the majority of the game they kept the scores close.
And then the 1930s called and wanted their game back, and so the 21st century caught up with John Fox and Company. Matt Ryan finally found the deep bomb he had been waiting for, and while the proximate cause was bad coverage, the ultimate cause was that the rules of the modern NFL plus the development of the passing game make it functionally impossible to truly deny big plays. They happen, and even the best defenses in the NFL allow an average of at least 1 passing big play per game (per Sporting Charts looking back over five years, only the Seattle Seahawks of 2013 and 2014 got below this rate, and even then it’s close). A single Ryan-to-Hooper connection is all it took to undo a masterful defensive performance.
Successful football teams do not keep scores close and hope it all works out. Successful football teams do not win by trying to play mistake-free football and counting on the other team to blink first. Successful football teams play aggressively and take their chances. That sometimes results in turnovers, but it also results in points. The last time I looked, the team with more points at the end tended to win the game.
Ball control football requires near-perfection, and that is out of the reach of all but a few football teams. The higher-percentage strategy is to try to score at every opportunity and to push the other team back on its heels, because a single bad play or lucky break can all too easily add points to the other team’s score.
The failure of the Bears’ season opener was not a failure of the defense. They did what they were asked to do, remarkably well. The failure was not even a failure of the offense, in that the running game created the exact sort of pressure John Fox espouses, and it did so without turnovers. The team moved the chains and Glennon played efficiently (if unremarkably). The failure was that forcing the NFC Champions to rely on their passing game was like forcing a horror movie villain to rely on his machete. It was sort of in the plan all along.
Until the Bears play to win instead of not to lose, there will be frustration, because when one team plays to keep it close and the other team plays to win, both teams can have their way, but the conservative team gets the L.