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First Quarter Statistics Review: Bears looking good on important metrics

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Chicago Bears
Can Khalil Mack set the team record for sacks?
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

There are a lot of statistics out there. Some of them are useful, some are not. There are a few statistics that are worth looking into every so often to see how the team is performing, and I plan on updating these after each quarter of the season (4 games). We’ll also take a look at some of the individual statistics for Mitchell Trubisky and Khalil Mack that should prove interesting to Bears fans. First, we’ll start off with Toxic Differential.

Toxic Differential

Toxic Differential is a simple equation of adding up all the explosive plays from your offense (runs ≥ 10 yards, passes ≥ 25 yards) plus the takeaways your defense forces (fumble recoveries and interceptions), and subtracting the number of explosive plays your defense gives up and the number of turnovers your offense commits. Brian Billick, former Ravens Head Coach, popularized the term and what I find useful about it is that it is one of the few “team statistics” that consider both units. Eleven of the twelve playoff participants from 2017 had a positive finish in this category.

Note: There are variations on the yardage of an explosive play from different websites. I’m sticking to 25 and 10, the Billick version. I’m also counting QB scrambles over 10 yards on both sides given the impact those plays can have on games. Any mistakes in totals are my own.

Explosive Plays

The Bears offense got it going against the Buccaneers with 11 explosive plays from scrimmage including 7 passes from Mitchell Trubisky. That actually matched the number of explosive plays from the first three games combined, doubling the total to 22 for the year. The lack of explosive plays through the first three weeks was troubling and something to keep an eye on against better defenses going forward. Some have noted the troubles in the Bears running game, Jordan Howard specifically, as something to look out for and it will be worth tracking his success as the year progresses. Tarik Cohen, on the other hand, has accounted for 7 of the Bears 22 explosive plays (4 runs, 3 catches).

The even better news is that the defense has been great at limiting big plays. The Bears D gave up 6 explosive plays to the Packers (including the 3 daggers in the second half) and 4 to the Cardinals (two on the opening drive). Other than that, the Bears D limited the Seattle and Tampa Bay offenses to one explosive play each – a long pass by Russell Wilson to TE Will Dissly and a long pass by Ryan Fitzpatrick to WR DeSean Jackson. That’s a total of 12 explosive plays given up by the defense for an explosive play differential of +10.

Turnovers / Takeaways

Probably the most familiar statistic to football fans is the idea of winning the turnover battle. There is a lot of supporting evidence that suggests winning the turnover battle leads to winning a lot of football games. The Bears offense has done a good job of taking care of the football. Trubisky has accounted for all of the turnovers – three interceptions and two lost fumbles. The tipped pass against Arizona was either an athletic play by an elite defender or a bad decision, depending on who you ask. The two interceptions against the Seahawks… those are on Trubisky. We’ll get to him later.

The fun part of this equation is this defense. If you’ve been cheering for the Bears for any length of time, it just feels right when this team is hungry on D. The Bears have forced 8 fumbles, recovering 3 of them. They have also intercepted 8 passes on the year, for a total of 11 takeaways. That’s a differential of +6 on turnovers / takeaways and is good for 2nd in the league right now. A pace of +24 puts the Bears well above the league leaders from the last 5 years, so it is difficult to imagine that rate to continue. Anything above +15 at season’s end is elite territory.

Adding it all up

A positive 10 in explosive plays plus a positive 6 in turnovers gives the Bears a Toxic Differential of +16 through 4 weeks of the year. Projecting out to a +64 Toxic Differential would be very aggressive (I’m not sure the Bears will face another Bucs defense), but they’re on the right track to be among the best in the league. Staying in the positive in this category is a common accomplishment among playoff teams so this is one we’ll come back to again.

Sack Differential

While the Toxic Differential does not include sacks as part of the metric, it certainly seems as though they should. My colleagues cover both sides of this every week in Sack Watch (Lester Wiltfong Jr.) and the Rush Report (Andrew Link) but it’s worth noting each side of this equation relative to the league and each unit. Sacks can be drive killers and can lead to bad decision making later in the game.

Trubisky has taken 10 sacks in 4 games, about the league average. Lester breaks down each sack and attributes responsibility to the guilty party each week. Young QBs frequently take sacks they don’t need to, and athletic QBs particularly will rack up sacks by trying to extend plays. That said, this is an area that could be improved as Trubisky settles into the offense and the line establishes chemistry. Expect these numbers to improve going forward.

The Bears defense has been wrecking QBs so far. The Bears have racked up 18 sacks in 4 games against 7 QBs! (For reference – Aaron Rodgers, DeShone Kizer, Russell Wilson, Sam Bradford, Josh Rosen, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Jameis Winston.) That’s good for first in the NFL and they have accomplished this feat with the lowest blitz percentage in the NFL. That means the front is absolutely getting after it (thank you Jon Gruden), allowing the secondary to play advantageous coverages, leading to 8 interceptions (1 behind Miami for the league lead). That gives the Bears a “Sack Differential” of +8.

Interesting note – the 1984 Chicago Bears piled up a record 72 sacks. The Bears are on track to match that number if they keep their current pace. They’ll get to face offensive lines that struggled in September, including Minnesota (twice), Buffalo, both New York teams, and the Packers again. League records are rarely broken, obviously, but if the offense can get out to early leads, this Bears defense has the talent to rack them up in bunches.

Khalil Mack

Speaking of sacks, let’s talk about the newest Monster of the Midway. Mack’s five sacks through four games is a great start to his Chicago career. A pace for 20 sacks would break the single season team record for sacks recorded (Richard Dent, 17.5, 1984). Michael Strahan has the single season record (I guess… Favre handed him the last one) with 22.5. If Mack can get a couple of big games, it’s not out of the question that he could put some heat on this record.

His four forced fumbles off of those sacks is a remarkable number through four games. Forced fumbles are not an official statistic and unrecorded before 1991, but Charles Tillman shares the “record” with Osi Umenyiora with 10 in a single season. Mack is off to a great start to catch that record.

Mack also has an interception returned for a score, has performed well when the lights are bright on national television, and has elevated the play of his teammates around him. He enters the year with name recognition, a high profile and controversial trade in his favor as well. All that is to say that Khalil Mack is in the lead for Defensive Player of the Year through 4 games and even has garnered some buzz about league MVP.

If the Bears keep winning, and Mack keeps stacking sacks and takeaways, it could very well be the first Bears Defensive POY trophy since Brian Urlacher and the fourth in team history (Mike Singletary won it twice). If by some confluence of Bears success and Mack dominance opens a path to winning the NFL MVP, Mack would be the 3rd defensive player to win the award (Alan Page, Lawrence Taylor) and only the 2nd Chicago Bears player to do it (Walter Payton).

GM Street Stat & Time of Possession

Michael Lombardi, former GM of the Browns and Patriots, in his podcast recently disclosed the magic number that he looks for in breaking down games. Lombardi believes that to be successful, teams need to keep their defenses fresh. This is not exactly a unique thought – time of possession has long been looked at – but Lombardi adds the number of runs plus the number of completions to determine whether a team is controlling the game. The magic number is 52 that successful teams need to meet or exceed. The Bears through 4 weeks look like this:

· @ Packers – 27 runs + 23 completions = 50 (33:22 Time of Possession)

· Vs Seahawks – 27 runs + 25 completions = 52 (34:24 Time of Possession)

· @ Cardinals – 31 runs + 24 completions = 55 (36:21 Time of Possession)

· Vs Buccaneers – 31 runs + 19 completions = 50 (28:06 Time of Possession)

The Bears have met or exceeded that magic number twice, both wins, and fell short against the Packers and Bucs by two each. Obviously, those games went in very different directions, but it’s not hard to imagine a few more plays running the clock out on the Packers. The Bucs game… well, if you’re going to lose the time of possession battle, blowing out the other team is a pretty great excuse.

This is a simple stat to look to at the end of games to help determine game flow if something gets wonky. Overall, the Bears are doing well in this statistic and have held the ball for 132 minutes and 13 seconds out of 240 minutes of gameplay (55%). That averages out to be 33 minutes and 3 seconds per game, which currently ranks 4th in the NFL. If that pace is kept up, it would be better than the Eagles from last year, who led the league at 32:48.

Mitchell Trubisky

Everybody has an opinion on the young signal caller – some more informed than others (looking at you, Stephen A. Smith), but let’s just look at the numbers. Through 4 games, Trubisky has completed 91 of 130 passes (70% completion) for 945 yards, 8 scores and 3 picks. He has chipped in another 117 yards on the ground with one score.

Plenty of caveats in projecting anything out after only four games, but let’s do it anyway. That’s a pace for 3,780 yards, 32 TDs, and 12 interceptions with 468 yards on the ground and 4 scores. Before the year, my projections based on early returns from Carson Wentz and Alex Smith in Andy Reid-tree offenses were 3,500 yards, 20 TDs, and 10 interceptions.

The Buccaneers aren’t coming to town every week, so the TD projection is almost certainly too high at 32, but he’s well on his way to establishing a solid passing line consistent with my projections. The most important thing to note on Trubisky is that we all simply need more data to be able to draw any real conclusions about his play and potential moving forward. However, given the historic lack of QB success, it’s not out of the question to pull out the record book for comparison either. Erik Kramer’s 3,838 and 29 TDs from 1995 still hold the top spot in team history and both of those could be challenged by Trubisky if he’s able to make strides in this offense.

Are you encouraged looking at these numbers? Are there other metrics we should be looking at? Hit up the comment section below or find me on Twitter @gridironborn to discuss.