Supposedly defense wins championships, but that truism has been contested and debated enough that even die-hard proponents should be willing to look at the evidence and admit that things get complicated in January. The reality seems to be (shockingly) that both offense and defense carry equal weight.
However, even if it’s not true in general that defense wins championships, it is true that the Bears won the NFC North on the basis of their defense, and if they advance in the playoffs it will be because the defense is carrying most of the load.
That leads to a simple question--is the offense good enough to help this team win, is it simply a neutral piece that can stay out of the way, or is it actually going to be the thing that keeps Chicago from advancing? Here are some basic stats, followed by a bit of commentary.
Mitchell Trubisky currently has a 96.0 passer rating, which ties him for 15th in the NFL (with Derek Carr). His adjusted net yards per attempt are at 6.61 (17th). As a playoff quarterback, he is ahead of only Dak Prescott (94.7 passer rating, 5.94 ANY/A) and either Lamar Jackson (84.9 passer rating and 5.93 ANY/A) or Marcus Mariota (92.3 passer rating and 5.75 ANY/A).
That’s the list.
He will be one of the least efficient quarterbacks in the playoffs. Given that he’s 20th or 21st in the NFL per Football Outsiders’ metrics, it’s fair to say that he is likely going to be a neutral piece in terms of net results. He might make a couple of amazing plays that sustain the Bears’ on a given drive, but he is just as likely to falter. The best summary I have read of Trubisky comes from Mike Tanier:
“Mitchell Trubisky makes two or three impossible plays for every perfectly thrown pass to a free safety.”
While not exactly true, the sentiment feels strangely accurate. However, if the offense manages to be a neutral piece instead of a burden, Trubisky will be part of the reason why.
The Running Game
Jordan Howard has the sixth-most rushing attempts in the league with 229 attempts (53% of the Bears’ 431 total rushes). Unfortunately, his 3.6 yards per attempt place him at 39th in the NFL for yards per attempt (among those who have at least 100 attempts). To give a sense of how bad that is, the worst team in the league right now in terms of yards per rushing attempt is the Arizona Cardinals, and they are averaging 3.8 yards per attempt. Howard is probably getting too many attempts to justify based purely on production, but of course a real game is more complicated than a boxscore.
Meanwhile, Tarik Cohen only has 94 rushing attempts but checks in at a respectable 4.5 yards per attempt, which at least ties him for 26th in the league.
Blame the blocking scheme, Howard’s lack of versatility, or injuries to the interior line if you want. What matters is that Howard is getting the opportunity to touch the ball and it’s not going well when that happens. Cohen is also getting a chance to run with the ball, but when he does so he is not tilting the field reliably. He has good plays and the other kind.
The Bears are running the ball a lot. In fact, taking out quarterback runs for all teams, the Bears rank 8th in the NFL for total rushing attempts. They just don’t have a strong running attack, and they actually run more often than could be accounted for by their success. Mostly, they are running to control the clock and to vary the pace of the attack. They are running because Nagy is finding ways to keep the running game relevant. The Bears are not running because as a weapon it is working very well, and the effectiveness of the rushing attack could be a real liability.
Finally, the Bears average 11 yards per reception, 19th in the NFL. They spread the ball around, meaning that Allen Robinson’s 754 receiving yards is leading the team (34th in the NFL). His rate of 13.7 yards per reception also leads the team, even if it places him 35th in the NFL. By contrast, Tarik Cohen’s 69 receptions leads the team, even if 28 other players in the NFL have caught the ball more often (Taylor Gabriel has actually been targeted one more time, but he has six fewer catches).
Football Outsiders does not credit the Bears with a single receiver in the top forty in terms of defense-adjusted yards above replacement, and Anthony Miller’s 38th-place finish among receivers in terms of DVOA is the highest for the Chicago. Trey Burton is the “leader” among the Bears for relative efficiency, in that he is 25th among tight ends in terms of DYAR and 27th in terms of DVOA.
In other words, the Bears do not have a game-breaking weapon. Still.
What all of this means, in the sense of a total picture, is that unless the offense steps up, it is not going to be an asset in the playoffs. Cohen is exciting to watch, and he will have individual “boom” plays that can help, but on the whole he is simply a good player, not a top weapon either as a receiver or as a running back. In fact, both as a whole and as individuals, the Bears’ offense is more about doing just enough to win, not about putting games away. Chicago’s offense ranks 22nd in terms of DVOA, though that drops to 29th when only the last six weeks are considered.
Trubisky is playing well, and he is showing progress. However, while he is not going to be the least effective quarterback in the playoffs, as he is now, he will likely be outmatched by any rival quarterback he is going to face. The team cannot depend on him to win a playoff game, even if he does have the potential to sustain individual drives or to provide wrinkles that other teams must account for.
The players around Trubisky are more of the same--they are developing in a new offense, and their head coach is putting them in a position to make the most of their talents. At this point, though, the team is going to need to hope that the defense remains dominant and that the offense stays out of the way.