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Where is the Pass Rush?

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The Bears tied with 3 other teams to come in 7th in sacks in 2017. Do they have enough firepower to get there again in 2018?

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Chicago Bears
Who else can rush the passer?
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

There is a prevailing thought that in the NFL that the three most important people on a football team are the quarterback, the guys protecting the quarterback, and the guys who sack the quarterback. The Bears appear to be in pretty solid shape with the quarterback and the guys protecting him, but what about the guys who sack the quarterback?

The Bears had a fairly solid unit last year, which tied for 7th in the NFL with 42 sacks. Solid enough that they were top-10 in both points (4th) and yards against (10th), while coming in at 14th in DVOA if that’s your jam. While many detractors have been quick to point out that the Bears offense was atrocious—news flash: it was—last season which helped out the raw numbers, and that’s fair, I’ll play along. But if that was the case, doesn’t that adversely affect their sack and turnover numbers too?

Typically defenses are at the height of their aggression when a team has a lead on the scoreboard. An offense becomes one-dimensional when playing from behind, and of course, that one dimension is passing. Any offense is easier to defend when they are basically doing nothing but throw the ball. Defensive lineman can pin their ears back and focus solely on rushing the passer. More speed and ball skills in your secondary leads to more interceptions.

Of course it’s not as cut-and-dry as saying that more leads equals more sacks, but it sure helps. Consider for a moment that 8 of top-10 teams in sacks in 2017 were in the top-half of the NFL in scoring, including the Rams (4th in sacks, 1st in scoring), Patriots (tied for 7th in sacks, 2nd in scoring), Saints (tied for 7th in sacks, 4th in scoring), Jaguars (2nd in sacks, 5th in scoring), and Steelers (1st in sacks, 8th in scoring). I think you can make a correlation between the two fairly easily.

A New Sheriff in Town

What does that mean for 2018? First things first, there is a new head coach for the Bears. Unless you have been hibernating all winter, you realize that Matt Nagy is now the head man in charge. The excitement surrounding his hiring was palpable and for good reason. On the surface this seems like a “home run” hire for the Bears.

Let’s assume for a moment that Nagy is more or less what we believe he will be. Aggressive, innovative, a leader of men, and most importantly, knows how to score points. The Bears were all the way down at 29th in scoring last year. I am hardly the next Srinivasa Ramanujan but I am pretty sure that’s not very good.

Add to that the gaggle of new offensive weapons, Mitch Trubisky entering his second year, and I feel pretty confident in saying that the Bears offense will be vastly improved. Is it fair to say middle of the pack? The difference between the Redskins at 16th (21.4 PPG) and the Bears at 29th (16.5 PPG) is staggering (4.9 PPG). I don’t think it is out of the realm of possibilities to think that a 4.9 PPG jump is reasonable considering what was added.

The other side of the coin is the defense. Vic Fangio maintains his autonomy as a defensive coordinator under John Fox, but I am a little bit skeptical about that. Fox is long-rooted on the defensive side of the ball and has always focused his attention there, even as a head coach. My guess is that we see a little more aggression from the Bears defense this year.

The Replacements

So what are we really talking about here? To become a 42-sack team again in 2018, the Bears are going to have to replace between 14.5 and 15.5 sacks (depending on Howard Jones making the team). Is it that difficult to find that many sacks? The Bears have moved on from Pernell McPhee (4), Lamarr Houston (4), Mitch Unrein (2.5), Willie Young (2), and Christian Jones (2). Again, the other Jones is where the extra sack comes into play but we will assume for this exercise that he won’t make the team.

That means that the other 26.5 to 27.5 sacks have come from players that we expect to be on the roster in 2018. Here is a breakdown of those players:

Akiem Hicks - 8.5

Leonard Floyd - 4.5

Sam Acho - 3.0

Danny Trevathan - 2.0

Nick Kwiatkoski - 2.0

Roy Robertson-Harris - 2.0

Eddie Goldman - 1.5

Jonathan Bullard - 1.0

Bryce Callahan - 1.0

Cre’Von LeBlanc - 1.0

A few things stick out to me here. First is Hicks’ 8.5 sacks. That is a career high for him in two consecutive seasons. Next is Leonard Floyd only having 4.5 sacks after grabbing 7 in 2016. Goldman seemed to have a down year as well. With him potentially playing for a new deal, I doubt that trend continues. While Goldman should never be counted on as a pass rusher, he does help collapse the pocket and gets some cleanup sacks.

Beyond that, with Unrein gone, I would expect to see Bullard and Robertson-Harris get a lot more playing time. Unrein offered very little in the way of pass rushing ability and the tape from Bullard and Robertson-Harris towards the end of last year is encouraging. I would expect to see a net-positive from this switch, especially if Bullard is used more inside and Robertson-Harris is left at the 7-technique outward, perhaps even playing outside linebacker on occasion.

Here is where it gets a little bit interesting. There are some rumblings that Nick Kwiatkoski will be moving to outside linebacker. If that is the case, color me excited! Kwiatkoski certainly has his limitations, many of those are due to being, at best, an average athlete. The area that he seemed to really excel at as an inside linebacker was blitzing. He didn’t always make the play, but he seems to naturally convert speed-to-power. That is one of the keys to being an effective pass rusher. This could be a sneaky good move for this defense.

New Kids on the Block

The first player that needs to be discussed is likely your day one starter opposite of Floyd. During free agency, the Bears addressed their pass rush needs by signing former 49er Aaron Lynch to a 1-year contract. While the past two seasons were not kind to Lynch, his first two—in the Fangio system—were very solid. He had 6 and 6.5 sacks respectively. Do I expect the same level of production after two off-years? Maybe, I honestly don’t know. I am willing to bet on a player that settled for a 1-year deal and is reunited with the man who got the most out of him.

The next men up are the recent draftees. Because I don’t think that he will fit into the plans much on defense for 2018, I am going to forego adding Joel Iyiegbuniwe to this discussion. Bilal Nichols will likely not be more than a rotational player as a rookie, so expecting more than a cursory sack or two is folly. I am just going to leave Nichols out of this too. That leaves us with Roquan Smith and Kylie Fitts as the players who could add a little juice to the pass rush.

Smith, the Bears first-round pick, capped off a decorated career in Athens, GA with 6.5 sacks. That is a pretty impressive number from an inside linebacker. Personally, I don’t think he will approach that number, at least as a rookie, but he should be able to produce what Trevathan and Kwiatkoski did last season (2). Anything more than that would just be gravy.

Fitts, the Bears sixth-round pick, is an interesting case. Does he show enough to be anything more than a rotational player? Can he eventually supplant Lynch as a starter? Does he become another “red shirt” rookie like Jordan Morgan? We simply don’t know and are too premature in the season for making those types of prognostications. Again, I think you have to set a relatively low bar here and say that you are probably looking at around 2 sacks.

Total Recall

If we assume that everyone plays to their averages under the tutelage of Fangio, and the rookies are basically going to add “replacement value,” then I think we have our answer. I think it will all even out in the end. For every “Hicks won’t have 8.5 sacks again” or “Lynch hasn’t done jack squat in two seasons,” there is a “Floyd and Goldman produced well-below what they should.”

Add to that the new players, more playing time for others, a new-look offense, and full autonomy for Fangio and voila! It’s a recipe for about 42 sacks again next year. Now, please do not confuse this as some sort of Pace-love-fest-whilst-drinking-the-kool-aid kind of article. I understand that sacks do not encapsulate a team’s pass rush, far from it. Hurries, hits, pressures, whatever you want to call them are subjective statistics, and difficult to quantify.

I am trying to keep this simple. Sacks are easy, they are objective, and they do tell us something about a team’s pass rush. From that perspective, I think that we may have slightly overstated our need. Not grossly, slightly. For all those who remember the months leading up to the draft last year, I was pounding the table for pass rushers then. In more recent memory, my initial reaction to drafting Smith was negative, because he wasn’t a pass rusher. Believe me, I want nothing more than to add an edge rusher.

However, maybe...just maybe, this defense takes another step. One more year under Fangio. Key players are coming out of contract (Goldman, Amos, and Lynch). An improved offense. An aggressive head coach. A new strength and conditioning staff to keep them healthy. A more balance time-of-possession where Hicks won’t be toast by the end of the season. Some nice new additions from the draft...

Crazier things have happened in sports than a team with a widely respected defensive coordinator, and a team that finished high in the rankings, taking a step forward. All it takes is one man. Hicks has already had his breakout. Who’s the next man up?

*I want to give a HUGE shoutout to Ken Mitchell for the idea for this. Thanks buddy!