The Bears offense struggled for most of the 2020 season. They finished ranked 29th due in large part to poor offensive line play, poor quarterback play, and a limited number of reliable weapons. The offensive line did suffer a series of injury- and Covid-related absences, which made it particularly difficult for the line to gel. As a result they did not run block well and certainly did not pass block well.
Trubisky played tentatively early in the season, missing easy throws and struggling against mediocre defenses. He was promptly benched for Nick Foles down 16 against Atlanta in Week 3. Foles came in and led a spectacular comeback in that game, but his play dropped off after that game until he was put back on the bench in favor of Trubisky. When Trubisky returned he played much better football, and the Bears offense was at its best during this late stretch.
It’s interesting (but entirely academic at this point) to debate whether Trubisky or Foles was a better quarterback. Foles was a better downfield passer, and when he had time in the pocket he opened up their offense. But his complete lack of mobility and versatility meant that when the offensive line lost the battle, he was particularly vulnerable. Trubisky was better at completing short passes and scrambling, which is a much better combination when playing behind a poor offensive line.
Trubisky v. Foles
|QB||Air Yards/Comp||YAC/Comp||YPA||Rush Yds|
Given that the Bears did not have a strong offensive line, Trubisky was the better quarterback and the Bears offense played better with Trubisky on the field.
*Omitted Week 3 v. ATL, where Trubisky started and Foles came off the bench.
This chart shows the Bears’ offensive Adjusted Rating in games with Trubisky (orange line) and Foles (navy line), from worst to best. They were below average regardless of quarterback, but noticeably better overall with Trubisky.
But regardless of who was behind center, Chicago’s offensive engine was powered by two players: Allen Robinson and David Montgomery. The real key to Chicago’s success was to involve these two players as much as possible.
This chart tracks the Bears’ offensive Adjusted Rating in each game by how many combined opportunities Robinson and Montgomery received (targets + carries). They played, by far, their worst offensive game (-2.61) when Montgomery was unavailable against the Vikings, and all of their best games came when the pair combined for at least 28 opportunities. As a result, the Bears struggled when a defense was able to shut down at least one of these players. With Cohen on injured reserve, they lacked true playmakers in both the passing game and running game outside of their studs.
The offensive line can improve if it stays healthy, which would certainly help this offense. But to get to the next level they will need more contributors. Otherwise they will be shut down by teams that can negate a team’s top option, including teams that either have a really strong cornerback or a great run defense. In 2020, the Saints, Colts, Giants, and Rams all fit this bill and played well against Chicago.
If Andy Dalton plays quarterback for the Bears in 2021, I would expect their offensive mediocrity to continue. Dalton relies on protection and the weapons around him for success. But
if when Justin Fields takes over, I predict that his mobility will be a huge asset. True dual-threat quarterbacks are less vulnerable to poor line play and limited weapons. And given the draft hype, there is a chance that Fields could be a really good NFL quarterback. I would be much less likely to fade the Bears offense with Fields at the helm.
The Bears 7th-ranked defense did its job in 2020 and carried the team to the playoffs in spite of the offensive ineptitude. They played sound football, did not make a lot of mistakes, and did not miss a lot of tackles. They bottled up opposing running backs and just made it difficult for opposing teams to move the ball down the field. But considering how well they played, they had surprisingly few turnovers and negative plays. As a result, they were much better against the run than the pass.
Bears Defensive Breakdown
|Net Yards Per Pass||6.4||17th|
|Yards Per Carry||4.1||8th|
The Bears were good at disrupting offenses that needed the little things to click in order to be successful. They played their best football in the red zone, where the field was shortened and their tight defense took advantage, allowing the 5th-lowest red zone touchdown conversion rate. Against this strength, teams that struggled in the red zone had a particularly tough time against the Bears.
This chart tracks Chicago’s defensive Adjusted Rating by each team’s red zone conversion rate on the season. They played well against all four teams who were bottom-10 in red zone percentage, including HOU (+0.55), ATL (+0.60), CAR (+0.40), and NYG (+0.59). The Titans were a major outlier here, but as I wrote in my Titans Team Study, their red zone numbers were skewed because so many of their opportunities came against the worst defenses in the NFL. The Titans also were a prototypical “grind it out” team, who relied on running well and converting third downs. As noted above, Chicago excelled against this mold of offense. The Packers, who had the NFL’s best red zone conversion rate, handled the Bears’ defense easily (leading to a -0.29 and -0.43 Adjusted Rating, which means the Packers played even better than their season average against the Bears).
They also played relatively well against the Bucs, who were unable to get in the end zone against the Bears and kicked 4 field goals in a 20-19 Chicago win. The Bucs offense was built on quick, deep passes that required touch and left little room for error. The Bears disrupted their flow and it led to inconsistency throughout the game.
The Bears defense has been strong for years. They retained their strong front 7, which bodes well for continued success. But they did see stud cornerback Kyle Fuller walk in free agency and they hired and new co-ordinator, so things could change in 2021. I would anticipate another top-10 performance from this defense.
Putting it All Together
- The Bears are fairly rated heading into the offseason. They were the worst playoff team in the NFL (even worse than 7-9 Washington), but most of that resulted from poor offensive line and quarterback play. It can be corrected, and if Fields lives up to the hype then they will likely improve.
- Do not anticipate a step forward with Dalton, who is not particularly mobile and has never elevated his team’s play. But if Fields plays, the upside is much higher.
- With a heavy concentration on offense with Robinson and Montgomery, expect the Bears to underperform when one or both are unavailable or against a defense that can truly shut one or both of them down.
- Expect the Bears to outperform against teams that struggle in the red zone and/or rely on the run for success.
Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways
- With such a concentrated offense and no real reason to expect a big step forward, only Robinson and Montgomery interest me in this offense. They both have a sneaky high ceiling with the potential for Fields and an improved offensive line, and also provide a safe floor when healthy. Darnell Mooney flashed late in the season but I do not anticipate enough consistency to warrant playing him in fantasy.
- I’m not interested in Andy Dalton. But if he starts Week 1, you may be able to take Justin Fields as a high-upside bench stash to partner with a more reliable, low-ceiling option at quarterback in the late rounds.
- The Bears were already stronger against the run than the pass and lost their best cornerback. Expect opposing wide receivers to outplay opposing running backs.
Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year
In Week 2, the Bears were 5.5-point home favorites against the Giants. I projected both defenses to win, and in low-scoring games big spreads are favorable. Although both teams had looked bad in Week 1, the Bears had looked bad against the Lions and the Giants had looked bad against the Steelers. I thought the line overreacted by giving the Bears too much credit. With a strong cornerback, I expected the Giants to match up well against the Bears offense that was focused on a single wide receiver. So I put 3 Units on NYG +5.5, thinking they had a shot to win outright. Predictably, both teams struggled on offense and it came down to a late Giants drive, down 4. They ended up failing to convert but still covered the spread, losing 17-13.
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