Chicago Bears 2021 Team Study

Part 16 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 15 here: Minnesota Vikings. Part 17 now available: Indianapolis Colts.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Offensive Eff. Rating (orange and black) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPAAdj. Pass Rate

Justin Fields had a rough rookie season. As I predicted after watching him play in the preseason, NFL defenses moved too quickly for him and as a result he did not handle pressure well. At his best, he had excellent play making ability but often held the ball too long trying to make a play. This led to the NFL‘s worst ratio of sacks taken per pressure. Outside of the highlight plays he was also inaccurate. The Bears as a team had the 5th-worst on-target percentage and, relatedly, the NFL’s worst conversion rate on third and fourth down.

The Bears offense did not look better with Andy Dalton or Nick Foles on the field. They lacked consistency regardless of who was playing quarterback as they didn’t have great weapons in the passing game or a particularly good offensive line. None of these quarterbacks were capable of elevating the talent around them. The scheme also failed to make the most out of what they did have. This continual struggle likely got Matt Nagy fired.

One thing the offense did better with Fields at quarterback was run the ball. Not only did Fields himself create yards for himself but the running backs were also more efficient overall with the defense having to account for Fields’ rushing ability. They averaged 134.7 rushing yards per game with Fields and only 96.5 rushing yards per game with Dalton and Foles. The easiest path for improvement in 2022 involves Fields parlaying this rushing success into easier passing opportunities. This will require him to improve his mechanics and accuracy as well as his decision making and ability to read both pressures and coverages.

We have seen quarterbacks in this mold succeed. Deshaun Watson is probably the ideal comp for Justin Fields (on the field) because both players are able to create with their legs but also make downfield throws look easy. One benefit to the style of play of a quarterback like Watson is that he is less reliant on the quality of his receivers for production. For example, in 2020, Watson had one of the NFL’s highest EPA/play without any elite receivers on his team and a mediocre offensive line. He was able to accomplish this because so much of what he was able to do involved extending the plays with his legs and getting the ball downfield once the play broke down.

We have also seen other quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson and Jalen Hurts take a big step forward in year two when they can incorporate a lot of designed runs and zone reads into their approach. These players also did well without elite weapons. The Bears certainly do not have weapons and so they will need that element in their offense for even moderate success.

Don’t get me wrong. Darnell Mooney is a fine receiver, but he is not a typical number one wide receiver who can take over the game and draw double coverage. David Montgomery is a fine player too, but again, dependent on good offensive line play or an effective scheme to get him the ball in space. If the Bears are going to take a step forward an offense, it must be because Justin Fields took massive strides from year one. These types of improvements are not unprecedented, but they also are not automatic. I believe Fields has the widest range of outcomes of any starting NFL quarterback in 2022.

The big unknown is how they plan on using Fields and how they plan on building this offense. In 2021, the offense was vastly inconsistent because Fields played such a different style of football than Andy Dalton and Nick Foles. And, like all quarterbacks who run a lot, Fields is always a liability to get injured. In 2021, his injuries exacerbated this inconsistency, stunted his growth, and prevented the offense from establishing a well-defined identity. Instead, the offense had to shift on a dime, sometimes even mid-game. This was obviously less than ideal.

Primarily due to the inconsistency (and lack of talent), the Bears were not the type of offense that could excel against the best defenses. As a run-heavy team, they were at their worst when they were playing from behind and the run was taken off the table. I anticipate this will continue in 2022 regardless of how they set up their scheme.

The Bears are in a tricky spot on offense. They need reinforcements all over the field, particularly at wide receiver and on the offensive line. They just lost Allen Robinson, who was their best receiver for years. How will they replace him? They have a new coaching regime and essentially are in rebuild mode but it will be tough for Fields to develop without a better supporting cast around him. He may end up picking up bad habits if things don’t go well early. If Fields does not take a huge step forward, it’s going to be another long season for this offense.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Defensive Eff. Rating (orange and black) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPABlitz RatePressure Rate

For years, the Bears have been getting away with mediocre offense by playing at least good – if not great – defense. But in 2021, they were bad on both sides of the ball. The defense was not great against the pass or the run and opposing offenses pretty much did whatever they wanted to against them.

Even looking at performance relative to the quality of each opposing offense, the Bears played better against teams that were bad an offense and worse against teams that were good on offense. The below charts demonstrate this by showing the Bears Adj. Eff. Rating (which quantifies performance relative to opponent strength) against each opponent ranked by passing efficiency (Chart A) and by rushing efficiency (Chart B). Their performances trended better against bad teams in the run and pass game. This typically results from a defense with some talent but an easy scheme to figure out. Perhaps Bears ownership saw this when they made the coaching change.

Chart A

Chart B

Defensive Adj. Eff. Rating against each opponent ranked by EPA/play on runs over the season.

The one thing the Bears did well on defense was convert pressures into sacks. They had the highest rate of sacks per pressure in the NFL, securing the 4th-most sacks on the 5th-fewest total pressures. Their 38.9% conversion rate was shockingly high (the highest recorded rate since Pro Football Reference started tracking pressures in 2018). Unfortunately, converting pressures into sacks is not a sticky metric by any means under normal circumstances. Add to that, the Bears let go of Khalil Mack. They would be due for regression on this statistic regardless, but without Mack, it could be worse. Granted, they played a lot of 2021 without Mack (or Akiem Hicks), so they could increase their pressure rate. That will be the only way they can improve or remain consistent in the sack department.

As noted above, the Bears were very opponent-dependent on defense. Their worst performances came against the Rams, the Packers twice, the 49ers, and the Bucs. They played much better football against bad teams. That made them particularly dependent on schedule, and makes 2022 projections likely schedule-dependent on both sides of the ball. But with a new scheme and no Mack, question marks abound for this defense.

Key Takeaways

When to bet on the Bears: I don’t see any positive angles for the Bears right now, but betting is all about market value. If everybody jumps ship, they could be in play against bad teams because (1) their defense tends to play better against bad offenses and (2) their run-first offense is likely to play its best football in competitive games or when they have the lead. Teams with a running quarterback can often excel against bad teams, so that would be the time to capitalize on Fields’ progression in year two.

When to fade the Bears: By contrast, the Bears look like the kind of team that might get crushed against the best competition. Every year there are teams where you can’t set the spread high enough against them, and there’s a chance the 2022 Bears fall into that category, particularly if we don’t see a sophomore jump from Fields.

What to look for in the offseason: The Bears will need to replace Khalil Mack, who has been a defensive staple for them over the years. If they are healthy and do replace Mack, there is optimism for the defense. On offense, look to see if they add wide receiver and offensive line help in an effort to build around Fields.

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