How avoiding sacks, entrusting QB Justin Fields has injected life into Bears offense

After a Thursday night home loss to Carson Wentz in Week 6, the Chicago Bears fell to 2-4 on the season. Aside from a botched fourth-quarter comeback against Trey Lance and the San Francisco 49ers in a monsoon in Week 1, the Bears had just one win on the season, and that was at home against the lowly Houston Texans.

The season seemed to be spinning out of control quickly. They were averaging 15.5 points per game, 31st in the NFL. Justin Fields was being pressured on 50% of his dropbacks, the highest in the NFL. And he had taken 23 sacks, No. 1 most in the NFL.

Worse than just the sheer volume of sacks, was the sack rate. Since the Bears didn’t pass the ball very often, 23 sacks is even worse than it sounds:

  • Fields was sacked on 16.7 percent of his dropbacks, the most in the NFL.
  • The NFL average was 6.5%.

The next closest QB, Daniel Jones, had a sack rate of 10.7%, closer to the NFL average than Fields (16.7%).

Where is the 16.7%?

It’s the #1 highest catch rate we’ve seen in the NFL since at least 2000, dating back to TruMedia records (minimum 150 attempts). In other words, Fields had a historic sack rate in the modern era of football. The next closest over a season were Alex Smith (14.9%) in 2005 and David Carr of the expansion Texans (14.6%) in 2002.

If you isolate just the first six weeks of the season, Carr had a slightly higher sack rate than Fields’ 16.7%, but Fields would rank as the second-most sacked quarterback.

But then we saw Fields walk into Foxboro in Week 7 to face Bill Belichick in prime time, and pull off a huge upset as the Bears beat the Patriots 33-14. And then Fields had 29 points and 32 points in back-to-back losses to the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins.

And we’re scratching our heads at what this same team that once only averaged 15.5 points per game and had historic sack rates looks like now:

  • Completing 53% of his drives (No. 1 in the NFL) and averaging 31.3 points per game (No. 5 in the NFL).

Wild, a lot of that has to do with avoiding sacks on third down and trusting Fields more in the red zone.

We begin our forensic analysis by looking at kickoff efficiency, since so much of a team’s ability to score points relates to avoiding third downs.

Weeks 1-6 of Early Downs:

  • % of early downloads to get a first download: 21.1% (#30)
  • EPA/play on early downs: -0.08 (#27)
  • Weeks 7-9 of Early Downs:
  • % of early downloads to get a first download: 21.8% (#28)
  • EPA/plays on early downs: -0.05 (#25)

This probably doesn’t sound as outrageous to you as it does to me. When I see a team go from 15.5 points/game to 31.3, and go from 32% of their drives to 53%, I would expect a massive improvement in early performance.

But this is not the case with bears. These sets of numbers are surprisingly similar. Just like the rankings.

So if it’s not a kickoff efficiency, it has to be a third-down efficiency. And for sure:

Third downloads Weeks 1-6:

  • % of third-party downloads to get a first download: 35.6% (#24)
  • EPA/3rd down plays: +0.09 (#12)

Third downs Weeks 7-9:

  • % of third-party downloads to get a first download: 55.1% (#3)
  • EPA/3rd down plays: +0.61 (#3)

Here it is. The Bears are turning a lot more third downs into first downs in the last three weeks. Typically, a massive improvement in third down is due to much shorter distances to cover, considering that no stat is more closely related to third down conversion rate than distance to cover.

But this is not the case with bears:

  • Weeks 1-6 distance to completion on third down: 7.4 yards (No. 24)
  • Weeks 7-9 completion distance on third down: 7.3 yards (No. 21)

For all intents and purposes, the Bears are averaging essentially the same distance to run on third down the last three weeks as they did the first six. However, they are converting 55.1% (No. 3) of their third downs instead of just 35.6% (No. 24).

So what accounts for the massive improvement? Let’s look at the final results of the Bears’ third down play:

Weeks 1-6, in 55 backfields:

  • Serves: 8 (15% of all plays)
  • Revolts: 12 (22%)
  • Passes: 35 (64%)

Weeks 7-9, with 31 setbacks:

  • Sacks: 1 (3% of all plays)
  • Revolts: 9 (29%)
  • Passes: 21 (68%)

This is massive. Fields just isn’t getting sacks. And it’s not just not taking sacks.

When you can AVOID a sack and turn it into a SCRAMBLE for a first down, you’re turning a safety into potential points. It’s almost like avoiding a turnover but to a much lesser degree.

Benjamin Solak wrote about the value of bends in his article in The Ringer. In addition to a higher tackle rate and a much lower sack rate, Fields was more efficient with his mixups. In Weeks 7-9, Fields has converted 89% of his turnovers into first downs, up from 67% in Weeks 1-6.

Those runs are also gaining bigger shares, with 78% gaining 7+ yards vs. 58% gaining 7+ yards in Weeks 1-6, and averaging 16.9 YPC the past three weeks vs. 8.8 YPC in Weeks 1-6. Obviously, third-down sacks don’t convert first downs.

As such, when you combine sacks + fumbles, look at what Fields has done:

  • Weeks 1-6: 8 first downs on 20 dropbacks (40%) that were not actual attempts (sacks or turnovers)
  • Weeks 7-9: 8 first downs on 10 dropbacks (80%) that were not actual attempts (sacks or turnovers)

That has been the big difference in this Bears offense: Justin Fields’ ability to avoid sacks on third downs and use his legs to fight for first downs.

Sure, there’s a slight uptick in Fields’ third-down pass efficiency over the past three weeks: They’re converting 38% of pass attempts into first downs over the past three weeks, up from 31% over the first six weeks of the season And the efficiency is up to +0.17/att and 43% success in the last three weeks versus +0.10 and 34% success in the first six weeks.

To summarize the Bears’ completion percentage on all 3rd down plays, let’s examine the splits and do so in the format of: # of plays (first down conversion percentage).

Weeks 1-6:

  • Sacks: 8 (0% first down conversion rate)
  • Revolts: 12 (67%)
  • Passes: 35 (31%)
  • Non-QB runs: 13 (39%)
  • QB runs (not scrambled): 3 (67%)
  • Total: 73 (35.6%)

Weeks 7-9:

  • Sacks: 1 (0%)
  • Revolts: 9 (89%)
  • Passes: 21 (38%)
  • Non-QB runs: 12 (42%)
  • QB runs (non-scrambled): 5 (100%)
  • Total: 49 (55.1%)

So what is the end result of greater third-down efficiency, fueled in large part by Fields’ ability to avoid third downs? As they are converting more third parties into first, they don’t do it as much:

  • Weeks 1-6: 40% of drives finished with a point (#24)
  • Weeks 7-9: 28% of drives ended with a point (#6)

And they’re enduring longer drives, which get them into scoring territory:

  • Weeks 1-6: 19% of drives scored before reaching the red zone (#11) and 4% of those drives were TDs (#23)
  • Weeks 7-9: 28% of drives scored before reaching the red zone (#3) and 11% of those drives were TDs (#11)

And far more often, those drives aren’t just getting into scoring territory, they’re getting into the red zone:

  • Weeks 1-6: 24% of drives went into the red zone (#25)
  • Weeks 7-9: 44% of drives went into the red zone (#3)

All of this is focused almost entirely on his improved third-down efficiency thanks to Fields’ ability to turn sacks into bends and convert more first downs.

But they’ve also vastly improved in the red zone over the past three weeks:

  • Weeks 1-6: 47% Red Zone Conversion Rate (#28)
  • Weeks 7-9: 64% Red Zone Conversion Rate (#13)

Inside the red zone, they have relied more on Fields.

  • Weeks 1-6: 81% of red zone yards coming on the ground (#1, NFL average = 44%)
  • Weeks 7-9: 56% of red zone yardage comes on the ground (#15)

Fields is moving lower into the red zone and the results are improving:

  • Weeks 1-6: 4-of-11, -0.91 EPA/att, 17% hit, 2:1 TD:INT, 1 sack
  • Weeks 7-9: 9 of 10, +0.64 EPA/att, 55% hit, 5:0 TD:INT, 1 sack

That’s right: Despite playing half the games in Weeks 7-9, Fields has nearly the same number of red-zone pass attempts as he did the first six weeks of the season. And it’s clear that he’s been much more efficient with them.

How have the Bears turned their fortunes around and provided a much more exciting product these past three weeks?

How have they gone from a team that averaged just 15.5 points per game (#1 in the NFL) to averaging 31.3 points per game (#5 in the NFL)?

Almost exclusively because that same quarterback prioritizes avoiding sacks on third downs, fighting for first downs and trusting him more in the red zone and increasing his red zone efficiency.

Ravens at a historic pace

The only teams to lead by more than 10 points in each of their first 9 games:

  • 2022 Ravens
  • 2011 Packers: 0-1 in playoffs (Divisional Round exit)
  • 2009 Saints – 3-0 in playoffs (Super Bowl champion)
  • 1989 Giants – 0-1 in playoffs (Divisional Round exit)
  • 1984 Dolphins – 2-1 in playoffs (Super Bowl appearance)
  • 1964 Bills – 1-0 in playoffs (AFL Champions)
  • 1961 Chargers – 0-1 in playoffs (AFL championship exit)
  • 1942 Bears – 0-1 in playoffs (NFL championship run)
  • 1934 Bears – 0-1 in playoffs (NFL championship run)

In the Super Bowl era, each of these teams made the playoffs. Two made the Super Bowl. One won the Super Bowl.

The Ravens have the second-easiest schedule of remaining opponents in the AFC, and sitting at 6-3 are the best team in the AFC North. This team still has a lot to work out on both sides of the ball. But they are getting the job done thanks to Lamar Jackson.

Against the Saints, the Ravens start to attack:

WR1 – Devin Duvernay

WR2 – DeSean Jackson

RB1 – Kenyan Drake

TE1 – Isaiah likely

TE2 – Josh Oliver

We can talk all we want about the seasons of Jalen Hurts, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Tua Tagovailoa, Kirk Cousins ​​and even Geno Smith. But I guarantee you look at these WR1-WR2-TE1 combinations and tell me you wouldn’t rather have these offenses than the ones Lamar Jackson has worked with.

However, the Ravens are the only team that has more than a 10-point lead in every game. Jackson isn’t having his best year, and he’s also played some of it while playing through injuries. It’s not just the passing element that Jackson brings. It’s the rush element that has been invaluable. And on top of that, it’s his presence on the field that allows the team to run the style of offense that they do, that no other team in the league does and that produces a huge advantage for running backs. Statistically, Jackson is having his worst last season since becoming a full-time starter, but he has been invaluable to the Ravens’ success thus far.

Warren Sharp is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He is the founder of Sharp Football Analysis and has worked as a consultant for major league franchises, while also previously contributing to ESPN and The Ringer, among other outlets. He studied engineering before using his statistical acumen to create predictive football models. You can follow Warren on Twitter at @SharpFootball.

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