Through a roller-coaster season of highs, lows, twists and turns, there are still quite a few things Chicago Bears fans can count on from week to week:
A. tragic run defense
B. great wide receiver contributions
C. solid blocking
D. bad tackling
E. quality quarterback play
You probably agree with all five items on that list. Most people do. It’s the general consensus for what the Bears bring to the table. But the truth is that one of those items is not like the others.
Not sure which one? Studies say on a multiple choice question, the right answer is most commonly B or C.
And we all know Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are the real deal.
At the start of every TV broadcast, the commentators, when previewing the Bears offensive starters, state some form of the same claim: that an improved offensive line is one reason the offense has sprouted into one of the best in the league.
And finally, the stat sheet confirms it: The Bears have given up just 29 sacks, fourth lowest in the league. Forte is on his way to the best season of his career.
That’s a lot of compelling evidence.
But it’s all wrong.
Or rather, it’s half wrong. The Bears are an OK run-blocking team. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranks them sixth best in the NFL. Football Outsiders ranks them in the middle of the pack.
But when it comes to pass protection, the Bears are not good. They’re not even average. The truth is, they’re downright dreadful.
The Bears are one of the least-sacked teams in the NFL. That’s a fact, but there is more than one way to interpret that piece of data.
You could say that the Bears blockers have done a good job of preventing Cutler and McCown from getting sacked. Or you could say that Cutler and McCown have done a good job of getting rid of the ball.
In the latter case, you'd find yourself much closer to the truth. Consider the following chart:
|Pass Blocking Stats and Rankings|
|PFF Rank||Team||Sacks Allowed||Hits Allowed||Hurries Allowed||Total Pressures|
(Note that, because PFF doesn't count half sacks, their sack totals do not match official NFL stats. Also, PFF treats sacks, hits and hurries as separate entities; i.e. a hit does not also count as a hurry.)
The opposition has pressured Bears quarterbacks at one of the highest rates in the league, yet Cutler and McCown aren't taking sacks. The main reason: They’re getting rid of the ball.
According to Khaled Elsayed of PPF, “The average time to sack in the NFL is 3.8 seconds, although this owes something to 305 instances of a sack taking five seconds or more.”
Cutler and McCown rarely hang on to the ball 3.8 seconds, and virtually never do they keep it for five seconds. When they face pressure, they’re acting—either scrambling, finding a receiver or throwing it away.
I tracked McCown’s passing plays Week 9 against the Packers and only twice did he hold the ball for more than 3.8 seconds. In both cases, by about the 3.5-second mark, he was out of the pocket and scrambling for yardage.
(Of note: McCown was hurried 13 times and hit four times in that game. The four hits he took came at 1.7, 2.1, 2.2 and 3.0 seconds. None resulted in sacks.)
Marc Trestman deserves some credit for the Bears quarterbacks getting rid of the ball before taking a sack. Quick throws and available checkdowns are staples of his offense. In the face of pressure, Cutler and McCown have more often than not made the correct read and found one of those options. It’s a big reason they both rank in the top 10 in Total QBR.
Additionally, combined the two have 17 throw-aways on the season, the seventh-highest total in the NFL, per PFF. Bears fans have seen a more disciplined Cutler this season. Credit Trestman, credit Cutler’s maturation; in either case, in 2013, No. 6 is more likely to toss it out of bounds than fire it into a nonexistent opening.
McCown, likewise, has thrown the ball away when necessary, but he’s also been a magician at buying time within the pocket. See what he does in this play from Week 9 against the Green Bay Packers.
Overshadowed by Marshall’s phenomenal catch was what McCown did in the backfield. Hit just 1.7 seconds into the play, he managed to shake off the defender while keeping his eyes downfield and then deliver a strike to his receiver.
McCown was the master at turning would-be sacks into positive gains. He was the most accurate passer in the league when pressured, according to PFF.
Many people said, among other contributing factors, that the offensive line’s solid play helped McCown look good. No, no. It was McCown’s stellar play that made the offensive line look good.
Where's the Disconnect?
The numbers paint a picture that’s unkind to the Bears blocking unit, yet, by most accounts, the pass protection has been formidable this year. So where’s the disconnect? Why has the media missed this? Below are for different factors at play.
No. 1: The Jon Gruden Effect
Part of the discrepancy stems from “The Jon Gruden Effect.” How much hyperbole does he shower on Matt Forte for his pass blocking? Ben Stockwell of PFF counters Gruden’s sentiment, noting that “Forte has surrendered 17 pressures on 150 pass protection snaps this season and has the worst blocking grade (-5.8) among the league’s running backs.” Sunday night’s game illustrated this point, as Forte gave up two sacks against the Philadelphia Eagles.
It’s not just Gruden talking about Forte, though. It’s any commentator or TV personality praising any of the Bears blockers merely on reputation, small sample sizes or what someone else said. The words of TV analysts are often seen as gold, but sometimes those words are not rooted in substance.
No. 2: The Quality QB Effect
Blocking deficiencies are often overlooked when a quarterback is putting up good numbers. Cutler and McCown, collectively, are putting together some of the best stats in Bears history. Through 15 games, they've compiled 4224 yards, 30 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 96.6 rating.
Fans don’t care about a botched block when the quarterback completes the pass anyway. However, when there are more games to be played, a botched block matters, because a Week 16 completion could turn into a Week 17 interception.
(It’s like that time I questioned Trestman's end-game decision making in a Bears win over the Ravens. I was looking ahead to future games, like two weeks later, when he sent out Robbie Gould in overtime to kick a 47-yard field goal on second down.)
No. 3: The 2012 Effect
Perhaps the biggest reason the offensive line has seemed to perform well this year is because of what happened in 2012. Remember the o-line last year? They were horrible. Well, actually they looked horrible because, one, Cutler didn’t handle pressure as well as he has this year and, two, they gave up more sacks. But over the entire season last year, they allowed 210 total pressures, 34 less than the 2013 total through 15 games, per PFF.
More of the pressures in 2012 turned into drive-killing sacks, however, and as a result, they were maligned as one of the worst pass-blocking units in the NFL. This year’s group might be better overall, as they’re significantly better in the running game, but when it comes to protecting Cutler and McCown, they’re not as adept as their reputation claims. Check out the number of pressures allowed and where PFF ranks their overall pass blocking among the other players at their position.
|Bears Pass Blocking|
|Player||PFF Rank||Sacks Allowed||Hits Allowed||Hurries Allowed||Total Pressures|
|Pro Football Focus|
(I re-watched several games and charted offensive line play to see if my own observations mirrored the grades that PFF was producing. In most cases, my own grades and PFF's grades were not far off.)
It’s worth noting that Slauson and Garza have been tremendous pass-blockers this year. Both are playing near a Pro Bowl level in that area. And Kyle Long, not far from the middle of the pack, has fared pretty well for a rookie who was seen as a raw talent coming in.
Bennett and Forte came into 2013 with solid reputations. Over the past few season,s they've ranked near the top of the charts in pass-blocking, so what’s happening this season will probably one day look like an aberration.
The biggest concern is offensive tackle, where neither Bushrod nor Mills have played well. There’s hope for Mills, a rookie, to improve on his first season. But how much can he improve? Never lauded as a premiere talent out of high school or college, one has to wonder about the height of his potential. As for Bushrod, you’d like your $36 million left tackle to anchor your line, which he hasn't done.
No. 4: The "We've Got Bigger Problems" Effect
There are only so many words to say or write in a given week, and every week almost all of those words have been allotted to one of two things: the quarterback situation or the plight of the defense.
Hill-sized problems are ignored when mountain-sized issues loom. And it’s true that this situation is less significant than what’s happening on the defensive side of the ball and less important still than who is lining up at quarterback.
Those are mountainous matters right now. This is a hill. But mountains become even tougher to climb when you've got a hill to deal with too.