Chicago Bears Making Moves to Improve Red-Zone Play
To evolve into a perennial playoff team, the Chicago Bears must improve their red-zone scoring efficiency. Scoring in the red zone on a consistent basis can mean the difference between winning and losing.
Red-zone play begins when the offensive’s line of scrimmage is within the opponent’s 20-yard line. The play near the end zone changes dramatically. The closer you get to the goal line, the field becomes shorter. The defense needs to cover less territory. Linebackers and safeties are closer to the line of scrimmage, making running plays more difficult. The crowded field creates a higher risk for interceptions in the passing game.
How did the Bears perform in the red zone last season?
Shockingly, this is a steep drop off from the Bears under former HC Marc Trestman. In 2014, the Bears ranked 3rd in red-zone scoring percentage (63.83%) and 11th in red-zone scores per game (1.9). And in 2013, 7th in red-zone scoring percentage (58.33%) and 3rd in red-zone scores per game (2.2).
Focusing more specifically in 1st down situations within the 10-yard line, where there is no chance for a first down (outside of a defensive penalty, of course) and you must score, the 2015 Bears also left much to be desired.
From data compiled between 2000 and 2011, the league average for scoring with a first-and-goal on the 10-yard line was 51.3%. Naturally, this percentage increased with a first-and-goal closer to the end zone.
But the 2015 Bears converted touchdowns only 31.4% when they had a first-and-goal within the 10-yard line. The Bears scored within the 10-yard line 13 out of 33 attempts running the ball (39.4%), and 9 out of 37 attempts passing the ball (24.3%).
Clearly, the Bears need substantial improvement in the red zone if they are going to be a competitive team that can close out games.
If you’re a team that wants to improve red-zone performance, particularly within the 10-yard line, where should you focus?
It starts with improving the run.
Statistically within the 10-yard line, while a passing play has a higher percentage of resulting in a touchdown, running the ball yields a higher NEP (Net Expected Points). This is due to the potential for yardage gains on running plays and the higher probability for negative plays (e.g., interceptions) on passing plays.
Taking a closer look at first-and-goal situations within the 5-yard line, running the ball can yield a higher percentage for scoring than passing. Passing the ball three times results in a 66.4% chance of scoring a touchdown. But if you run the ball twice and can gain yards on each drive, then your chance of scoring increases to 74.6% on a run and 70.7% on a pass on 3rd down.
Additionally, if you can establish a credible threat running the ball within the 10-yard line, it will force defensive linebackers and safeties to stay within the box to defend the run, opening up the possibility for play-action passes and one-on-one coverages for wide receivers and tight ends.
Given the need to improve in the red zone, what moves are the Bears making to address this need?
Running Back Personnel Changes
The Bears didn’t renew RB Matt Forte’s contract. This was a tough pill for many Bears fans to swallow, and it remains to be seen how the new running-back core will fare without Forte’s veteran presence.
But of the three running backs—Matt Forte, Jeremy Langford, and Ka’Deem Carey–Matt Forte was hands down the worst in red-zone situations within the 10-yard line.
Below is a breakdown of how each of the Bears’ running backs performed in the red zone within 10 yards of the goal line.
- 2 for 2 on touchdown attempts in the red zone within the 5-yard line (100%)
- 5 for 6 on touchdown attempts within the 5-yard line (83%)
- 6 for 12 on touchdown attempts within the 10-yard line (50%)
- 2 for 10 on touchdown attempts within the 5-yard line (20%)
- 4 for 18 on touchdown attempts within the 10-yard line (22%)
Matt Forte’s red-zone conversion rate within the 10-yard line was substantially lacking behind the other backs.
Replacing Matt Forte in the backfield this year is fifth-round pick RB Jordan Howard.
Howard brings a power-running element to the Bears’ backfield. Of the group he’s the biggest back at 6’0” and 230 pounds. He is an extremely physical, downhill runner. He is not afraid of contact and, in fact, seeks it.
In an interview with Chicago Bears area scout Jeff Shiver, Chicago Bears play-by-play commentator Jeff Joniak noted that Howard is a “a big, strong, physical downhill back that can carry his pads well and he will hit you.” He noted that fans will “love [his] between the tackles power too, and that’s what wears down the defense.”
Shiver noted that what distinguishes Howard is “the way he pops [defenders]” when he makes contact. “He can drop his pads and use his arms. He’s got some old school in him.”
And when specifically considering the red-zone situations within 10 yards of the goal line, Shiver affirmed that Howard would be “a good short yardage, inside-the-five type of back, inside-the-10 type of back.”
And from Jordan Howard himself, he likes playing physical, tough football. “I feel I can bring a lot of power, a lot of physical-ness. I’m able to get those tough yards, squeeze through the tight holes, and everything, and bring a physical presence.”
Of the three running backs, Jordan is the biggest and brings the most power. Assuming he can stay healthy and on the field, he should definitely be an upgrade to the running-back position for inside-the-10 red-zone situations.
Return of the Fullback Position
As a further testament to the Bears commitment to the run, OC Dowell Loggains is bringing back the fullback position to the roster.
Fullbacks specialize in the ground game by charging ahead of the running back to clear a running lane by knocking back defending tacklers.
Currently the Bears have Paul Lasike listed as a fullback. Lasike is a gifted athlete that was originally recruited by BYU as a rugby player. He walked onto to their football team and began playing football just a few years ago.
Lasike recalled, “one day I was walking by the football field. It looked interesting and not that different from rugby except for the helmets and pads. I’ve always enjoyed any athletics that involved knocking people down. Rugby certainly qualifies on that score, but football does as well. The rules were different, the uniforms were different but if you like to hit, the two sports aren’t that dissimilar.”
He clearly enjoys the physical nature of the game. He said “both [football and rugby] are rough, physical games and I love that. Blocking your opponent is fun. I love to get leverage and have a guy opposing me go down. There’s a lot of adrenaline involved, as well as the physical effort.”
He joined the Bears after he was cut last offseason by the Arizona Cardinals, and was picked up to the Bears practice squad. The Bears clearly had an interest in him, as Loggains personally recruited him.
“Dowell texted me,” Lasike said, “and said: ‘We’re installing a 21 personnel package (a set with two backs, one tight end) and we have you in mind and we believe in you. We want to give you this opportunity and see what you can make of it.’ The door is wide open and I really have to take advantage of it.”
The Bears clearly have their eye on using Lasike in the red zone. During OTAs and veteran minicamp this offseason, Lasike worked with the first team in short-yardage and red-zone sets.
In addition to Lasike, the Bears will likely add competition to the fullback position, as they reportedly moved TE Joe Sommers to the running-backs room and may tryout former Washington Redskins fullback Darrel Young.
The addition of a tough, physical fullback bodes well for the Bears 2016 improvement in the red zone.
Offensive Line Moves
Offensive line remains a question for the 2016 Bears.
Taking a look back, the 2015 Bears’ offensive line was riddled with injuries. They lost starting C Will Montgomery after just four games. Rookie C Hroniss Grasu started just 8 games and struggled at times before going down with injuries. And the Bears needed to rely on OGs Patrick Omameh and Vladimir Ducasse, both of whom were cut from the team this year.
Despite the shifting offensive line, they performed really well. It ranked 7th in run blocking and 12th in pass protection.
The Bears made some major moves this offseason, signing free agent RT Bobby Massie, moving Kyle Long back to OG, releasing veteran OG Matt Slauson, and drafting second-round OG Cody Whitehair.
Will these moves be enough to improve the Bears red-zone running game performance?
To help answer this question, let’s look at the distribution of where the Bears focused their run game last year. Of the 424 running-back carries, the Bears ran the ball through the middle of their offensive line through the center and guards 59% of the time. They ran the ball through each of the tackles 13% of the time for each tackle.
It’s a question regarding where the Bears will focus their running attack under OC Loggains zone-blocking scheme. But if the Bears continue their tendency of running through the middle, Long’s move back guard should help considerably. And if C Grasu makes a solid jump in year two (more on this Grasu’s development here) and OG Whitehair lives up to his draft hype and hits the ground running, the Bears running attack could definitely improve, including in the red zone.
Did the Bears do enough to improve their red-zone scoring efficiency? Will their running attack be a credible threat in the red zone, thereby opening up the passing game? We’ll see how it plays out, but things are looking good so far with the Bears’ offseason moves to date.