EDITOR’S NOTE: These stats- and smarts-heavy Bears Previews come courtesy our friends at Football Outsiders. For more, visit www.footballoutsiders.com.
Despite the 5-1 start, despite the nationally televised asphyxiation of the Lions, and despite the fact that Jay Cutler walked off the field in one piece after getting hit by a Suh-plex, some Bears fans remain skeptical.
For these fans, only a 50-0 victory over Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers on Sunday will satisfy. That’s because Carolina, like the Bears’ other victims, is pretty weak.
Our trademark measurement, Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average, or DVOA, measures every play by how it gets a team closer to moving the chains, compares it to the league average, then adjusts for opponent, venue, and myriad other factors. Positive DVOA is good for offense, negative for defense. Remember that.
The remainder of the Bears’ schedule is the seventh-most difficult in the league, but this Sunday continues the soft part of the campaign. The Panthers are 23rd overall in DVOA, the Football Outsiders statistic that measures team efficiency in all three phases of the game. The 1-5 Panthers fired G.M. Marty Hurney earlier this week, but the deposed exec had one card he could have played–the fact that the Panthers play in a superior conference.
At No. 23, Carolina is the lowest ranked team in the NFC, but that still places them, incredibly, ahead of nine AFC teams. We don’t factor in conference strength directly, but it certainly helps Chicago that only two of its victims have been from the AFC. The 6-0 Falcons, for example, are only ninth, hindered by the fact that they have swept the AFC West as part of their hot start.
BEARS ON O
Carolina’s defense, so horrendous a year ago, has actually improved quite a bit, ranking 20th overall, and 14th against the pass. In particular, they have done a good job against enemy No. 1 wideouts, giving up only 42 yards per game and ranking tenth in efficiency. On the other hand, Roddy White lit them up for 169 yards, and Ramses Barden, in an emergency role as top WR, went for 138. Brandon Marshall is capable of making plays against this team, but then again Cutler is no Eli or Matty Ice.
So the Bears will likely look to Matt Forte and Michael Bush to hammer the 30th-best defensive front against the run, one that gives up roughly 4.5 yards per carry, according to our adjusted stats. The Bears should look to attack the right side of the formation, at Carolina’s left edge, where the Panthers also rank 30th in stopping runs. We’ve noticed that the Bears run left more often than right—32% to 23%—so they will have to adjust to take advantage of Carolina’s weakness.
BEARS ON D
Back-door cover aside, the Bears put on another strong display of defense Monday night. The performance improved the unit’s DVOA to -34.6% (remember, negative DVOA is preferred on defense). That is the fifth best defensive DVOA we’ve ever measured through Week Seven, and the best since 2002. Heady stuff. The pass defense remains at an extraordinary -41.0%, and Newton, our 25th-ranked quarterback, just behind Michael Vick (and five spots ahead of Cutler), won’t be causing Messrs. Urlacher, Peppers, Briggs et. al. to quake in their cleats.
You have to drop to No. 30 to find Carolina’s top wideout, Steve Smith, in our rankings, though their other receiver, Brandon LaFell, is having a quietly good campaign so far. As a whole, Carolina’s passing game hasn’t earned much respect, and certainly hasn’t garnered any breaks from the refs. Only Ben Roethlisberger and Brandon Weeden have received fewer yards courtesy of pass interference among QBs that have started every game than Newton.
Much ink is spilled over Cam Newton’s running ability, and only Robert Griffin III has taken off with the ball more often. But unlike RG3, the Battering Cam hasn’t been efficient, carrying a rushing DVOA of exactly 0.0%, 21st best among QBs (And who is ranked #1, you ask? Would you believe Jay Cutler? Only seven runs, true, but he has picked up 92 yards, and he doesn’t have the negative plays that hinder Newton’s stats). Cam’s designed runs have been snuffed by defenses, and while he remains a threat, a defense as fast as Chicago’s should be able to contain him.
Still, the threat of Newton taking off has aided an otherwise poor Panthers offensive line. While by standard measurements Carolina is a middle-of-the-pack running team, only Oakland and Arizona are worse in Adjusted Line Yards, which measures the line’s contribution to the running game (the precise math is here). The Carolina running attack so far has been a combo of not much push up front (the line is 27th in Power situations) and a lack of elusiveness by the backs (22nd in Second Level Runs, 25th in Open Field Runs). Fully 60% of their runs come over the center/guard area, so if the Bears muscle up inside, stopping Carolina on the flanks should be easy. In addition, the line is 26th in Adjusted Sack Rate, which is poor given Newton’s wiliness.
ODDS, ENDS & FORCES BEYOND CONTROL
Carolina’s special teams are reliably mediocre, and a decided mismatch with Chicago’s fifth-ranked units. The Panthers are 25th overall, and near the top in only one area: kickoff coverage.
Chicago’s strength on special teams can’t be overlooked, especially given the inferiority of the offense so far. It’s a big reason why the Bear’s average drive has started on the 27-yard line, as opposed to the 23-yard line in Carolina’s case. Four yards might not seem like much, but it spells the difference between the league average, in the Bears case, and the worst average starting position in the NFL, in Carolina’s. Meanwhile, Chicago’s opponents start their drives right at the league median as well, while Carolina’s opposition have started their drives at the 30-yard line on average, fourth-worst in the league.
There is one component of special teams in which Carolina ranks slightly ahead of Chicago. We keep track of “Hidden” Special Teams plays, which ranks the advantage teams get from events out of its control, such as opponent’s field goal accuracy and kickoff distance. The Panthers rank 28th in this obscure category, but the Bears are even worse, or less lucky. They rank 29th.
The Bears might win ugly, but they win, and little things like field position help explain why. There’s no reason to think that their winning ways won’t continue at Soldier Field on Sunday.