The Bears have made it to 6-1 largely by mauling the lame and the weak. Last Sunday’s close call against Carolina didn’t qualify as a mauling, but this week brings good news: the Tennessee Titans, are considerably worse in all of the Football Outsiders’ stats than the Carolina Panthers.
In fact, only Kansas City is worse in overall efficiency, measured by DVOA, than the Titans. Only four offenses are worse, and three defenses.
So this weekend represents a great chance for the Bears to show their teeth.
Here’s what to watch:
BEARS ON O
Let’s peel back the scabs. Exactly how poor has Jay Cutler been this season? These are some of the QBs that rank ahead of him according to our numbers—both Arizona quarterbacks, Kevin Kolb and John Skelton; tabloid crash test dummy Mark Sanchez; turnover machine Michael Vick; and four of the league’s five rookie starters (only Brandon Weeden can’t top Cutler).
Of course, any quarterback will struggle when he is convinced he will be rag-dolled every time he drops back to pass. He’s been sacked on 10.2% of his passing attempts, second worst in the NFL. Unlike Carolina, fortunately, the Titans don’t have the personnel to take full advantage. With only eleven sacks, they rank 29th in Adjusted Sack Rate.
Still, Chicago would be wise to run the ball often. Their run blocking is in the top half of the league in almost every category, and they do especially well going to the right side of the formation—third-best in runs around right end with a 5.81 yards per carry clip, for example. It will be tough to resist the temptation to throw on the porous Titans secondary, but the Bears should resist the urge.
The o-line isn’t just doing damage to Cutler’s tissue and bone health. The weak line is also preventing deeper pass routes from being called. Consider the numbers: Bears receivers have forced six PI flags, tied for the most in the league with several other teams. But the yardage gained from those flags, a mere 54 yards, ranks last among teams with six PI flags drawn. Packers receivers have gotten 123 yards from their half dozen flags; Vikings receivers 119 yards. Bears wideouts can win battles with defenders, but the results aren’t big chunks of yardage because the o-line won’t give them enough time to get down field.
Fortunately, Tennessee’s pass defense has been the most consistent in the league—consistently awful, that is. Using a metric called Variance, we measure the week-to-week fluctuations in every aspect of team play, and the Titans’ pass defense never changes in its ineptitude. The Bears’ passing game may just be brutal enough to challenge that mark, however. It’s like Athens vs. Sparta, or Ali vs. Frazier, except the exact opposite.
The Titans have only one strength on D. They’re good at stopping teams’ No. 2 receivers. This works out well for the Bears, because they don’t really have a No. 2 receiver.
BEARS ON D
It looks like a mismatch, and it probably is.
The speedy Chris Johnson remains a threat, but he ranks as only our 21st-rated running back (below both Matt Forte and Michael Bush), and except for a lone home run ball (an 83-yard TD scamper) against Buffalo two weeks ago, Johnson simply isn’t the player he was before. Once a feared weapon out of the backfield as a pass catcher, he’s only 37th in that category among running backs so far this season.
That is still higher, relative to position, than Tennessee’s top rated receiver, Nate Washington, who checks in at 43rd among NFL wideouts. Tight end Jared Cook has been the Titans’ lone skill player of worth thus far.
Surprisingly, Tennessee has been excellent running the ball on third down, tops in the league, and tenth on third down overall. But that has been undone by horrendous numbers on first and particularly second down, where the Titans are 31st overall in efficiency. Put plainly, they tend to get behind the chains too often to sustain multiple drives. That’s especially bad news against Chicago, although it should be noted that while the Bears are at the top of the league in virtually every down and distance split, they are only 11th against the run on third (and fourth) down.
Having said that, building a game plan around third-and-short plays is as unsustainable as Chicago’s “Pick Six” offense.
ODDS & ENDS & ROBBIE GOULD
No surprise that Robbie Gould came through to beat the Panthers. He is now nine for 11 on Clutch Field Goals (kicks to win or tie in the final two minutes of regulation or in overtime) in his career. He remains a pillar of Chicago’s outstanding special teams units.
Tennessee has had its moments on special teams, especially in the return game. Only three teams are better so far on kickoff returns, but the Bears kick coverage is by far the league’s best, so it will be strength against strength in that aspect of the game, a rarity in this matchup. Conversely, Tennessee’s kickoffs and coverage units have struggled mightily, so Chicago’s year-long field position advantage over opponents stands to continue.
That’s good, because when the passing game is as futile as the Bears’ has been, every yard counts.