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24 Oct 2017

Any Given Sunday: Bears Over Panthers

by Rivers McCown

The beautiful thing about football is that, in any given game, we can be both right and wrong about something. I could tell you that I think Aaron Rodgers is going to tear up the Vikings secondary, be right for a half, then watch one adjustment neuter the entire passing game while Rodgers evades sacks left and right. In football, you are only as good as your latest adjustment.

Bears head coach John Fox's unhealthy fascinations with creating the most conservative brand of offense with which he can possibly stay employed are, on the whole, a bad way to play things. It's an insult to the beauty of football to spend so much of it running clock in an attempt to stay on the field as much as possible. His teams fight hard for him and play disciplined. They also, in this case, do not have much offensive talent to work with.

I think my view of Fox is right in the long term. In the short term? A great way to beat a team that's favored to beat you is to stall them out, rely on a few big defensive plays, and beat up their offense. And that's what the Chicago Bears did on Sunday to score the NFL's only upset of the afternoon.

Chicago defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has not received nearly enough credit for his work. The Bears are undermanned. Leonard Floyd was a nice rookie edge rusher last year, but not an All-Pro or anything. Akiem Hicks has been underrated for a long time, but nobody in the NFL was clamoring to give him $30 million guaranteed when he was a free agent. These are the key cogs in a defense that is mostly a mix of unestablished youngsters and veteran free agents looking to hang around or re-establish their value.

The Bears climb to 14th in defensive DVOA this week. They entered the week in seventh place in Adjusted Sack Rate without the kind of star edge rusher every team is supposed to need to achieve that kind of ranking. (These stat pages will be fully updated Tuesday afternoon.) They then tacked on five sacks of Newton, adding two picks to the ledger. This isn't a great rush defense or anything -- it's a team that starts Mitch Unrein on purpose! -- but they corral the big gains.

Another big reason for the Chicago defensive success has been the rebirth of Kyle Fuller. After missing all of last year to injury and struggling often in his first two seasons, he has come back and posted a 56 percent success rate (27th among qualifying corners) and allowed just 6.0 yards per pass (23rd among qualifying corners) per Sports Info Solutions. The veterans the Bears have picked up, Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper, have also held serve in all areas not related to returning blocked kicks for scores.

And uh, yeah, Eddie Jackson returning a fumble and a pick for touchdowns, though not predictive, happens to be a really good thing that can occur on a football field. Combined with a good defense, they can be enough to win a ball game when, say, you manage 153 yards of offense.

By the VOA

CAR -34.3% -24.2% 2.9% -7.1%
CHI -25.6% -22.8% 0.0% -2.8%
CAR -35.9% -30.8% 2.9% -2.1%
CHI -36.6% -32.3% 0.0% -4.4%

If you look at the traditional stats, the Panthers dominated this game. If you look at the DVOA, well, it was still much closer than the final score. Such is the case in games decided by two gigantic touchdown returns on defense.

Chicago's offense, in case you didn't notice by how little I spent on it in the first section, was really bad.

Questionable Coaching Decision of the Week

Both coaches lived up to their brands. Riverboat Ron Rivera went for it on fourth-and-2 at the Chicago 25, down 14 points in the third quarter. Meanwhile, the conservative Fox kicked a field goal on fourth-and-1 at the Carolina 1, in the second quarter, to go up 17-3.

However, the play that really stuck out at me occurred as Carolina was trying to score after the two-minute warning. Cam Newton threw a little checkdown pass to Christian McCaffrey, who was tackled in-bounds with 47 seconds to play. It took the Panthers roughly 20 seconds to get set for the next snap despite having to travel just 7 yards up the field. I won't say there was no hustle, but it was a nonchalant set.

Two plays later, Newton hit Kelvin Benjamin downfield for a big gain to the Chicago 15. But even though the Panthers scrambled to the line, they fell about a second or two short of spiking the ball. I know Rivera doesn't have full control over how fast the offense is going in the two-minute drill, but that was certainly a botched opportunity that could have been managed better.

Carolina's Rushing Offense: What Is The Point?

Given what we know about how running quarterbacks add rushing value, it's preposterous that the Panthers are as bad as they are at running the ball. But here we are, seven weeks into the season. Carolina has a -17.5% DVOA on the ground, 25th in the NFL. Their rushing DVOA in this game was -24.7%, and would have been -14.4% even without Newton's fumble. To put that into perspective, the Giants start Eli Manning and have already hit their seasonal Orleans Darkwa panic button... and they are right behind Carolina, at -18.0% DVOA. The Panthers have only even had one game with a positive rushing DVOA, against New Orleans in Week 3.

The grisly stats: the Panthers are 31st in our adjusted line yards statistic, but more importantly, are dead last in open-field yards and second-level yards. These are the kinds of yards that come when running backs evade linebackers and make defenders miss tackles. The Panthers do not create these types of runs at all. The question on that is: why? Both Jonathan Stewart and McCaffrey have above-average broken tackle rates according to Sports Info Solutions, with Stewart actually in the top 15 of all rushers and receivers through Week 6.

I picked a couple of Stewart runs to showcase what I feel is the main problem. And no, it isn't Matt Kalil, even though he looks bad in these plays.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

Here's the thing: the Panthers are running out of power sets without a real receiving threat in them. These would pass for goal-line sets on some teams. Without Greg Olsen, the Panthers no longer have the kind of two-way player who could force teams to pay for stacking against the run.

Ed Dickson had that one miraculous game against Detroit, but has been a non-factor as a receiver for essentially his entire career. Second tight end Chris Manhertz has seen his role increase every week, to the point where he's basically in on a quarter of the snaps. Manhertz has two career receptions.

The Panthers came out in Week 7 intent on showcasing Curtis Samuel as a horizontal threat, but until Samuel actually establishes himself as a receiver worth covering, that's not really adding any additional stress on the defense. And, well, fumbling seven points right to the Bears didn't help either.

It's clear Carolina doesn't really want to make Newton the focal point of their run offense anymore, wanting to keep him healthy. That's certainly one way to think about things after his injury-plagued last few seasons. But without Newton involved on read-option as a threat, there's nothing all that special about this run offense. Take the top short-area receiver and the difference-making quarterback out of your game plan, and you've got a goal-line offense playing for baby steps on first-and-10. As Carolina learned the last two weeks, that's not going to cut it. Mike Shula has to make a bigger adjustment to get the run back on track, whether it's lightening the box or relying more on Newton.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 24 Oct 2017

6 comments, Last at 26 Oct 2017, 6:48pm by Chip


by Will Allen :: Tue, 10/24/2017 - 1:14pm

A qb can have some effect on getting the offense lined up quickly after a 7 yard gain. Newton's been a really good player, but I don't think he's been great, and one of the reasons why is the little stuff like this.

by tsmonk :: Tue, 10/24/2017 - 2:19pm

Agreed. He might well be the most imposing physical specimen ever to play that position. But if he's not 100% (and he's not) then he's frankly below average. He's never been one to sweat the little details (watch him miss badly on routine screens and even shovel passes from time to time).

by PaddyPat :: Tue, 10/24/2017 - 2:49pm

On the other hand, coaching situational football plays a big role in the hurry up. Two minute drives have been a hallmark of Tom Brady''s performant since 2001, and one can readily see the mark of Belichick in those performances.

by Will Allen :: Tue, 10/24/2017 - 3:25pm

If the Panthers' offensive coordinator had a different last name, I very much doubt that he would have attained as high a position in the industry.

by RickD :: Tue, 10/24/2017 - 2:30pm

Turns out I would have lost a bet on whether the Panthers beat the Bears at DVOA - but only because of opponent adjustments!

That's some pretty putrid offense there. Dare I say it was offensively bad?

by Chip :: Thu, 10/26/2017 - 6:48pm

Remind me, why don't opponent OFF vs DEF match-up evenly - meaning CAR O is -30% and the CHI D is -20%?