Third Down Futility

The Chicago Bears' offense was not great on third down last season, especially when trying to run the ball. Recent analysis shows how bad it was, and what can be done to fix it.

Football Outsiders has developed a fairly recent metric called Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). For NFL running backs, this number represents value, per play, over an average ball carrier in the same game situations. The more positive the DVOA rating, the better the player's performance. Negative DVOA represents below-average offense.

Using DVOA, frequent Bear Report magazine contributor Doug Farrar dove into the performances of runners on third down last season. At the top of the list is Tampa Bay's Cadillace Williams (74.9 percent DVOA), followed by Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy, Oakland's Michael Bush, Houston's Arian Foster and Atlanta's Michael Turner.

There are many factors that play into the success of a back on third down, the most important being the play of his offensive line. The Bears' front five was one of the worst in the league in 2010, so it's not surprising that Matt Forte was the worst NFL running back on third down last year (-83.7 percent DVOA).

Forte carried the ball 16 times on third down for a total of just 10 yards. He converted his third-down opportunities into first downs only 13 percent of the time. As Farrar points out, this was not an anomaly. Forte's DVOA his rookie season was about league average (2.6 percent) yet fell precipitously in 2009 (-30.6 DVOA) before dropping to the bottom of the barrel last year.

And here's the real kick in the gut:

"On his seven third-and-1 opportunities in 2010, Forte converted just one of them and gained a total of minus-1 yards on all seven. That's some pretty historic futility right there."

RB Matt Forte
Rob Grabowski/US Presswire

While he was often hit in the backfield, thus offering him no chance at success, the blame can't be entirely heaped on the offensive line. Forte has been known to tiptoe up to the line, affording him no burst once he reaches the defenders. And while he has outstanding field vision in space, he too often runs right into the backs of his linemen on short-yardage plays.

This partly explains why the Bears' coaching staff chose to make backup Chester Taylor, who has excelled as a third-down back throughout his career, the short-yardage runner in 2010. He was playing out of position but obviously something needed to change. Yet it was up to coordinator Mike Martz to devise a system to pick up those needed yards, and too often his solution was a run right up the gut. With a line blocking like a box of wet Kleenex, power football isn't always the best option.

What's very interesting in Farrar's statistical analysis is how Jay Cutler fared on third downs. Having been sacked the most of any QB in the league last year, Cutler was under constant pressure from the defensive front. On many occasions, he was forced to improvise due to a lack of protection up front. Seeing the Bears' signal caller scramble on third downs was a very familiar sight in 2010, yet his efficiency out of the pocket was phenomenal.

In fact, Cutler was the best rushing quarterback in the NFL last year on third downs. He had a 72 percent DVOA (12 carries, 121 yards) for a 75 percent success rate. On his 12 third-down runs, Cutler converted eight, including instances of third-and-9, third-and-15, and third-and-16.

Again, it's not a surprise he was so often forced out of the pocket, but his ability to make something out of nothing is surely better than most assumed. It reiterates Cutler's above-average athleticism and ability to use both his arm and feet to create something out of nothing.

It's hard to imagine any runner having success behind the offensive line Chicago trotted on to the field each week last season. Yet, the numbers show Forte may not be the ideal player in short-yardage situations – the same goes for Taylor. Which is why the Bears should give second-year player Harvey Unga a shot as the goal-line back. At 6-0, 247 pounds, Unga has the frame to move the pile even when a hole isn't there. He was injured all of last season. If he makes the 53-man roster, which is highly probable, the coaching staff needs to give him a shot as the short-yardage back. He can't do any worse.

The offensive line got a boost with the recent drafting of tackle Gabe Carimi, but he's only one player. His ability in the run game will be very helpful, but the Football Outsiders numbers show that, as Bear Report has said consistently, another veteran upgrade is necessary, preferably at guard. If the Chicago front office wasn't already aware of the futility of its line, these numbers should wake them up. Bringing in a road-grader to play next to Olin Kreutz would give the front five the push it needs to get those crucial third-down yards.

If no personnel changes are made though, and the team relegates Tayor again to short-yardage duties, expect another lackluster performance from the Bears on third down in 2011.

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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport com To read him every day, visit BearReport com and become a Chicago Bears insider

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