By the time the first drive was over on Sunday, and David Montgomery had punched in a score to give the Bears an early lead, it was clear that Bill Lazor was the one calling plays against the Lions, not Matt Nagy, who was on the mic against the Browns a week earlier. And considering how well it all went this time around*, we have to assume Lazor will continue calling plays as the season goes on. And that gives us a perfect opportunity to discuss some of the direct differences in play calling from one coach, one week, and one opponent to another. Let’s do it.
*No, the Bears opponents in Week 3 and Week 4 are not in the same weight class, but you play who’s on the schedule, and this is what we have to work with right now for comparison.
Putting it simply: Matt Nagy’s game plan in the Browns game was a disaster, and it started (and pretty much ended) with his personnel decisions. The Bears ran their offense in the 11 personnel with three wide receivers for 86% of their offensive snaps. 11 personnel means that there is one running back and one tight end on the field. Nagy ran five-man protections for much of the game, and the Browns spent the entire afternoon in the pocket with Justin Fields. This caused Fields to have an average of 0.78 seconds per drop back to get rid of the ball or run for his life, and that’s just not going to win you very many ball games.
In Week 3, when Nagy used 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers), Fields was 2-for-2 on pass attempts, albeit short-yardage attempts. The run game also benefitted in the two rushing calls made with the second tight end on the line picking up 18 yards on two attempts. But, despite the success with the two tight ends helping in the blocking department, Nagy only used this personnel five times in the loss to the Browns.
In Week 4, Lazor had Cole Kmet essentially acting as an extra offensive lineman in pass blocking and run blocking opportunities. Cole Kmet played a crucial role in helping create a clean pocket for Fields to get through his reads and take shots downfield. For a visual, you can take a look at this excellent thread on Twitter.
So I watched Cole Kmet for entire first drive just because of all the slander, and…he spent most his time being a key blocker and essentially quasi right tackle. Helped spring Mooney big play and the 4 seconds fields had to throw (1/2) pic.twitter.com/4ydbECuRne
— B (@BShulkes) October 5, 2021
There was also a heavy disparity in run versus pass play-calls (13-29) in the wrong direction for having a bad offensive line that was overmatched and a rookie quarterback making his first start. By comparison, Lazor’s play-calling featured 39 run plays to just 18 pass plays against Detroit. Lazor played through the run game and let other things work as a byproduct of the run game.
David Montgomery was sensational in this role, scoring two touchdowns and rushing for 65 yards on 15 first-half carries, which opened things up for Justin Fields to take some big shots in the vertical game. This play is an excellent example of these concepts all working to perfection:
Justin Fields is a beautiful man who makes beautiful throws. https://t.co/rfmDxBJ56J
— Bleacher Nation Bears (@BN_Bears) October 3, 2021
Sadly, in case you missed the news, Montgomery is expected to miss 4-5 weeks with a knee sprain.
Beyond the incredible arm strength and accuracy that we’re not accustomed to seeing here in Chicago, there are some keys that only take place because of Bill Lazor setting the stage with his early play-calling. First, Cole Kmet lined up as a pseudo right tackle, something he did most of the game. While he does end up running a flat towards the right sideline as a safety valve for Fields if he needed it, it came after he chipped the edge rusher giving Fields time to see Mooney get open downfield. Not to be lost in the shuffle, Mooney splits the zone coverage with a nice double move, and the safety over the top had no chance on this dime by Fields.
In addition to providing Fields with a clean pocket through extra protection, Lazor’s run-first game plan allowed the Bears to gash the Lions on play-action passes. Fields was 5-of-6 for 86 yards on play-action pass calls. I mean, this is Football 101 unless you have the smartest guy in the room syndrome and refuse to do these basic things.
Check this one out:
More schemed concepts in the pass game for QB Justin Fields.
Play-action + in-breakers (below). Vertical throws to Darnell Mooney. And CHI ran the ball with efficiency.
— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) October 4, 2021
Here we’ve got another seven-man protection for Fields. Notice J.P. Holtz lined up in the backfield before picking up the linebacker who bit on the run-fake to Montgomery. On the right side of the video, you’ll see Cole Kmet getting dirty in the pass blocking game again, this time on Fields’ left side. This gives Fields time to drill Allen Robinson, who was streaking deep across the middle of the field.
Again, this is just Football 101, lined up in the I-Formation, extra protection for a play-action pass with your No. 1 receiver getting downfield, all made possible by marrying the run and pass game and forcing Detroit’s linebackers to play downhill. In the first three weeks of the season, Matt Nagy used two-tight end formations only 18% of the time.
The differences between Nagy and Lazor run deeper than the eye test; the metrics back it up too. Sharp Football Stats has a cool stat called success rates, or successful plays, which adds a layer of context to the traditional yards per play statistic by valuing the result of the play in relation to the need on that particular down. So, a 10 yard run on 3rd and 26 will add 10 yards/carry to a running back’s average. But that play resulted in 4th and 16 and, thus, an unsuccessful attempt to convert a first down (and graded as an unsuccessful play). Sharp Football Stats defines a successful play as one that gains at least 40% of yards-to-go on first down, 60% of yards-to-go on second down, and 100% of yards-to-go on third or fourth down. It makes sense, right?
Through the first three weeks of the season, while Nagy was calling plays, they had a 35% success rate on 99 passing play calls. In Week 4, with Lazor building up his passing game on the back of the rushing attack, the Bears had a 50% success rate on passing play calls.
“Yeah, but it’s been one week for Lazor, and it was against the Lions!”
Let’s take a look at the play-calling success rates last season before and after Nagy gave up the play-calling duties to Matt Nagy.
Week(s) 1-10 (Nagy)
• Rush Play Success Rate: 40%
• Pass Play Success Rate: 44%
Week(s) 11-17 (Lazor)
• Rush Play Success Rate: 56%
• Pass Play Success Rate: 56%
When Matt Nagy was calling plays, there was no balance whatsoever. Nagy was calling passing plays 77% of the time, as opposed to when Lazor was calling plays, and the Bears ran the ball 54.1% of the time.
Here’s where we get into the MAJOR difference in the play-calling, and it’s the most fundamental principle for success in modern-day football: explosive plays. Explosive plays are defined as runs of 15 yards or more and passes of 20 yards or more. With Andy Dalton under center, the Bears have had two explosive plays in 11 drives. That’s one explosive play every 5.5 drives. With Justin Fields under center, even including the disaster last week against Cleveland, the Bears have nine explosive plays in 24 drives or once every 2.7 drives.
Explosive plays lead to scores. That’s just a fact. If you can’t hit for explosive plays, you have to live and die on scoring drives that are 8-10 (or more) plays strung together, and pretty much everything has to go right. This should sound familiar if you’re a Bears fan because that’s been the script here our entire lives. Until now. Now you have a quarterback with otherworldly athleticism and the arm strength and accuracy to make things happen downfield, so why the heck would you not use him. Or, more importantly, why would you not scheme to exploit that as often as you possibly can.
The difference in personnel, scheme, and play-calling between Matt Nagy and Bill Lazor is unmistakable, and so are the results.
The difference in talent, ability, and results between Andy Dalton and Justin Fields are unmistakable, and so are the results.
The decision to stick with Lazor and Fields in their respective capacities on Sunday is a no-brainer, and quite frankly, deviating from that setup would be malpractice on the part of Matt Nagy.