It was not the ending that Chicago Bears fans wanted to see. Moral victories do not count for anything in the standings. Being competitive or "fighting hard” do not break any ties come playoff seeding time. After racing out to a 17-0 halftime lead Sunday night on the road against the Green Bay Packers, the visitors were left to watch as Aaron Rodgers delivered another storybook ending, leading Green Bay to a comeback 24-23 victory, and leaving the Bears players, coaches and fans wondering what could have been.
Out of all the storylines that emerged over the course of just one game, one that remains on the forefront of Bears fans’ minds this morning is the continued progress of second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. He completed 23-of-35 passes for just 171 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions, although he did run for a touchdown. As is often the case in football — and in life — there are a bit of grey areas when looking at his 2018 debut. Some positives to be gleaned from his outing, but one trend that unfolded in the second half that is a bit disconcerting.
Let’s start with the positives. Trubisky came out dealing and was flawless on Chicago’s opening drive of the game. Working on the scripted plays put in place by head coach Matt Nagy, the young QB started by completing his first four throws, capping off the 10-play drive with a two-yard touchdown plunge on a well-designed zone read. The biggest play of the drive was a deep throw to Taylor Gabriel working off play-action — a positive sign of Trubisky's development.
We have focused on Trubisky’s hesitation and decision making in our past few pieces, emphasizing the need for him to get faster with his reads and decisions. One of the ways you can see if a QB is making improvement in that area is when he starts making anticipation throws. When he is able to get the ball out of his hands faster, before receivers make their breaks, you can tell the game is speeding up for him. That’s exactly what we see on this throw to Gabriel (#18):
Working off play-action, Trubisky (#10) spots a big cushion and leverage advantage as the cornerback over Gabriel is playing off coverage with inside leverage. Pre-snap, Trubisky knows he has this throw. He starts pulling the trigger as Gabriel is getting into his break, showing that anticipation we are looking for from the young QB. This was one of his better throws of the night and something Bears fans should hope to see more of this season.
We’ve all heard the expression that the NFL is a copycat league. If there is a scheme or a play design that works for one team, other teams are sure to get it into their playbooks. Over the first two years of his career, Carson Wentz has used the slot-fade concept with a great deal of success, and it is one of Philadelphia's go-to plays on third downs or in the red zone. It is a design that Nagy went to early Sunday night against the Packers.
On Chicago’s second drive of the game, Nagy puts Trubisky in the shotgun and aligns three receivers to the right, with Allen Robinson (#12) as the middle trips receiver. This is a Y-Iso formation, with TE Trey Burton (#80) alone on the right, something Andy Reid would do often with Travis Kelce. But Nagy calls for the slot-fade again, this time to Robinson, and Trubisky drops in a well-placed throw:
This is another impressive throw from the QB.
We will get to Trubisky’s pocket movement in a moment, but I thought one of his better plays on Sunday night, and one that came in a huge spot, was this third down throw to Anthony Miller on Chicago’s late FG drive. The Bears face a third-and-7 near midfield with under four minutes remaining, and holding a mere three-point lead. They put three receivers in a bunch to the right on this play, including Miller (#17). As Trubisky drops to throw there is near-immediate pressure on the right edge, as outside linebacker Nick Perry (#53) beats right tackle Bobby Massie (#70) with a speed rushing move. But Trubisky does a good job of first stepping up into the pocket, then flushing to the right while (and this is the critical point) keeping his eyes downfield:
He finds Miller, makes a strong and accurate throw on the move, and the Bears convert a pivotal first down.
But we need to talk about those eyes a little more.
If there was one glaring issue when studying Trubisky, it was his pocket presence, or more accurately, his lack thereof at moments during the game. Far too often, Trubisky dropped his eyes in the pocket to look at the rush, before looking for a way to escape. This is something the QB talked about himself, referring to his “happy feet” in post-game comments. In an offense such as Nagy’s, where timing and precision play big roles, if a QB is dropping his eyes and even seeing ghosts in the pocket, it is not conducive to success.
Here’s one example. The Bears faced a fourth-and-4 on their fourth drive of the game, with the football on the Packers’ 37-yard line. They chose to go for it, probably the right decision, and empty the backfield with Trubisky in the shotgun. The Packers show pressure pre-snap, sugaring the left B-Gap with two defenders:
But both linebackers drop, and Green Bay only rushes three. Chicago has five to block three, so Trubisky should feel comfortable in the pocket. Yet look how quickly he transitions from passer to runner, dropping his eyes and looking for a way out:
Trubisky turned this clean pocket into a collapsing pocket by trying to escape, and to make matters worse, he runs into Massie, drops the football and is forced to just fall on it, gifting possession back to the Packers.
Here is another example, from Chicago’s fourth-quarter field goal drive. On this second-and-3 play, Trubisky drops to throw and has options downfield, such as Tarik Cohen (#29) crossing across the formation, but Trubisky again looks to run toward safety rather than hang in the pocket and make a throw:
Again, this comes with the Packers using a three-man rush, and with a defensive lineman spying him. Chicago has the players to block this up and give Trubisky time to throw, but he drops his eyes and looks to run too early.
But to close this out, I want to return to a positive, and Trubisky’s best throw of the night. This came back on Chicago’s second drive of the game, a third-and-4 throw to Robinson. Again the Bears use a Y-Iso formation with Burton to the left alone and a three-receiver bunch to the right. Adding to the look, Nagy sends Cohen in motion to the right as well, giving Chicago four receivers to that side of the formation presnap:
Trubisky hangs in the pocket on this play and throws an absolute rope to Robinson, drilling the pass into the tiniest of throwing lanes:
The Packers even get flagged for roughing the passer, tacking on an additional 15 yards. But the aggressive decision, the placement and the read are all top-notch from Trubisky. The QB does a great job of throwing Robinson open, leading him away from the underneath zone defender covering him, but putting the throw in a spot where the next zone coverage defender cannot rotate over and make a play on the ball, or the receiver.
Bears fans obviously woke up Monday morning (provided they got to sleep at all) wondering about what could have been. Dropping a season opener like that to a bitter rival is tough to swallow. But there were positives to take from the performance. Khalil Mack looks worth every penny. Roquan Smith notched a sack on his first NFL snap. Jordan Howard and Cohen look to be dangerous weapons in Nagy’s offense. As for Trubisky, his pocket presence and “happy feet” are unsettling traits to see right now, but he also delivered on some impressive throws because of scheme and execution. Whether that is the foundation for true growth this season, or just a mirage, will be decided over the next 16 weeks.