Back in Week 2, in the wake of the Chicago Bears’ 24-17 victory over the visiting Seattle Seahawks, we broached the idea of the Mitchell Trubisky “roller-coaster.” In that outing, Trubisky completed 25-of-34 passes for 200 yards, and a pair of touchdowns to go with a pair of interceptions. But the Bears’ defense helped lead the way, as the home team notched their first win of the 2018 season.
That recipe returned on Sunday night, as the Bears stymied one of the league’s top offenses in a 15-6 victory over the Los Angeles Rams. The performance from the defense overshadowed another up-and-down performance from Trubisky, who returned from a two-game absence with a shoulder injury. The second-year quarterback completed just 16-of-30 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown, but threw a trio of interceptions in the victory. Studying his game, it seems that any evaluation of his performance must be produced from the ground up. Here are lessons that Trubisky, and head coach Matt Nagy, can take from Sunday night.
Following that performance in Week 2, I turned to a place I often do when analyzing quarterbacks: The written words of people much smarter than me. I began with Steve Axman, and his book, “Coaching Quarterback Passing Mechanics:”
"If the quarterback oversteps too far to the left of the target spot he will end up having to use extra throwing-arm follow-through to get the football to go where he wants it to go. The excessive overstepping action will pull his body to the left, thereby forcing him to compensate with his arm and hand follow-through. In this situation, the stepping action and the pass-release action are not working together in harmony."
For example, this line from Bobby Lamb, currently the head coach at Mercer University: “Step toward the target, and shift the weight. We want a flex in the left knee. We want the quarterback to allow the hips to come through. We want to take a short stride. We want to follow through toward the target. That is the number one thing that we stress. When the quarterback throws the football, he wants the hips and everything else to follow through straight forward.”
Or this from Thom McDaniels, the father of New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and former longtime high school head coach in the Ohio area: “Step and throw on the same line. Your momentum should be in the direction of the throw. This is where we get into the accuracy part more than anything else.”
Here is a look at Trubisky’s first interception on Sunday night:
Trubisky (#10) tries to throws this intermediate route to Josh Bellamy (#15), but the throw sails high and is intercepted. Look at the quarterback’s feet when he releases this pass:
Trubisky’s feet are almost parallel to the line of scrimmage, and are certainly not “in the direction of the throw.” Now, there is a caveat to the general rule of stepping in the direction of your target. This comes from Greg Seamon, currently the tight ends coach for the Cleveland Browns but formerly an offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach for a number of Division 1 programs:
"At one time or the other we have all told the quarterback to step to your target. This is not exactly right. We want to step just left of the true target line — that is, if you are a right-handed quarterback. If we step straight at the target we do not allow the hips to come through. When we say to the quarterback to step to the target, what we are really meaning for him to do is to step about three or four inches to the left of the target."
With that in mind, let’s look again at the release point, with Trubisky’s feet alignment in black, and his target line in red:
Even giving Trubisky a few inches of leeway, you can see that again the footwork is misaligned. With improper footwork, it is difficult to precisely place a throw. As Ken Anderson put it in his presentation on coaching quarterbacks: “Unless the feet are there, you can’t throw it.”
Here is another lesson for Trubisky, again from this same play. The QB tries to fit this throw in over the linebacker, and in front of the safety. Now let’s listen to Gary Nord, who was most recently the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Purdue University: “Don’t throw over linebacker; throw between linebackers. To throw over a linebacker softens a pass so that a deep back can intercept it.”
Mistakes can be teaching moments. Trubisky has two lessons to learn from this one throw.
Let’s look at a later throw in this game, evidence that Trubisky might have quickly learned one lesson, but he still has some work to do on the other one. Late in the third quarter, Chicago has an eight-point lead and possession of the football, facing a second-and-8 in its own territory. The Bears run four verticals out of a 3x1 formation, and Trubisky looks to throw the “bender” to Trey Burton (#80):
This is a route and a play that has given Trubisky fits this entire season. For example, look at this misfire against the Seahawks back in Week 2:
To be fair to Trubisky, he hit on that throw to Anthony Miller (#17) later in the game on the same route concept for a pivotal touchdown.
Let’s return to the game against the Rams, as Trubisky tries to throw this bender route to his tight end:
Trubisky misses this throw in front of Burton, and it is intercepted by the deep safety. As we can see from this end zone angle, Trubisky seemed to learn from his earlier mistake. Rather than trying to drop this in over the head of the underneath defender, Trubisky looks to throw this around him, which is a good lesson to learn:
But once more, we see that left foot and lead step leading him astray:
Once more, the target line (in red) and the alignment of his feet (in black) are wildly apart. So while Trubisky quickly learned — at least it seems — the lesson about throwing between instead of over linebackers, this issue with his lead step continues to linger. It was an issue for him at UNC, it was an issue with him during his rookie season, and it is still present here in Year Two. Now it’s time to reiterate one of Schofield’s Rules of Quarterbacking: Mechanics are not an issue for a quarterback until they are an issue. If a passer can put throws where he needs to be on time and in the rhythm of a play, then if he has a loop to his delivery or his footwork is flawed, it is not a concern. But when the quarterback fails to put throws in the right spot, and mechanics are an issue, then it is time to address the throwing motion. If I’m Matt Nagy, I’m giving Trubisky a few homework assignments this offseason, and that left foot is near the top of the list.
Speaking of Mr. Nagy.
There was one drive on Sunday night where Trubisky was at his best. He made three distinctly confident reads and delivered arguably his three best throws of the night. Those came on the only touchdown drive of the game, early in the third quarter following Chicago’s sack and safety of Jared Goff. The play many will remember is Trubisky’s touchdown pass to offensive lineman Bradley Sowell, but let’s look at the three other plays. First, this throw on an out pattern to the right to Allen Robinson (#12):
Second, this throw later in the drive on a first-and-10, again to Robinson on a slant route this time:
Finally, this near-touchdown at the end of the drive, again to Robinson on an out pattern to the right side:
There is a common element to all three of these plays, beyond Robinson. All three are run/pass option designs where Trubisky is free to make the decision whether to run or pass based on the alignment of the defense in the pre-snap phase of the play. Let’s look at the defensive alignment before the first example:
Trubisky sees two things: Six defenders in the box and off coverage over Robinson. With just the five offensive linemen to block six defenders, the run play is an unlikely bet. Now with Robinson facing off coverage on his out route, that is a much safer option. Trubisky makes his decision before the snap, and the result is a decisive throw for a first down.
Now let’s look at the second example:
Again, the Rams put six defenders in the box for this play. The Bears cannot block six with five on an inside zone running play, at least not with any great effect, so Trubisky looks to attack the secondary with Robinson’s slant route. First thing to note is again we see soft coverage over the receiver, so Robinson should get inside leverage as he breaks inside. The only defender to worry about is Mark Barron (#26), aligned at that linebacker spot. But his responsibility when he sees run is a run fit in the A-gap, so he is held in place by the mesh between Trubisky and Jordan Howard (#24). Trubisky is not reading Barron so much as he is manipulating him. Only not with his eyes, but with a run fake.
It was about this point in the drive when Cris Colllinsworth, up in the booth, made the point that right now, Trubisky is a “one-read” quarterback. While that might be a simplification of the issue, there is a point here to be made and a lesson to be learned for Nagy. Trubisky is much more confident when he can make a decision pre-snap. He is in the process of growing into a quarterback who can work through full field progression reads and make a decision on the fly, but when this offense needs their quarterback to be at his most decisive, these are the designs that are going to work best.
Tony d’Amato taught us that football (much like life) is a game of inches, and the inches we need are all around us. The same can be said about lessons. As with life, football is a game of lessons, and there are things to be learned on any given play. From the good ones, to the bad. Sunday night was a night of lessons for Trubisky and his head coach. Whether the lessons are related to footwork, to trajectory, to scheme designs, they were present for all to see. As the Bears continue to develop their young quarterback while still driving toward a playoff spot, how quickly these and other critical lessons are absorbed will tell the story of not just the 2018 season, but those yet to come.