The roar was unmistakable. Deafening in fact. So loud you could feel it in your bones, much like a brutal wind gust off Lake Michigan on a chilly February morning. That roar was more of a primal scream, an explosion of pure elation when it was reported that the Chicago Bears had reached an agreement to acquire All-Pro defensive end Khalil Mack from the Oakland Raiders. That roar you undoubtedly heard on Saturday morning was all of Bears Nation screaming in joy, in bewilderment, and in hope.
The move solidifies what was already shaping up to be a promising Chicago defense, but it also illustrates a simple fact of present-day NFL economics, as previously argued in this space. Perhaps the biggest competitive advantage any NFL team can enjoy is having a capable starting quarterback on his rookie deal.
But that “capable” is doing some heavy lifting there. When an NFL organization decides to go all in with moves like this, it means they have a level of faith in their young quarterback to become that capable passer to complete the roster.
Which brings us to Mitchell Trubisky.
After being pressed into action early in his rookie season, Trubisky showed flashes of what made him the second overall selection but also made his share of mistakes.
In an effort to maximize the team’s potential during his rookie deal, the Bears looked to emulate what the Los Angeles Rams put in place around their young signal caller, Jared Goff. They hired a young, offensive-minded head coach in Matt Nagy, and added another younger offensive coordinator in Mark Helfrich. The goal? Create the environment for development to replicate in Trubisky what Goff showed from his first NFL season, to his second.
So what have we seen from both Trubisky, and Nagy, to have us believe the transformation is underway?
We can start with the quarterback himself, our young hero that we will obsess over together during the next few months here at Pro Football Weekly. Entering the 2018 NFL season there is one distinct area to watch for when it comes to Trubisky’s development: Processing speed. This is an area that we have already investigated together, my dear reader. Back in May we highlighted how Trubisky needed to get much, much faster with his decisions, highlighting one example play when Trubisky simply failed to pull the trigger on a roll-out pass:
As previously outlined this is a great example of where the QB needs to get faster with his decisions. He has a receiver wide open in the flat, but his hesitation leads to a sack. This is a throw Trubisky has to make.
With the preseason slate of games in the rear-view mirror, we can see that Trubisky’s processing speed is still a work in progress, however, there are positive signs. In fact, we can see how Trubisky is developing in this preseason alone.
Let’s start with the “bad news,” and an example of where Trubisky yet again needs to be much faster with making his decision and getting the ball out of his hands. This is a 2nd-and-8 play against the Denver Broncos in Week 2 of the preseason. Trubisky (#10) aligns in the shotgun with three receivers to the left, including Kevin White (#11), who is split wide along the boundary. This is the look right when the ball is snapped at the alignment of the defense. (My apologies, working with the broadcast angle from preseason games often results in missing the presnap phase of plays):
Look at the alignment of the cornerback over White. Tramaine Brock (#22) gives White eight yards of cushion before the play begins. Remember that as we look at the route concept employed on the play:
White runs a simple stop route, just past the line of scrimmage. The other two receivers run a pivot/post combination, with the middle trips receiver cutting inside while the inside trips receiver pushes vertically for a few yards before breaking outside. Now, despite seeing all this cushion presnap, Trubisky takes a long, slow look through his reads before throwing to White:
The play works, but in the words of Charlie from the original “Top Gun” it is an example of what not to do. Had the linebacker not overrun White, the receiver is likely held to no gain on the play. Had Trubisky been much quicker with his read and decision here, White might have had more time to make a move post-catch, and picked up even more yardage on the play. Now as we will talk about in a minute, Trubisky is reading the pivot route first, but he needs to either throw it, or come off it, much faster on this snap.
The design on that play is a Mesh Return concept. Back in May we argued that one way to get Trubisky to speed up his reads was to bring in concepts that he was familiar with, perhaps from the Air Raid school of thought, that would bring to mind his days at UNC. This play looks like the Mesh Concept, a staple of Air Raid offenses that consists of two crossing routes underneath. However, instead of crossing, the two tight ends on this play cut their routes short and either sit down in zones or start working back toward the sideline.
In his game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Trubisky is tasked with running this same play, albeit with a different personnel package. Look at how much faster he is with his decision on this example:
On this play Trubisky first peeks at Adam Shaheen (#87) running his mesh/return route on the left, before then coming to the newly-acquired Trey Burton (#80) as he starts working toward the sideline. This is a much faster read and decision, and Trubisky’s throw is on time and in rhythm. Just one example, but an indication that Trubisky is capable of making quicker reads and throws, with the right timing necessary for the structure and execution of Nagy’s offense. Plus, this is evidence that the presence of Burton, a reliable security blanket for the young QB, will pay dividends.
Based on the limited action Trubisky saw this preseason, it is fair to give the young quarterback a grade of “Incomplete” in this area. But it is important to remember that offenses only run a portion of their entire playbook in the preseason, so once we get into the regular season, we will get a better flavor for how Trubisky is growing in this area ... and how his new offensive coaches are helping him. But seeing Trubisky faster on the second example is a good indicator that his growth and development is happening right before our eyes. Now, as for the schematic aspect of his development, let's look at what Nagy is bringing to the Windy City.
It is hard to overstate just how important the quarterback/coach relationship is when developing young passers. Look at the different starts to the careers of Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. Though Goff was the first quarterback off the board in the 2016 NFL Draft, it was Wentz who had more success early as a rookie while Goff looked like a potential bust. But enter Sean McVay, who implemented an offensive system that made much better use of space on the field, and Goff’s numbers took off. That is the type of path the Bears want to copy this season with their second-year passer.
Again, we have limited tape to study, but there are two things that Nagy is bringing to Chicago that will help Trubisky’s development, particularly when it comes to his processing speed: Packaged plays and presnap movement.
Packaged plays are the very close cousin of the “en vogue” offensive concept sweeping the lands, the run/pass option. Packaged plays are a version of RPOs that give the QB multiple ways of attacking a defense on both the ground, and in the air. Here is a good example of this in action:
This is an inside running play packaged with a bubble screen to the three-receiver bunch formation. Trubisky simply makes a pre-snap read based on the numbers shown by the defense. If they have a heavy box and the offense has the numbers advantage to the bubble, he’ll throw the screen. If the defense goes light in the box, he’ll give the ball on the inside run. Either way the QB is tasked with finding the numbers advantage and then making the right decision, and trusting that his teammates can take advantage of the positive ratio.
Designs like this are a perfect way to help a quarterback. Identifying, and then exploiting, numbers advantages both attacks the defense while simplifying the decision-making process for the quarterback.
Another way of helping the decision-making process for the quarterback is by getting as much information to him as possible during the pre-snap phase of the play. Offenses can accomplish this by the wise usage of pre-snap movement. A team that is illustrious in this department is the New England Patriots. On so many of their plays they send at least one, if not more, receivers moving before the snap of the ball. This serves two goals. First, it helps to create mismatches, but second, and more importantly for our purposes here, it helps Tom Brady identify the coverage before the play. With more information at his disposal he can make a better — and faster — decision.
Nagy has also shown this preseason the desire to use pre-snap movement, and it has paid off for his young QB. This play is a 3rd-and-9 from Chicago’s preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bears break the huddle and empty the backfield, putting fullback Michael Burton (#46) wide to the left. The Bengals respond by moving their linebacker to the outside as well. Once Trubisky sees this, he knows that Cincinnati is in man coverage. So it gives him additional information before the play:
Burton shifts into the backfield before the snap and the linebacker follows him, further confirming the man coverage in the secondary. Thus, given his confirmation of the coverage, Trubisky makes a much faster decision:
While White cannot haul in the pass, the process is much quicker from the quarterback, and more in line with what we are looking for.
Here is another example, from Trubisky’s outing against the Denver Broncos:
Burton starts in a wing to the right on this play, but then motions across the formation to the same alignment, just on the left. Safety Justin Simmons (#31), in response to the motion, comes across the formation and sets up across from the tight end. That gives Trubisky the knowledge that Denver is in a man coverage scheme. That, coupled with the rest of the route designs and the run fake, gives Trubisky the confidence that traffic inside should make it difficult for Simmons to cover Burton across the field.
Which is exactly what happens.
When you give a quarterback as much knowledge as possible before the snap, great things can happen.
Trubisky is still a growing and developing quarterback, but the process is well underway for him to make a leap in his second season. With the additions on the defensive side of the football, the young QB might not have to take a huge step forward for the Bears to have a very successful 2018 campaign. That knowledge, more than anything else, might give Trubisky the biggest confidence boost of all.