“For myself I am an optimist - it does not seem to be much use being anything else.”
-Sir Winston Churchill, 1954
Despite a Week 3 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, Chicago Bears fans remained in a state of unease regarding second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. As we saw in the Week 3 recap Trubisky missed some throws, made some questionable decisions, and his play even led some to throw around the “bust” label and call for C hase Daniel.
What a difference a week makes.
Bears head coach Matt Nagy implored the media this past week that the “breakout” was coming. It certainly did come on Sunday, to the tune of six touchdowns. Trubisky completed 19-of-26 passes against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for 354 yards and the six scores, without an interception. To be fair, Nagy might have believed the breakout was around the corner given how woeful the Tampa Bay pass defense has been in 2018, but we can save that argument or line of thinking for another week. After the rocky start to Trubisky’s 2018, and in the wake of some questioning his spot in the starting lineup, let’s engage in some unabashed, unbridled optimism by breaking down the six scoring plays with an eye toward scheme and QB execution.
TD Pass One — Burton on Post-Wheel Combo
The Bears capped off yet another scoring drive on their opening possession with Trubisky’s first touchdown pass, a 39-yard strike to tight end Trey Burton. After Trubisky scampered around right end on a zone read play for 23 yards, Chicago faced a first-and-10 on the Tampa Bay 41-yard line. The Bears align with Trubisky (#10) under center and use '13' offensive personnel, one running back, one wide receiver and three tight ends:
Given this offensive personnel package, the Buccaneers stay with their base 4-3 defense.
Chicago runs a maximum protection play-action pass play here:
This is a post-wheel combination, with Josh Bellamy (#15) running a post route from the outside while Burton (#80) runs the wheel route from the slot. What makes this play work is the combination of personnel, formation, design and manipulation from the quarterback. As this play unfolds, Trubisky carries out a play-action fake — stumbling as he does so — but sets up to throw. He looks toward the left side of the field, where there is not even a receiver to throw to, to help freeze the safeties. Then he comes to the right and Burton, late in the play, and has his tight end wide open:
From the manipulation with his eyes to the execution, this was a great way to start Trubisky’s afternoon.
TD Pass Two — Anticipation to Robinson
In our various discussions surrounding Trubisky, it has often been posited that the sign of a game speeding up for a quarterback is when they start making anticipation throws on a consistent basis. When their mind is ahead of the play, to the point that they are making throws before the receiver makes his break, or the coverage rotates, you know that the speed of the game is not too fast for them anymore.
Trubisky’s second touchdown pass of the game, a red zone corner route to Allen Robinson, is a wonderful sign if you are looking for Trubisky to speed up the mental side of the game.
Late in the first quarter the Bears hold a seven-point lead and have the football deep in Tampa Bay territory, facing a first-and-10 on the Buccaneers 14-yard line. They align first with three receivers on the left, but they send Burton in motion across the formation, giving the offense this alignment as the play unfolds:
Robinson is in the slot to the right, and he runs a corner route. The Bears run a Divide concept with Robinson running the corner route out of the slot, while the outside receiver runs a post pattern toward the middle of the field:
Looking at the defense, the Buccaneers are in a two-high safety look presnap. Trubisky can be pretty confident that the post route will occupy the play-side safety, isolating Robinson on the cornerback with no safety help. Trubisky confirms that during his drop, allowing him to pull the trigger well before Robinson cuts to the back corner:
That is a quarterback who does not need to see his receiver come open before throwing the football:
Anticipation throws are a window into the mind of a quarterback. On this play we see a QB in perfect sync with his offense and his target.
TD Toss Three — Cohen on the Texas Route
Trubisky’s third scoring toss of the game was in part because of creative offensive design from Nagy, as well as great execution and placement from the quarterback. Enjoying a 14-3 lead, the Bears face another red zone opportunity, this time facing first-and-goal on the Tampa Bay 9-yard line. The offense lines up using '11' offensive personnel, putting two receivers to the right, Burton and Taylor Gabriel (#18) to the left, and with Tarik Cohen (#29) in the backfield next to the quarterback:
The design here is a perfect marriage of a follow concept and the Texas route:
Gabriel runs a slant route from the outside but using a tight split toward the formation. Cohen runs a Texas route, angling to the outside first but then cutting back toward the middle, “following” Gabriel’s path. The goal here is to exploit the underneath defenders and their leverage. Gabriel’s slant route will occupy the middle linebacker for a moment, creating space for Cohen to follow him. With the running back starting outside first, when he cuts inside he finds both space and separation, as he now has a leverage advantage against his defender.
Which is exactly what happens:
Trubisky reads this perfectly and again pulls the trigger right on time, making a perfect throw into the created window for the touchdown. On this play, Nagy’s route design and use of personnel creates a perfect opportunity for Trubisky to strike.
TD Toss 4— Packaged Plays Plus
We have spoken often about the use of packaged plays in the Bears’ offense, and how they give the young QB some predetermined reads in the pre-snap phase of a given play. With a simplified read process, Trubisky can choose the easiest course of action, one where the offense has a clear numbers advantage before the ball is snapped.
Of course, the secret to building a great offense, and to calling a great game as a play-caller, is making sure that you can keep a defense honest by the timely use of wrinkles and variations.
One of the main packaged plays we have seen from Chicago is the inside zone/bubble screen combination. On this play all Trubisky needs to do is count. He looks at the number of the defenders in the defensive box and if the offense has enough players to block them, they run the football. If the defense has the advantage inside, he throws the bubble screen outside.
But having variations and wrinkles helps:
This play is a designed throw from the start. The Bears come out using '12' offensive personnel, with both Cohen and Jordan Howard (#24) in the game. Howard is in the backfield while Cohen is part of a three-receiver bunch to the left. Chicago shows its inside zone/bubble screen play, with Cohen running the potential screen, but this is not a packaged play. The offensive line is straight pass blocking on this play:
The receivers run a switch concept, with Bellamy running the wheel route, starting on the inside and breaking toward the outside. The play is so open that Cohen — as the pass is being released by Trubisky — is already celebrating:
When you start seeing players celebrate this early in a given play, you know the designs are working.
TD Toss Five — Nagy Channels his Inner Bob Stitt
Trubisky’s fifth touchdown pass of the day, a short “throw” to Gabriel down in the red zone, might not demonstrate incredible offensive execution from the QB position. But it does give us a chance to talk about the offensive mind of Bob Stitt and the Colorado School of Mines for a minute, and when we get a chance to talk about nerdy football stuff, we’re going to take advantage.
Years ago Stitt, who is currently an offensive analyst for Oklahoma State, was the head coach at the Colorado School of Mines, a Division 2 program. One of the staple elements of his offense was the fly sweep. But he was finding that it was difficult to sync up the timing on the handoff between the receiver coming in motion and his quarterback. Too often the ball was being fumbled, and the offense was losing possession. So he came up with a wrinkle. Rather than hand the ball off, he would have his QB simply flip it forward. That way, if the timing was off and the ball hit the turf, it was just an incomplete pass.
In the 2012 Orange Bowl, the West Virginia Mountaineers used that design early and often in their 70-33 drubbing of Clemson University. After the game Mountaineers head coach Dana Holgorsen gave Stitt the credit for the design.
Fast-forward a few years, and now this play is being run by offenses from New England to Los Angeles, Kansas City to now, Chicago:
Of course, Nagy continues to add his own wrinkles on designs. The twist that the Bears’ head coach added? In addition to both Gabriel and Burton going in motion before the play is this: A second quarterback. Trubisky is in the shotgun, joined by Chase Daniel (#4) in the shotgun next to him, with both QBs waiting for the snap. The ball comes to Trubisky, who flips it forward to Gabriel on the fly sweep element, for the easy touchdown “pass.”
So in a sense, those Bears fans clamoring for Daniel to see some action were right...
TD Toss Six — Easy Like Sunday Afternoon
Trubisky’s final TD throw of the day came early in the third quarter, on a designed play-action roll out in the red zone:
This short throw to Gabriel came on third down. On the previous play, the Bears isolated a single receiver on the right and rolled Trubisky in that direction, trying to hit on a comeback route. This time the Bears put three receivers on the right side pre-snap, and even align the running back in the backfield shaded to that side of the formation. Chicago brings Robinson in short motion toward the formation, and he runs a spot route toward the inside. Gabriel is the middle receiver in the trips, and he simply runs an arrow route, a very short out pattern toward the sideline. The motion from Robinson helps create a rub, and Gabriel is wide open.
Now again, this may be a mirage. The Buccaneers defense is one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL, statistically speaking. They have given up 358 yards per game in the air, second-most in the league. Opposing quarterbacks have a QB rating of 130.5 against them, highest in the league. They are giving up an Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of 10.0, most in the league. They are making opposing passers look stellar, as Trubisky did on Sunday.
So, this might be a one-week thing. The consternation might be back next week. But for now, let’s just enjoy some unbridled optimism. Perhaps the breakout is truly here.