Chicago Bears fans were feeling confident the past week. In the wake of a blowout victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the Bears entered the bye with a chance to fine-tune some things before traveling south to take on a Miami Dolphins team that after a hot start had begun to cool off. The situation improved for Chicago further when it was reported that Miami starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill would be sidelined, pressing Brock Osweiler into action.
Football, though, has a way of evening things out. The Bears failed to capitalized on a number of opportunities and despite having a 21-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, they failed to put the game away and eventually lost in overtime, 31-28. There are a number of things Bears fans can point to as reasons for the loss, such as an ankle injury to Khalil Mack that slowed him down in the second half, a Tarik Cohen fumble late in the game when Chicago was trying to get into position for a game-winning field goal, and even a Mitchell Trubisky interception. There were a number of reasons for the loss, but as we have seen throughout this young season, the story regarding the play of Chicago’s young QB is more of a mixed bag, and Trubisky did a number of very good things in this game as well.
Let’s start with the positives.
Matt Nagy reads the takes.
Okay, so maybe he does not. But there is a small part of me hoping that the Chicago Bears’ head coach finds time to subscribe to Pro Football Weekly and read the best Bears’ coverage out there, including this piece from just late last week that outlined how the new head coach is instilling confidence in his young quarterback by returning to plays that he missed chances on earlier in the year. But Nagy is showing Trubisky his belief in him by continuing to dial up plays that the young QB missed big opportunities on.
It’s one thing to see that play out over the course of a few weeks, but it’s almost jarring to see it happen in a single game.
On Chicago’s opening drive against Miami the Bears faced a third-and-8 on their own 12-yard line. They line up with Trubisky (#10) in the shotgun and three receivers to the right, including Anthony Miller (#17). The Dolphins show a Cover 2 defense with their nickel package on the field. Here is the route tree that Nagy dials up:
The outside receiver to each side of the field runs a double move, attacking vertically down the field. Miller runs a deep over rout coming from right to left.
It is hard to determine if the Dolphins bust on their coverage here, as it seems one safety drops down into more of a Cover 3 buzz look while the other seems to be running Cover 2, or if this was some kind of a pattern match coverage. But what you can see is Miller running the over route with green grass in front of him, and linebacker Kiko Alonso (#47) trying to trail him in coverage. Miller is wide open on this, and Trubisky just flat misses him:
He makes this throw from a relatively clean pocket, so this is not one of those set/reset moments that has plagued Trubisky in the past. Looking at his lower body mechanics, he does seem to flare the lead hip open just a hair too soon, which might have caused the high throw. This is another mechanical issue that Trubisky has dealt with.
Now imagine my surprise — and Miami’s — when the Bears returned to this same play in the fourth quarter in an absolutely critical moment:
Here the Bears face a third-and-9 on the Miami 29-yard line in a tie game with just over three minutes left. They dial up the same exact concept, from virtually the same formation (here the tight end is aligned on the line, as opposed to a wing alignment on the previous example). Again Miller is running free, this time thanks to the Bears catching Miami in a blitz here, and the nearest player is linebacker Raekwon McMillan (#52). But here the pass is true, and the Bears are on the board with the go-ahead score late in the game:
Looking at Trubisky’s mechanics, the lead hip seems more in sync with the rest of the throwing motion, perhaps contributing to a much better throw.
The Deep Game
In the piece on confidence we also touched on how the Bears would keep pushing the ball downfield, and taking those vertical shots when they presented themselves. If you look at Trubisky’s passing chart from Week 6, courtesy of NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats, you’ll see that on throws of 20 yards or more he was 3 of 6, including two beautiful deep balls to Taylor Gabriel:
The first deep shot to Gabriel took place in the second quarter, with about six minutes remaining in the first half. The Bears face a first-and-10 on their own 35-yard line and line up with Trubisky in the shotgun and with three receivers to the right side of the field. Gabriel (#18) is the single receiver on the backside of this 3x1 formation, and second-year cornerback Torry McTyer (#24) was aligned across from him in press coverage.
Gabriel runs a straight go route:
This play is very similar to the previous two plays, albeit without the double moves on the outside. On this play, the Dolphins are in a single-high safety look, and Trubisky does a good job of freezing the safety in the middle of the field using the over route before looking to Gabriel along the left boundary:
This is a perfectly-thrown ball, and the Bears have a huge gain into Dolphins territory.
Midway through the third quarter, Gabriel and Trubisky connected on another vertical route:
This play again has vertical routes along each boundary, but with a slant/post combination in the middle of the field. Chicago catches the Dolphins in a Cover 2 look here, and the slant/post combination in the middle of the field occupies the safeties, leaving Gabriel on an island with McTyer. Again, the receiver gets separation and the second-year quarterback drops this throw into a bucket for a huge gain.
The QB-WR Relationship Starring Trubisky and Robinson
When a quarterback and receiver begin to develop a comfortable working relationship, it can translate to results on the field. Watch QB-WR or QB-TE pairings that have been together for years, and you can see how their familiarity with one another creates positive results on the field. Such a relationship is growing between Trubisky and veteran receiver Allen Robinson. Against Miami, Robinson was targeted six times in the passing game, catching five passes for 64 yards and a touchdown. Two of those completions — including the touchdown — are evidence of the growing relationship between passer and catcher.
Let’s look at the touchdown first. Nagy also deserves some credit for this play, specifically his creative use of alignment and motion. After a Dolphins turnover the Bears look to capitalize on the great field position. They line up for first down on the Dolphins’ 12-yard line and put Trubisky in the shotgun. Robinson (#12) is the outside receiver on the left in a 2x2 formation, and he begins the play aligned well below the bottom of the numbers:
But then he comes in motion from left to right, tightening up his split:
McTyer — who probably wanted to avoid Monday’s film session — is aligned across from Robinson and trails him as the receiver comes in motion. Now, put yourself in his head. The player you are covering just motioned inside. You probably think that he’s going to attack the space just created, and run a route breaking to the outside, right?
Instead Robinson runs a quick post route, widening himself before breaking over the middle. The alignment and Robinson’s route work to widen the defender, and Robinson is wide open. Trubisky, for his part, makes a great throw for two reasons. First, he makes a pretty good anticipation throw here, getting the ball out right as Robinson makes his break, and that is important as we highlight the other great aspect to this throw: its placement. Trubisky, rather than leading Robinson, puts it on him and forces the receiver to throttle down. That allows him to shield the ball from McTyer, but it also prevents him from drifting into the middle of the field where the safety is lurking. If Trubisky leads Robinson, he’ll lead him right into danger.
Later in the second half, Robinson and Trubisky connected on a back-shoulder throw that is all about feel:
The back-shoulder ball is a throw that, when executed well, is nearly impossible to defend. Trubisky and Robinson execute it perfectly on this fourth-quarter completion. Robinson runs his vertical route against Cordrea Tankersley (#23), who is playing inside leverage and giving the receiver both the boundary, and some cushion. When Trubisky sees the leverage of the defender and realizes that Robinson cannot beat him over the top, he decides to throw the back-shoulder ball and puts it toward the boundary:
This broadcast replay angles shows this coming together perfectly. Tankersley is playing well off Robinson and is well inside of the receiver. If the defender is giving you the boundary, you need to take advantage.
But you need a great relationship between QB and WR to execute the play.
Despite a near-glowing review to this point, Trubisky did make mistakes in addition to the miss on Miller already highlighted. We will outline two of them, and they are mistakes of the mental, situational awareness variety that cannot happen. Watching plays like this I’m reminded of words from one of my first little league coaches: “I won’t get on you for physical mistakes, like errors. Those happen. But mental mistakes cannot happen.”
The first such mistake was actually foreshadowed earlier in the game. In the third quarter the Bears faced a first-and-10 deep in Miami territory, at the 15-yard line. They lined up with Trubisky in the shotgun and three receivers to the left, and a tight end to the right. Chicago runs a vertical concept on this play:
Trubisky rolls to his right, and while it does not seem like this was a designed roll, it makes some sense as the routes are working from left to right. But the coverage is good downfield, so after buying some time in the pocket Trubisky lofts a pass across his body toward Cohen (#29), who has leaked out of the backfield toward the left sideline:
The play goes for a gain of nine yards but it’s an example of the classic blunder at the QB position: Never throw late across your body. It pays off here, and Chicago would score on the next play.
Trubisky returned to this type of throw late in the game, and was lucky he didn’t throw his second interception of the afternoon:
This play comes on second-and-9 late in the fourth quarter of a 21-21 game. Now, I’ve argued before and I will argue again that quarterbacks need to be aggressive, and need to maintain that aggression on the field by challenging teams and taking some risks with the football. But there needs to be an appropriate balancing of risk versus reward when making decisions, particularly in the fourth quarter of tie games. If this pass is intercepted — which it probably should have been — we’re having a much different conversation today than we are right now.
Looking at the end zone angle, you can see the danger here:
You can also see Burton breaking open in the right side of the end zone. Now, screenshot scouting is always a risky endeavor, because you can never be sure if a particular player is involved in the progression, but if Burton is an option on this play, I’d prefer Trubisky to go there with the football.
This is one example of situational awareness. Here is the other, and it is Trubisky’s one interception.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Bears have an eight-point lead and are looking to perhaps put a knockout shot on the Dolphins. After the back-shoulder throw to Robinson, Chicago was set up with a first-and-goal on the Miami three-yard line. But an offensive pass interference penalty on first down nullified a touchdown throw to Cohen, and the Bears now face a first-and-goal on the 13. There are just over 12 minutes remaining in the game, and even a field goal here makes this a two-possession game.
Chicago lines up for first down and puts Trubisky under center and they use '13' offensive personnel — three tight ends — for this play:
Seeing this personnel grouping, the Dolphins have their base defense in the field. But the Bears look to throw:
This is another vertical concept, and the combination Trubisky wants to work here is between the over route from Burton and the skinny post route from Ben Braunecker (#84). The Dolphins are in a Cover 1 look here, and if Trubisky can get the safety to bite on one of these routes — likely Burton — he can throw the other.
Trubisky tries, but he doesn’t move free safety TJ McDonald (#22) enough:
Trubisky opens to the left and looks at Burton coming across from right to left, but McDonald never moves off the “A” in the “MIAMI” painted in the end zone. Braunecker does get inside leverage on safety Reshad Jones (#20), but McDonald is in perfect position to jump this route for the interception.
Here’s another look at the play:
McDonald takes just one step in the direction of Burton, but it is not enough.
This is another situational awareness error. I understand the desire to make the aggressive throw most of the time, but in this situation, in this moment, a QB needs to be sure of the throw. Unless Trubisky saw McDonald move off that spot in the middle of the field, he could not throw this route to Braunecker and needed to put the throw into the third row of the end zone seats. It’s just first down, and if you are forced to settle for three points here, that’s fine. A 24-13 lead with ten minutes to go in the fourth quarter is not a bad spot. Walking off the field after throwing this pick, however, is.
So again, a mixed bag when it comes to Trubisky. Looking at the game — and his season — on the whole, however, I would posit that it is largely much more positive than negative. When you consider Trubisky’s relative inexperience at the position (a low number of collegiate starts for example) plus this being his second NFL system in as many years, I think it makes much more sense to remain positive on him than to be negative in any way. Through five games now he’s completed just over 70 percent of his passes for 11 touchdowns against four interceptions, with nine of those scoring plays coming in his last two outings. For those believers in Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt (and I consider myself a convert after being skeptical a few years ago), Trubisky is tenth in the league among qualified passers with an ANY/A of 7.06. For comparison’s sake, last year’s MVP, Tom Brady, is 12th with an ANY/A of 6.93.
And as luck would have it, those two get to square off next Sunday. What a time to be alive.
But fear not, Bears fans. Yes, we are two weeks removed from the Era of Unbridled Optimism surrounding young Mitchell, but the ledger has many more entries on the Plus side, than the Negative. That’s a good thing.