Earlier this season, I believed it was time to come to some hard terms with the dear readers. In a piece titled “Mitchell Trubisky: The Reckoning,” I argued that “there needs to be drastic improvement - and fast - or there needs to be a difficult decision made for the future of this franchise.”
Then the past two weeks happened.
After an ugly victory over the New York Giants that found Trubisky throwing a pair of interceptions, the young QB has shined in back-to-back Thursday victories. Against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day, he completed 29-of-38 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns (with one interception) and he followed that performance by going 23-of-31 for 244 yards and three touchdowns (with one ugly interception) in a win over the Dallas Cowboys.
So ... what happened? Was this a schematic change, a function of Trubisky healing up, picking on weaker competition, or actual improvement?
Let’s dive in.
Moving the Pocket
Humans are egotistical creatures. We crave the validation of being right, especially those of us in the football analysis space. This author is no different, and when confronted with Trubisky’s recent success and based on hard-hitting analysis of combing through my Twitter timeline, I was convinced: Matt Nagy heeded my advice.
Not that the Bears’ head coach was actually reading my work. God, what kind of egotistical monster do you take me for? But a few weeks back when we crafted a game plan to salvage Trubisky’s season, moving him around in the pocket and using his athleticism was the main prescription offered. Hearing isolated anecdotes on the timeline and seeing a few plays while making Thanksgiving dinner had me convinced Nagy was following a similar plan.
Then I turned on the film and updated the charting data.
Here are the week-by-week numbers for Trubisky this season in terms of his percentage of throws made from inside the pocket:
Week - Percentage of Throws from Pocket
1 - 92%
2 - 81%
3 - 76%
4 - 100%
7 - 89%
8 - 85%
9 - 79%
10 - 78%
11 - 81%
12 - 73%
13 - 82%
14 - 79%
Now, those numbers include throwaways and sacks. If you take those out, these are the percentages:
Week - Percentage of Throws from Pocket
1 - 95%
2 - 82%
3 - 81%
4 - 100%
7 - 91%
8 - 88%
9 - 81%
10 - 83%
11 - 88%
12 - 76%
13 - 82%
14 - 81%
So while there has been a trend toward more throws outside of the pocket, it has not exactly been drastic. To illustrate this, the average per game percentage of his throws from the pocket from his first 10 games? 86.5 percent. The past two weeks? That number dips to 81.5 percent. A decrease to be sure, but not a wild change in philosophy.
(For those of you wondering about that Week 4 100% mark, that was the game against the Minnesota Vikings where Trubisky was knocked out due to injury after three passing attempts).
This is not to say that Nagy did not move him around the past two weeks. He certainly did. Take this example from the Thursday night game against Dallas:
Trubisky (#10) sprints out to the right here, and has an easy throw to Allen Robinson (#12) who is working against off coverage. This allows Chicago to convert a third-and-6 situation.
However, without an easy answer it was time to check the ego and dive in deeper.
Returning to the game footage, it was time to try and find an answer. Working through the past two weeks in chronological answer, I began with yet another watching of the Thanksgiving Day victory over the Lions. Something struck me early, like, “within the first two plays” early.
Here is Trubisky’s first passing attempt against Detroit:
Now here is Chicago’s second play from scrimmage, which is the very next play:
As you can tell, these are nearly mirror images of the same route concept, just from slightly different formations. On the first play, Chicago breaks the huddle and puts Trubisky in the shotgun using a three receiver bunch to the right. Tarik Cohen (#29) is in the backfield to the left of the quarterback, with tight end Jesper Horsted (#49) split outside. Out of this Y-Iso alignment, the Bears run a three-level concept to the bunch consisting of a snag route, a seam and a dart toward the sideline. Horsted runs an out while Cohen runs an option route, choosing to break outside against an inside-leveraged defender.
On the next play, Chicago runs nearly the same design out of an empty formation. Cohen and Robinson align in a stack to the right, and Robinson runs the out pattern while Cohen’s option route again takes him toward the boundary. To the bunch side of the formation we get both the snag and the dart routes, only the seam converts to a deep in.
Interesting way to begin the game, with virtually the same play, but not yet notable.
Midway through the second quarter it becomes notable:
Once more, Cohen and Robinson are in a stack to the right, and the running back runs an option route. Only this time his defender plays him with outside leverage, so Cohen slices back inside toward the middle of the field. Robinson runs a seam route instead of the out we have seen on the previous two examples. Backside gives us the same combination as the previous example: Snag/dart/curl.
Now a pattern is emerging in my mind, and I start reaching for playbooks. Coaching trees and backgrounds bring me to the Philadelphia Eagles playbook, given that Nagy and Doug Pederson are from the same schematic lineage. I come across Gun Trips Left Buster Nasty 82 Tampa HB Read:
This design matches up with what we are seeing play out over these first three examples. To the three receiver side you have a drag (or dart) route toward the boundary, an arrow (or snag) route that comes inside, then works back toward the sideline if necessary, and then a corner route that can convert to either an out or an in, depending on the coverage. To the two receiver side you have another corner route with a multitude of conversion options, and the halfback’s read/option route.
Lots of options for the quarterback and his targets, and seemingly an answer for every coverage.
Especially when you start working in some variations…
With my nerdy schematic antenna now up, I started noticing this design more and more as the Detroit game wore on. Late in the first half they turn to this again, with a slight twist:
Here, Javon Wims (#83) runs a dig on the two receiver side. Against off coverage, the receiver is able to cut inside without resistance, and Trubisky makes a very nice anticipation throw. Part of the reason he is able to pull the trigger on this route in the middle of the field is that Detroit sends pressure, blitzing one linebacker and leaving the other in a man coverage situation against Cohen. That clears the middle of the field, and Trubisky has time and space to find the dig route.
Later in the third quarter, we now see that route to the two receiver side of the formation become a curl:
Again, Trubisky’s target (Robinson) runs a curl route against off coverage, as the Lions retreat into a Cover 4 look on this third-and-10. The QB identifies the coverage and makes a well-timed anticipation throw, and the Bears are able to move the chains.
As we will see in a moment, this design was used this past week against the Cowboys.
Over the past two years I have been critical at times of Nagy’s designs, such as the over-reliance on mirrored curl/flat plays that fail to truly stress a defense and provide the quarterback with a multitude of options and outs based on what he sees in the secondary. Here, we see the same basic elements tweaked at times, depending on the coverage, and it gives the Bears’ offense answers to whatever questions the defense puts in front of them. More options equals increased productivity.
Anticipation throws and Trubisky have not always been the greatest match. At times the quarterback shows the ability to throw receivers open and time his passes up directly with the route concepts. At other times, Trubisky seems to be more of a “see it, throw it” passer.
But when I saw this throw against the Lions, my heart skipped a beat (much to the dismay of my cardiologist):
Facing a third-and-6 late in the first half against the Lions, the Bears run a “pout” or post/out combination to the right side of the field. Anthony Miller (#17) runs the out pattern while Cordarelle Patterson (#84) runs the post route. Miller gets inside leverage from his defender, so he has a free release toward the sideline when he makes his cut. As he does so, look at Trubisky back in the pocket:
As I wrote in my notes, “this is one of the best timing/rhythm throws I’ve seen from him.” A very impressive play from the quarterback.
A play that he followed up this past week against Dallas, on this strike to JP Holtz (#81):
Again, look at the state of play when Trubisky is pulling the trigger:
Holtz has yet to get into his break, and yet to look for the football. But the ball is coming out. Another very impressive timing, rhythm and anticipation throw.
However, there are always mistakes to point out, and Trubisky’s two-game run has not been flawless.
Readers of my musings on quarterback play likely know that I am a stickler when it comes to how a QB uses his eyes. Little things such as looking off defenders, not “bird dogging” or locking onto a target, and working quickly through reads are things that warm my cold and black heart, even during the holiday season.
Now at times I have been critical, perhaps unflinchingly so, when it comes to how Trubisky uses his eyes when making reads and throws from the pocket. But these little things matter. The ability to manipulate a defender out of position is critically important to playing QB at a high level. Conversely, if defenders can simply follow your eyes to the football, you are going to have problems executing your offensive gameplan.
Take this throw against the Lions that should have been an interception:
Nagy dials up a heavy personnel passing concept with just three receivers for Trubisky to choose from, the running back in the flat, Miller on a deep out route and Robinson working the middle of the field on a dig. Coming out of a play-action fake, Trubisky checks the out pattern from Miller before flipping his eyes to the middle of the field and Robinson’s dig. Did you notice how long it took Trubisky to get this ball out after bringing his eyes center?
Free safety Tracy Walker (#21) sure did. As Trubisky waits to throw this route, the safety drives down hill on the pattern and is in position for the interception. Only the fact that Trubisky’s pass is low and off target prevents this from being a turnover.
Here is the view from the end zone camera:
Seriously, count how long Trubisky takes to dial up the pass. It is an eternity by NFL standards, and this play is very reminiscent of a play back in Week 1, when the QB stared down a route to Robinson that rookie safety Darnell Savage from the Green Bay Packers jumped for a near-interception. Trubisky has to get the ball out faster, or use his eyes better.
Speaking of missed throws…
Mechanics. They Do Not Matter Until They Matter.
Another topic that has been much discussed regarding our young hero is his passing mechanics.
The main focus has been Trubisky’s left foot, and his ever-present tendency to step in the bucket on passes. Rather than stepping down the target line (or more accurately, slightly left of the target line to enable the hips to turn through the motion correctly) Trubisky will step well left of where he should. This impacts both velocity and placement in a negative manner. By stepping in the bucket as he often does, Trubisky breaks that mechanical chain between the upper body and the lower body. It turns him into an arm thrower, resulting in a dip in velocity. It also changes the release point, which impacts ball placement.
Now look at this interception against Detroit:
Trubisky steps in the bucket and that throwing chain is disrupted. He becomes more of an arm thrower rather than a full-body passer, and that takes velocity off the throw. All of which allows the defender to undercut the route for an interception.
Look at his feet on the end zone angle:
The footwork is off here, and the result is an interception. Look at the still of Trubisky’s lower platform at the moment this throw is released:
Mechanics, as I have often said, do not matter until they matter. If the ball is getting where it needs to be when it needs to be there, mechanical flaws from the quarterback are not an issue to be concerned with. However, if the ball is not getting where it needs to be on time, and it is due to mechanical issues in the throwing motion, then the mechanics are a problem.
At times, they are still a problem for Trubisky.
So, what is the final verdict? Is Trubisky’s recent good form because of scheme, pocket movement, actual improvement, health or something else?
Is it a cop-out to say “all of the above?”
Nagy has been a bit more creative over the past few weeks, giving his quarterback numerous options and answers on a given play. There has been an effort - perhaps a slight one - to move his quarterback around more. Trubisky seems healthier, and the shoulder and hip injuries have not limited his movement or ability the past few weeks.
And yes, there has been improvement. Those two timing and rhythm throws stand out.
Yet, some inconsistencies remain. Slow with his eyes at times. Poor lower body mechanics. Issues that have plagued him for his entire NFL career still present in this, his third season.
The bigger question is this: Is this current version of Trubisky closer to what he can be as a quarterback, and is that version good enough for Chicago to be a competitive team? With three games left and the playoffs still a possibility, that question needs to be answered quickly. Over the next three weeks, it just might.