Bears need mobile Mitch
Trubisky seems to be at his best when he’s on the move
The Bears’ 31-24 win over the Cowboys on Thursday was their most complete game of the season. The offense scored at least 30 points for the first time this year, finally matching a typical performance from what has been a playoff-caliber defense all season.
Here are four observations from rewatching the Fox Sports telecast via the NFL Game Pass subscription service.
1. Mitch Trubisky’s running brought him to life.
More than ever before in 2019, Trubisky resembled the playmaker the Bears believe he can be. His legs seemed to unlock that.
The way he ran around Soldier Field on designed runs, unscripted scrambles and throws scripted to move the passing point ignited his energy, playmaking ability and command of the offense. It got him into a playmaking rhythm that was infectious to teammates and was a major reason why the Bears had their best offensive output of the season.
“He’s balling out there. That’s what I love to see,” left tackle Charles Leno said in the postgame locker room. “I don’t like when Mitch feels like he’s got to make this play or do this and do all that. No, just play ball. Be you. That dude is a baller. He’s an improviser. He makes (things) happen with his legs. Go out there and do that.”
Trubisky’s legs were his greatest weapon in 2018, the element of his game that scared defensive coordinators most. It forced them to consider abandoning man-toman coverage in which defenders might turn their backs to the line of scrimmage and lose sight of the quarterback. It forced them to consider assigning a linebacker or safety to spy him, particularly on third down.
That has been missing from his game this season. In Trubisky’s first 10 games last year, he had 25 runs for first downs. This year? He had six.
On Thursday, he had five. (The stats are according to profootball-reference.com. I used 10 games because that’s how many he had played entering the Cowboys game — with the Sept. 29 Vikings game excluded because he played only six snaps.)
Trubisky entered Thursday with 26 runs for 80 yards, on pace for 112 rushing yards for the season. Last year, he finished with 421.
Against the Cowboys, though, he ran nine times for 64 yards, excluding his victory kneeldown.
“There were some openings,” Trubisky said. “I did my job of pulling the ball down and running. I thought I ran smart. … Had a couple good runs, moved the chains when we needed to. Did my part. All the credit goes to the guys up front for blocking their tails off.”
Four of Trubisky’s nine runs were scrambles on pass plays; they totaled 32 yards.
Four were designed zone-read option runs for 31 yards, including a brilliantly executed 23-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. The other carry was a successful third-and-1 quarterback sneak.
Let’s zero in on Trubisky’s scrambles because this gets at his feel for the game, his instincts in the pocket.
To me, the dearth of successful scrambles this season reflects a mental block when Trubisky drops back. We know from 2018 that he can be instinctive when pressured and is athletic enough to make defenses pay. Those decisions to pull the ball down and run aren’t predetermined — they’re instinctive. Trubisky senses the pocket, feels pressure and reacts accordingly.
So, when the successful scrambles aren’t happening, it prompts the question: What is gumming up the gears that trigger those instincts?
Coach Matt Nagy and Trubisky both want him to be a quarterback who also can run, not a runner first. They’ve said so repeatedly. Has that emphasis prompted Trubisky to consciously or subconsciously put cinder blocks on his feet this season, relatively speaking? I’m not sure even Nagy or Trubisky knows the answer, but Nagy undoubtedly recognizes the advantages to when Trubisky feels the right moment to become a runner. One crucial part of that is Trubisky keeping his eyes downfield on his receivers while he feels the pass rush and pocket with his peripheral vision, knowing how the protection scheme fits the defense on any given play. He did that against the Cowboys as well as he has all season.
Nagy explained Friday how the Cowboys like to run stunts with their defensive line, and how running lanes for Trubisky were created by how ends and tackles crossed on their rushes. But a review of Trubisky’s four scrambles shows the Cowboys stunted on only one. One of Nagy’s points, however, was that Trubisky’s had good pocket presence. That hasn’t consistently been the case this season, but there has been noticeable improvement since the Giants game and even as far back as the Chargers game.
“On some passes, instead of pushing sideways to the sideline, pushing vertical up in the pocket,” Nagy said. “When you push vertical up into the pocket, you see nothing but green grass, you take off. And that’s what he did a few times.”
Three of Trubisky’s four scrambles are especially noteworthy.
■ A 5-yard scramble on second-and-3 on the opening drive: From the shotgun, Trubisky faked an inside handoff while the offensive line simulated a run to the left. Trubisky then sprinted out to the right, trying to take advantage of misdirection.
The route combination included a flood of receivers to the right, which cuts the field down for Trubisky and allows him to see his options in a condensed area. I thought he had Javon Wims open behind a linebacker early in the down, but Trubisky didn’t let it rip. He probably didn’t feel comfortable with his throwing angle to Wims or the spacing he perceived.
So, Trubisky missed an opportunity to complete a pass for a first down. But what Nagy has to love is how Trubisky turned it into a positive play with his legs. While Trubisky continued running to his right, safety Darian Thompson plastered himself to Tarik Cohen and, in doing so, turned his back to Trubisky. As soon as Trubisky saw the defender’s back, he decided to run and gained the first down.
■ A 13-yard scramble on second-and-9 from the Cowboys 32-yard line on the opening drive: From the I-formation, Nagy dialed up a shot at the end zone using play-action. By design, the play sent only three receivers out on routes: Allen Robinson on a vertical to the left; fullback Ryan Nall on a wheel route replacing Robinson on the left after pretending to be a lead blocker on a run; and Cordarrelle Patterson as a checkdown option in the right flat after he ran jet-sweep action.
The problem here is that the Cowboys had a good defensive call to defend a deep pass. They rushed only four while dropping seven in zone coverage. So consider the numbers matchup: The Bears kept seven blockers in to protect against a four-man pass rush and they had three eligible receivers against a seven-man coverage.
This happens all the time within the flow of every NFL game. An offensive play is called, expecting a certain defense, but the defense does something different and shuts it down. That’s the chess match, the essence of playcalling.
But here’s the thing: Great quarterbacks can turn a disadvantageous play call into a positive play, whether it’s within the freedom they have to identify and change the play or by overcoming the disadvantage with their throwing or running ability.
In this case, Trubisky turned the play into a first down with his legs. Despite the Bears’ passblocking numbers advantage, Cowboys right end Dorance Armstrong managed to get on Leno’s edge. Running back David Montgomery made a great diving cut block to take Armstrong down, but Armstrong had pressured Trubisky enough into shuffling in the pocket.
Trubisky kept his eyes up and climbed vertically instead of sideways. That poise was crucial to creating a positive play. Trubisky saw how aggressively and deeply the linebackers had dropped out. They gave him ton of green grass, as Nagy likes to say, and Trubisky’s instincts took over from there. He turned a play call that wasn’t going to succeed into a new set of downs in the red zone.
“It’s hard for Coach Nagy to try to script up perfect plays through 60 minutes,” Robinson said. “It’s impossible. So a lot of that stuff just has to come down to us making a play and us figuring it out on the fly, whether that’s a scramble drill or a couple broken tackles. When you get plays like that, you’re going to have success.” ■ A 9-yard scramble on thirdand-2 on the opening drive of the second half, which ended in a touchdown: The play was a designed swing pass to Montgomery to the left, hoping to isolate him on the run against inside linebacker Jaylon Smith.
Smith did well, however, recognizing the play and running underneath Robinson, who cracked Smith at the line of scrimmage, hoping to slow the linebacker enough for Montgomery to get a step on him.
Trubisky might have been able to loft a throw over Smith and hit Montgomery in stride. But he didn’t attempt it. He started his throwing motion, but he must not have liked how Smith had pushed up the field.
It worked to the Bears advantage, though, that enough defenders recognized the intent to throw to Montgomery that they flowed hard in pursuit of him. That opened the right side of the field. As Trubisky gathered himself, he recognized the space and took off for a first down. Eight plays later, the Bears reached the end zone and took a commanding 24-7 lead.
It was another example of Trubisky making a play when the one called didn’t work. Let’s see if he can repeat that in the next three weeks to help keep the offense rolling against some opponents whose output the Bears will be challenged to match.
2. Let’s appreciate Allen Robinson. He’s really good.
Robinson caught two touchdowns against the Cowboys, only the fourth time this season a Bears player has scored more than one in a game. (Robinson also had two against the Raiders, Taylor Gabriel had three against the Redskins, and David Montgomery had two against the Eagles.)
Yet at Matt Nagy’s news conference Monday, Nagy took 21 questions over 16 minutes before he was asked about Robinson. Robinson scored twice, and, in a way, it didn’t move the needle. We just expect him to produce every week. It’s almost standard.
Robinson has set that expectation with his quality and consistency in his second season in this offense and his second season removed from reconstructive ACL surgery on his left knee.
What has Nagy learned about Robinson this season?
“You understand what type of player he is in a one-on-one atmosphere,” Nagy said. “He’s hard to stop.”
Robinson consistently wins with his precision and suddenness as a route runner. Both of his touchdowns exemplified this, and so did the crucial defensive-holding penalty he drew on a double move on third-and-9 on the touchdown drive to start the third quarter.
His first touchdown was a 5-yard slant. The stacked release caused cornerback Byron Jones to hesitate and helped create space for Robinson against zone coverage. He used his body to shield Jones, and Trubisky’s ball placement away from Jones was crucial. Robinson’s second touchdown, just before halftime, was from 8 yards on third-and-goal. The Bears went at inside linebacker Jaylon Smith with Javon Wims on post routes on first and second downs.
On third down, Robinson faked the post and sat his route down. It was not an option route; it was designed for Robinson to sit it down. Robinson was sudden into and out of his break, and he used his body well. Trubisky hit the bulls-eye despite Smith getting his hand in the way. The ball arrived as Robinson turned, which prevented Smith from finding the ball. Impeccable timing between Trubisky and his most trusted receiver.
Robinson enters the final three games with 76 catches for 898 yards and seven touchdowns. That pace would put him at 96/1,105/9 — a fantastic season.
3. David Montgomery’s determination to finish runs comes with a pitfall.
To be clear, Montgomery’s unwillingness to go down is a positive trait. One of his best, in fact. He refuses to be tackled by one player, and, way more often than not, it leads to extra yards and positive outcomes. It’s also fun to watch.
But his lost fumble against the Cowboys is a warning about the downside to fighting for yards in a way that allows opposing tacklers to show up in numbers. Especially when it doesn’t benefit the game situation proportionally to how a turnover would hurt the Bears’ chance of winning.
In fairness to Montgomery, a defender put his open hand on Montgomery’s facemask. Nagy wanted a penalty call that would’ve saved the Bears possession. Fox’s rules analyst, former NFL official Mike Pereira, said it was a good no-call.
Regardless, defensive coaches and players preach about how the first tackler’s job is to get the ball carrier on the ground, and the next guys to arrive are to rip the ball out. That’s what the Cowboys did to take the ball away late in the third quarter. Montgomery gained 4 yards after contact on a firstdown run in Cowboys territory. His knee was an inch or two from the turf at the 40-yard line, but he pushed himself up and gained another yard. His strength is impressive.
Meanwhile, though, multiple Cowboys arrived, and they ripped the ball out. In a 24-7 game with the Bears on the Cowboys’ side of midfield late in the third quarter, a turnover was about the only way the Cowboys could get back in the game.
The Bears don’t and shouldn’t want to change Montgomery’s determination to fight through tackles. But experiences like Thursday’s fumble should reinforce how important it is to be cognizant of ball security as he gets gang-tackled and to account for whether it’s beneficial to grind for extra yards given the game situation. That would only increase his effectiveness.
4. The Bears executed one of their best screen passes of the season.
Screens have been a problem this season. Timing and spacing issues have wrecked the potential for big gains, instead portraying the offense as disjointed.
And if you said on Labor Day that the longest catch by a Bears tight end through 13 games would be a 30-yard screen to J.P. Holtz, you would have seen some sad and confused faces. For one thing, Holtz wasn’t on the roster back then. But, alas, here we are.
Just as Mitch Trubisky’s 13yard scramble in the first quarter occurred on a play that did not match up well against the defensive call, Matt Nagy’s call of a screen to Holtz was perfectly timed against the Cowboys’ sixman rush. Again, hat’s the coaching, play-calling chess match.
“We caught them in a blitz, and sometimes if you run that same play versus drop-eight (in coverage), it’s a bad play call,” Nagy said. “It ends up being a good play call.”
Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky (10) runs the ball during the first quarter against the Cowboys at Soldier Field on Thursday in Chicago.