Bears need mo­bile Mitch

Tru­bisky seems to be at his best when he’s on the move

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - BEARS - By Rich Camp­bell

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.”

AR­MANDO L. SANCHEZ/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Bears quar­ter­back Mitch Tru­bisky (10) runs the ball dur­ing the first quar­ter against the Cow­boys at Sol­dier Field on Thurs­day in Chicago.

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