John Mullin

Mitch Trubisky's next developmental step is adjusting to NFL defenses

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USA TODAY

Mitch Trubisky's next developmental step is adjusting to NFL defenses

Mitch Trubisky is no longer an NFL secret (well, maybe a little one, after only two games). Now the real intrigue shifts in significant measure to what the rest of the NFL is going to do about him.

Because while the Bears have/had a plan to bring his development along at a measured pace, the rest of the league, beginning with the Carolina Panthers this Sunday, has quite a different plan in mind.

What do the Panthers (and others) have waiting for Trubisky?

The Baltimore Ravens presented a Cover-2 look on 40 or so of the Bears' 75 snaps, something “on film we really didn't see any of that at all, so it was really surprising for them to come out in that two-high shell,” Trubisky said. “Our plan was just to run them out of it.”

A simple NFL operating philosophy is to find out and understand what an opponent likes to do and does best, and then take that away from him. Trubisky is very good on the move; colleague JJ Stankevitz uncovered the fact that Trubisky against the Baltimore Ravens had the longest average time in a play of any NFL quarterback, meaning he works well out in space and extends plays.

The math from there isn’t especially complicated: A quarterback who is accurate and comfortable getting outside the pocket, extending and improvising plays, is someone to be kept inside the pocket, ideally one collapsing around him. By using a mush-rush, for instance, a controlled assault on the pocket without edge rushers selling out for max pressure and focusing on lane integrity, a defense potentially takes much of Trubisky’s mobility out of play. This is a common strategy against Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, and mobile quarterback who is as or more dangerous when flushed from the pocket as he is in it.

A “Chico Plan” then?

Panthers coach Ron Rivera has done bad things to Bears quarterbacks and comes from an attack-dog mindset as a member of the 1985 Bears. He learned from then-coordinator Buddy Ryan that a prime directive of the defense is to simply get to the quarterback.

Rivera and then-coach Lovie Smith differed on the use of blitzing, with Rivera on the side of crying havoc and letting slip the dogs of war. After Rivera was excused from his job as Smith’s defensive coordinator, he went to San Diego as Chargers linebackers coach and opened the 2007 season against the Bears blitzing, sacking and harassing Rex Grossman in a 14-3 San Diego win.

The next time the teams met, in the 2010 preseason opener, Rivera was by then defensive coordinator, and he had the Chargers blitzing Jay Cutler from the outset on the latter’s only series, sacking Cutler with a corner blitz on just the seventh play of the game. Not exactly gentlemanly conduct for preseason openers.

But if the past is prologue, Rivera’s past should be revealing to Trubisky.

Scouting Trubisky

But how do the NFL and the Panthers in particular scout Trubisky with a body of work consisting of just two regular-season games?

Rookies with little pro time on tape are scouted from their college play. The Bears took looks at Carson Wentz’s North Dakota State play before they faced Wentz and the Philadelphia Eagles in game two last season. That was out of some necessity, since Wentz played 39 snaps in the Eagles’ first preseason game and not again until opening day after he’d been installed as the starter following Sam Bradford’s trade to Minnesota.

Predictably perhaps, Wentz powered the Eagles to a 3-1 start with 100-plus passer ratings in three of his first four games. Teams progressively adjusted and Wentz had only two games with ratings in the low 90’s the rest of the season, none better. He had seven TD passes and one interception through the first four weeks, then nine TD’s and 13 INT’s the rest of the way.

“You go back and look at his college film if you don’t have much film from the NFL,” said linebacker Sam Acho. “You may see that he moves well in the pocket or likes to move outside or whatever. But Mitch played in the preseason and now has played a couple games. It wasn’t like Wentz which was the first game or two of the season.”

Attention is indeed less likely to be paid to Trubisky’s college body of work for the simple reason that he did play extensively through the preseason, with 126 snaps and 53 pass attempts, the most of either for any of the Bears’ four quarterbacks through preseason. But Trubisky happened to play his college football at the University of North Carolina, down the road from Charlotte, so “we remember Mitch mostly because of what he did when he was here at UNC-Chapel Hill,” Rivera said. “We got to watch all 14 games and we were impressed. We think the young man has got what it takes. We like who’s he’s gonna become. We do. We think the future can be bright for him. We are big fans here.”

Guessing that Chico wasn’t including next Sunday.

Two reasons why the Bears could finally start stacking wins

Two reasons why the Bears could finally start stacking wins

The Bears winning a road game against a perennial playoff contender, one with a winning record coming in – that’s great.

Winning in Baltimore with a rookie quarterback in only his second NFL appearance – that’s terrific.

Generating more takeaways than giveaways and netting points from them – that’s just outstanding.

And now what?

Because too often under John Fox the Bears have posted a victory and failed to have it mean much of anything because of what followed a week later – a largely self-inflicted loss. The Bears have not posted consecutive wins since midway through the 2015 season, and even then proceeded to unravel on by squandering opportunities sitting squarely within their grasp.

Why should this time be any different? Because if it’s not, and the Bears again fail to stack even one win on top of another, then a dominating performance against the Baltimore Ravens (leaving out special teams, which surrendered in two plays more points than the defense did in 14 entire Baltimore possessions) becomes another meaningless afternoon in the overall for a team determined to reinvent itself.

Coaches typically divide seasons mentally into quarters, and clearly in Fox’s mind, Sunday was part of a different quarter from the 1-3 first quarter. “Really it takes almost four games, it’s almost like the preseason anymore, where you kind of get it figured out,” Fox said. “So just developing that confidence, usually good things have to happen to gain that confidence. And we did some good things.”

But the Bears have done “some good things” in games past and it becomes much ado about nothing, sound and fury signifying less than nothing. So again: Why should this time be any different?

Two reasons, actually. Neither absolute, but neither very complicated, either.

Reason No. 1: Trubisky

Without making too much out of one individual player, the chief reason arguably lies in the person of Mitchell Trubisky, a quarterback who already has palpably changed the psyche of a previously languishing team.

“The team didn’t make nearly as many mental errors this week because of his patience,” said wide receiver Kendall Wright, who supported Trubisky with a leaping catch of 18 yards to set up the game-winning field goal.

Unlike Mike Glennon, Matt Barkley, Brian Hoyer and 2016 Jay Cutler, each of whom won one game and one game only over the past 22, Trubisky delivered the ball security of Hoyer with added impact that none of his predecessors did manage, or arguably even could have managed.

Put simply, the Bears do in fact have a quarterback who even at this point appears able not only to make plays as drawn up, but also to create something out of nothing or at least avert catastrophe.

“Mitch made some great plays,” Fox said. “I mean, if you look at the snap over his head in the end zone, there’s probably only five or six or seven quarterbacks in this league that could get out of that. I go back to the touchdown pass to Dion [Sims, tight end]. He flushed [from the pocket], we adjusted and he dropped a dime in the end zone for a touchdown. And the play obviously at the end where more than likely if we don’t get that, we’re probably punting, the play he made to Kendall. I think Mitch played outstanding… .

“Those are really good decisions. It beats six interceptions, for sure. There’s a 3rd-and-3 play in the red area, low red, sprint out to our left. It wasn’t all perfect but he did the next best thing and that’s throw it away. So those are really, really good decisions that I think sometimes the casual or un-casual fan does not see.”

The noteworthy element in Trubisky’s game was the impact achieved by a Bears quarterback who completed all of eight passes. The reality is that Trubisky doesn’t need to attempt more than 20 passes a game (including the four sacks his protection allowed, which absolutely needs to be fixed).

For perspective purposes: Ben Roethlisberger in his first two seasons averaged 17.4 and 15.9 passes per game. The Pittsburgh Steelers reached the AFC Championship game and won the Super Bowl in those two seasons, running an offense that was just short of 60 percent runs.

Reason No. 2: Mistake reduction

A mistaken notion as to how improvement happens is the belief that it comes from just getting better and better, skill sets rising to the loftiest heights.

Not necessarily. Anyone who has had the good fortune of working their golf handicap down knows that the stroke reductions come less from suddenly adding 30 yards to drives or developing a draw on a 200-yard three-iron, than from eliminating the fluffed pitch shots, the approach shots pushed into traps, the drives into the woods. Cut down the mistakes and good things happen.

So it is with the Bears, who effectively lost the Minnesota game by allowing a 58-yard TD run by Jerick McKinnon, and sealed it with a poor Trubisky pass on a possession with a chance to tie or win. They lost the Atlanta game simply by dropping passes. They aren’t as good as the Green Bay Packers – at least not until Trubisky reaches full extension and proves to be a challenge to Aaron Rodgers.

But only in the Atlanta near-miss did they self-destruct with fewer penalties (four) than they did at Baltimore (five). Sunday was the first time since Atlanta that they threw zero interceptions. And the defense limited the Ravens to three third-down conversions out of 18, one indicator of fewer breakdowns on the most important down.

“As long as we eliminate those mistakes that we’ve been making,” Fox said, “we’re gonna be right there going into the end of the game.”

The Bears have had positive spikes in the past and then collapsed; even after winning three of four in late 2015, the inept home losses to San Francisco and Washington were arguably a tipping point in the Fox era.

The point next Sunday against Carolina is to determine if the Bears are through with their one-and-done ways.

View from the Moon: Bears win over Ravens has deeper implications than one game

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AP

View from the Moon: Bears win over Ravens has deeper implications than one game

Lots of ways to look at the Bears after their 27-24 overtime over the Ravens in Baltimore, the first road win for the Bears since late 2015. Taken in the context of a season still short of its halfway point, they didn’t exactly clarify definitively whether they’re a bad team with occasional good days, or a team that threatens to be better than expected.

Either way the Bears suddenly could find themselves being a meaningful factor in an NFC North that on Sunday saw the Green Bay Packers (4-2) lose Aaron Rodgers to a broken collarbone and a game to the Minnesota Vikings (4-2), and the Detroit Lions (3-3) crushed by the New Orleans Saints.

**

The best perspective, one that in fact parallels and even rivals the growth and development of rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky for collective significance, may be that the Bears found a way to win.

To a bigger point, though, the crucial playmakers were overwhelmingly their own draft choices – Trubisky (8-for-16 passing, 113 yards, a touchdown, ZERO interceptions, 94.0 rating), running back Jordan Howard (36 carries, 167 yards), nose tackle Eddie Goldman (six tackles, one for loss), Adrian Amos (90-yard touchdown interception return), Kyle Fuller (three passes defensed, six tackles). Add in defensive end Akiem Hicks (three tackles, one sack) and you have a game won by players who represent the developing foundation of the franchise.

The growth of Trubisky is a prime directive for the 2017 season. But so is Goldman’s. And Howard’s. And Fuller’s. Because if Trubisky progresses but the core does not rise with him, the Bears will have a good quarterback and little more. The Saints and Archie Manning. Or using another position, Joe Thomas and the Cleveland Browns. More than Trubisky matters.

**

A cliché, but critical for a team that too often found ways to lose, and this game was there for the losing, the Bears blowing an 11-point lead in the final four minutes.

But they didn’t lose. This is the fourth of their six games that the Bears were in position to win, offensively or defensively, on a final possession (Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Baltimore). When the Bears keep games close, they are 2-2. And in the two they lost – Atlanta, Minnesota – they were less beaten by the opponents by themselves with dropped passes (vs. Falcons) or mis-thrown ones (vs. Vikings).

**

Trubisky is a sub-50-percent passer through his first two NFL games but a handful of his incompletions in Baltimore were very, very significant. They were indications of the decision-making that is the reason coaches turned to him. On a handful of occasions, Trubisky lofted passes that barely stayed in the field of play but were exactly what coaches want the rookie to do rather than force throws into too-tight windows

On Sunday he became the first of 11 rookie quarterbacks to beat John Harbaugh's Ravens.

**

On the not-so-good side:

Coach John Fox had a team meeting early last week and it wasn’t pleasant. Insiders say Fox was fed up with the stupid football being played. The question, however, even after Sunday’s overtime win over the Ravens, in which the Bears squandered an 11-point lead with a little more than four minutes to play, is who was paying attention and who wasn’t. Because not everyone is getting it.

The defense forced and recovered a fumble in the first half and supplemented that with its first interception for 2017 when Bryce Callahan snatched a ball off the hands of Breshad Perriman and returned it 52 yards to set up the halfback touchdown pass by Tarik Cohen.

Trubisky and center Cody Whitehair have some shotgun-snap issues to resolve but the Bears had just two penalties through the first three quarters, neither on the offense. Then Zach Miller was flagged for holding in the fourth quarter and the first possession of overtime effectively was undone when Bobby Massey. Jordan Howard going out of bounds allowed Baltimore time in regulation occasioned flashbacks to Marion Barber.

Worse, special-teams breakdowns gave the Ravens 14 points, one touchdown when no one thought to touch down Bobby Rainey, who got up and completed a 96-yard kickoff return; and another when punt coverage allowed a 77-yard punt return to Michael Campanaro.

**

Cornerback may be a priority in next year’s draft but Kyle Fuller continues playing suspiciously like a first-round defensive back (which he of course was). The Bears declined to pick up the fifth-year option on Fuller’s rookie contract last April – understandable given Fuller’s decline over the past two seasons – but no one should be surprised if the Bears make a play to retain Fuller with either an early extension or a push ahead of free agency 

Fuller delivered a textbook one-on-one tackle of 251-pound Ravens tight end Ben Watson and followed that later in Sunday’s second quarter with a pair of superb pass defenses to force Baltimore to settle for a field goal after a first-and-goal situation. And it was Fuller’s technically perfect coverage on Chris Moore that caused the deflected ball that went 90 yards the other direction on Adrian Amos’ first career interception

Prince Amukamara is on a one-year deal and Callahan is a restricted free agent. The Bears have a major positional need, and a chance to keep one of their own draft choices who’s now been three years in the Vic Fangio system.