Tight ends are incredibly important to the health of Matt Nagy’s offense, specifically the “U” position played by Trey Burton. It’s not a coincidence, then, that the Bears’ offense ranks 27th in scoring and 30th in yards per play while Burton is averaging two catches and 12 yards per game over the first half of 2019.
“I don’t want to make any excuses for my play,” Burton said. “I know I’m not playing well."
Burton was not willing to use his offseason sports hernia surgery and August groin injury as an explanation for his steep drop in production (“doesn’t matter,” he said). Coach Matt Nagy, though, said he doesn’t think Burton is at 100 percent yet, an observation which has played out in how he’s used the 28-year-old former Super Bowl hero.
The highest rate of snaps Burton has played in a given game this year has been 75 percent; he played more than 75 percent of the Bears’ offense snaps in 12 of the Bears’ 16 games in 2018 (two games in which he didn’t: The blowout win vs. Tampa Bay and the season finale in Minnesota). He’s not only struggled to be productive, he’s also just not been on the field much.
And for an offense that relies so heavily on his position, his lack of usage and production goes a long way to explaining why, collectively, things have been so disappointing in 2019.
“It’s a focal point in the offense,” Burton said. “And usually when this type of offense is doing well, the tight end’s doing well.”
But it’s not just Burton. The Bears have not shown much trust in 2017 second-round pick Adam Shaheen, who’s yet to play more than half their offensive snaps in a game this year. He has nine catches for 74 yards, and his sparing playtime suggests the Bears don’t feel they can rely on his run blocking ability, too.
"I can’t worry about that," Shaheen said of lack of usage. "Just control what I can control and it’ll take care of itself."
Consider this: The Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles — the offenses most similar to the Bears’ in terms of scheme and structure — are two of the most 12-personnel (one running back, two receivers, two tight ends) heavy teams in the NFL. No team uses 12 personnel more than the Eagles (40 percent), while the Chiefs use it on the fifth-highest percentage of their offensive plays (30 percent).
The Bears, through eight games, have used 12 personnel on 14 percent of their offensive plays, tied for sixth-lowest in the NFL, per SharpFootballStats.com.
“There are other times where, yes, tight-end production-wise, those guys want to be able to have more production,” Nagy said. “But when you have those guys on the field, the other guys you have — at times, you’re taking other good players off the field. And so it’s just a juggling act. When you don’t have a lot of plays and you’re not getting first downs, you can’t get into all that.”
But this is where it’s often difficult to tell where one problem ends and another begins.
Trubisky targeted Burton only one against the Eagles and airmailed a throw up the seam, for one. And when the Bears are in 12 personnel they’re too predictable, running on 74 percent of those plays. Only the best-in-the-AFC New England Patriots run the ball more frequently out of 12 personnel, while statistically it’s advantageous to pass the ball with two tight ends on the field (both the Eagles’ and Chiefs’ quarterbacks have passer ratings over 100 from 12 personnel).
So issues with the quarterback and playcalling bleed into issues with the tight ends. But it nonetheless is helpful to silo off Burton and Shaheen, understanding their importance to the Bears’ offense and the resources general manager Ryan Pace spent to get them, in evaluating what’s gone wrong in 2019.
And not getting much out of either player has not helped the Bears’ coach and quarterback pull out of the rut in which they’re mired.
“I’ve talked to (Trubisky) about it like, bro, I need to hold up my end of the deal,” Burton said. “It’s not fair but it goes both ways — when we’re doing really well he’s the best thing ever and then when we’re doing really bad he’s the worst thing ever. I understand, he understands it too. All I can do is my part and I talked to him about it and let him know like, bro, I’m not playing well, I need to pick my game up. It’s affecting you, it’s affecting other things.”