It’s often far too easy to criticize coaches for their play calls, given few have a window into just how much time and effort goes into developing a gameplan. So that’s not what we’re going to set out to do with this review of two critical, failed third-and-short conversions in the Bears’ 24-23 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night.
Instead, let’s look at why these two plays called by Matt Nagy weren’t successful in picking up the yardage the Bears needed to keep a red-hot Aaron Rodgers on the sidelines. The first is a third-and-one completion to Dion Sims for no gain early in the fourth quarter; the second is a third-and-two incomplete pass to Anthony Miller late in the fourth quarter.
The Bears go with an unbalanced line, with Bobby Massie, Charles Leno and Eric Kush to the left of center Cody Whitehair. Lined up to Whitehair’s right are Kyle Long and Sims, with Trey Burton brought in motion behind Sims. The offset-I formation also has fullback Michael Burton to the right, with Allen Robinson the lone wide receiver at the bottom of the screen. Safety Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix (yellow arrow) is the key to this play.
Also, Clay Matthews (green arrow) is sprinting off the field and had Trubisky snapped the ball he could’ve caught the Packers with 12 men on the field. That’s easier said than done, though.
“There's so much stuff going on,” Nagy said. “We can see it from bird's eye view. You can see the guy running off the field but it's hard when you're at the line of scrimmage and you're trying to get the play right, you're trying to get the cadence, you're looking at the play clock to make sure you're going to get it off right, and then there in the peripheral is a guy running off the field. It's easy to see when you're bird's eye view. It's not as easy when you're down there on the field.”
The goal of the play is to get the Packers flowing to the boundary (yellow arrows), with Sims slipping into the field for an easy completion. Trubisky goes play-action to sell the fake to that side. Clinton-Dix (yellow circle), though, doesn’t flow that way and stays on the field side. Sims was the only read for Trubisky on the play, Nagy said.
Sims has to get past linebacker Antonio Morrison (blue circle), who’s following what’s going on in the backfield. Both Burtons — Trey and Michael — engage in pass protection to draw the Packers to that side, but Clinton-Dix (yellow arrow) holds his ground and is in a position to get to Sims.
When the ball is released, Sims is at the sticks, but Clinton-Dix (who’s out of the frame) is not as far away as the play design needed him to be to grab the yard for a first down. Ideally, Clinton-Dix's momentum would've been going to his left, with Sims coming across him to his right.
The lofted, falling-back nature of Trubisky’s pass was by design to “sell full slow one way,” quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone said.
“From an execution standpoint on Mitchell’s side, he was doing what we asked him to be doing there,” he added.
Sims’ momentum is taking him back toward the line of scrimmage, making this an easy tackle for Clinton-Dix resulting in no gain. Tight ends coach Kevin Gilbride said he would’ve liked Sims to run the route a little bit deeper and be beyond the first down marker, not just at it. But Clinton-Dix made an excellent read and play to blow this up and force a punt to get the ball back to Rodgers.
Tarik Cohen begins the play split out wide but motions into the backfield. Linebacker Blake Martinez, just before the snap, communicates something to outside linebacker Reggie Gilbert (blue arrow), who will pick up Cohen in the backfield — and Cohen against an outside linebacker is the kind of mis-match this offense is designed to create. At the bottom of the screen, Miller (yellow circle) will become a read on this play for Trubisky, too, and will be passed off ultimately to cornerback Josh Jackson on the back side of the play.
Miller plants his outside foot and cuts underneath across the field (yellow arrow), while Gilbert is chipped by Burton and picks up Cohen, who starts his route by sprinting toward the sticks (blue arrows).
In the red circles, Robinson and Burton clog the middle of the field, allowing Miller to run free underneath them. Cohen (blue arrow) has yet to cut upfield while Trubisky drifts closer to the far hashmark, indicating his two primary reads on the play are Miller and Cohen.
This play takes a little while to develop, but Trubisky has good pass protection (at the bottom of each of these stills, Matthews was easily knocked to the ground by Leno). The middle of the field clears out, but Miller runs behind the chains and is picked up by Jackson (yellow arrow). Trubisky's pass tips off Miller's hands for an incompletion. At the top of the screen, Cohen executed his wheel route well and seemed to have a step on Gilbert.
"You go back and watch the film, sure, there are a couple things here or there but where he ended up going with the ball is something where he had conviction with (it) and that’s what we tell him all the time," Ragone said. "You go back there, you put your feet in the ground, you have command and conviction with what you’re seeing in your throw. Unfortunately it didn’t work out."
Wide receivers coach Mike Furrey thought the play could've worked had Miller came down with the ball because Jackson would've had to make a diving tackle on Miller. That the rookie wide receiver was short of the sticks was smart, Furrey said, because had he stayed running along the line-to-gain he would've been hit with no chance of converting the yardage.
"He came underneath and I thought he was very smart by doing that because if you can catch that coming underneath and the guy’s gotta make a diving tackle and he kind of gets behind him, which he was, he’d have had a chance to get out of that," Furrey said.
The concluding thoughts here: The playcall that led to the no-gain pass to Sims is more questionable than the pass to Miller. That failed conversion was more about the play not working, despite being executed relatively well. Clinton-Dix deserves credit for executing his assignment well on it, too.
The latter play needed better execution, whether it's Miller not catching the pass or Trubisky not looking the way of Cohen, who might've had a step on Gilbert going toward the end zone (of course, it's often too easy to criticze players when looking at still images from the comfort of home). Still, that was a playcall Nagy didn't second-guess.
"We had a play that we really liked," Nagy said. "... We have a lot going on there. We have some crossers. We had a swing route. We were good with that."
Still, the prevailing question remains: Why not give the ball to Jordan Howard?
Nagy, to his credit, was self-critical in his Monday press conference regarding some of his play-calling, including the third-and-one pass to Sims.
"There's gonna be times and you go back and forth, always looking at yourself, what could you have done better, what could you have called better," Nagy said. "There's definitely some in there that you look at yourself, I look at myself and say, 'Hey, should I have done this or should I have done that.' But this is stuff we prepare for all week long and you get into situations and you take a chance now.
"Hindsight's 20/20, you look back and you say, 'Oh, you wish you would have ran the ball there.' But we didn't, and so that was the play call we went with. I think every game's gonna be a little different than just saying, well you should've ran the ball. Every game's gonna be a little different based on how the defense is playing that game."