It was Week 8 of the 2019 NFL season. The Chicago Bears were stuck in a rut. Matt Nagy’s offense had an identity crisis.
Going into halftime against the Los Angeles Chargers, the Bears had run 16 plays in the red zone for a total of 13 yards. That’s 0.81 yards/play. Eleven of those plays were run out of the shotgun and one of the plays that wasn’t was a quarterback spike.
The offense just wasn’t working.
To Nagy’s credit, he adjusted at halftime. The Bears came out of the locker room running the ball. They lined up in the I-formation on eight of their next 11 plays, picking up 25 yards on six runs and 37 yards on two passes. Mitch Trubisky hit Allen Robinson for a 31-yard completion out of play-action. The drive ended with running back David Montgomery lining up behind fullback J.P. Holtz and pounding the ball into the end zone for a four-yard touchdown. The Bears led 16-7.
But that would be the only touchdown the Bears scored that day. They finished 1-for-5 in the red zone and kicker Eddy Pineiro missed a game-winning field goal at the buzzer to lose the third of what turned out to be a four-game losing streak.
“I really loved that first drive of the third quarter, being able to just take that down the field,” Nagy said the next day. “(The Chargers) kind of knew that we were running by the personnel that we were in and what we were doing, and then finishing it off with a (touchdown) run was good.”
The problem was, Nagy didn’t stick with what worked in the third quarter. On the next two drives, the Bears threw the ball on six out of nine plays. Nagy didn’t use the I-formation once. And his quarterback turned the ball over twice.
Over the final nine weeks of the season, the offense never really got going. Nagy frequently mentioned that they were struggling to find their offensive identity. And it begged the question: what if the Bears’ offensive identity didn’t fit Nagy’s offense?
The head coach even admitted after the Chargers game that he never thought he’d call a drive like the heavy “I” sequence that resulted in the Bears’ best drive of the game.
“I did not, but if we have to do different things, you obviously know I’m open to that,” he said.
It took another offseason to prove that on the field, but Sunday’s opener against the Detroit Lions showed significant signs of progress and adaptation. Nagy isn’t going to abandon his entire scheme and start running a vanilla run-run-pass offense, but he made significant changes to his offensive coaching staff in the offseason and it’s obvious they spent a lot of time tweaking the system so it better fits the players – especially the quarterback.
“This is Year 3 for us and you start looking as to what are the strengths of your players? We did some good self-scout here in the offseason,” Nagy said. “We tried to look at some different things, and you could see that going under center was something that we evaluated.”
One of the issues in 2019 was that the amount of under center plays and play-action plays in the playbook were limited. There certainly wasn’t a ton of I-formation. The regular season isn’t the time to be re-writing the playbook and installing a new offense. There isn’t time. That’s done in the offseason.
In training camp, it was apparent Nagy, new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and passing game coordinator Dave Ragone had changed some things. New offensive line coach Juan Castillo and new tight ends coach Clancy Barone were also heavily involved. The revamped tight end room, including Jimmy Graham, Demetrius Harris and Cole Kmet, allowed for heavier packages. And Nagy had conceded that Trubisky is comfortable under center and better with play-action.
“We were third in the league on first-down averages (in Week 1), and so you like that,” Nagy said. “Under center probably helps that out a little bit. You want to be able to keep things off balance, and we still have a lot of stuff from the gun. But as we’re trying to create this identity of who we are, you can probably feel there’s a little bit more (under center) for sure this year.”
A film study of Sunday’s game revealed the following:
- Despite trailing and needing to go heavy shotgun in the fourth quarter, the Bears were still under center for 32 of 65 offensive plays Sunday.
- Trubisky was 6-of-10 with one touchdown throwing the ball from under center. On nine of those 10 throws, the Bears used play-action.
- The Bears only used play-action once out of the shotgun and it was a completion. Overall, Trubisky was 6-of-10 with play-action. Without it, he was 13-for-25. These numbers remove a forward-pitch play that counted as a pass.
Ideally, these tendencies will change every week. A quarterback should be able to operate out of the gun and under center. But it's encouraging to see the Bears put Trubisky in more comfortable situations.
“I kind of looked at the self-scout from last year, too. I just saw the more productive and explosive plays were coming from under center,” Trubisky said Wednesday. “A lot of times we were in shotgun and teams would favor the pass more and that when they know pass is coming, it just makes it a lot harder to find completions and get explosive plays because they’re just going to sag off, play soft zone and keep everything in front.”
Of course, you must establish the run game if you want defenses to respect the run and the Bears did that Sunday. They piled up 36 rushing yards on their first six carries, so when Trubisky went under center and faked a handoff to running back Tarik Cohen on 2nd-and-5 late in the first quarter, Lions safety Will Harris had to freeze before dropping back. That opened a throwing window to rookie wide receiver Darnell Mooney and Trubisky delivered a strike for 19 yards.
Trubisky’s comfort level under center is interesting because most of his football career has been played out of the shotgun. He played in the gun both in high school and at North Carolina. The most experience he has under center came during his rookie NFL season when he was in Dowell Loggains’ offense.
“I feel like I’m athletic enough to work on anything and get good at it eventually,” Trubisky said. “So the under center stuff and the footwork, I think it’s just repetitions for me. It’s something that I’ve become comfortable with and like.”
Trubisky added that going under center helps the offensive line too because “it really slows the rush down because they have to respect more of the run factor.”
Of course, it’s not like Trubisky can’t handle the shotgun either. He played his best football Sunday when the Bears were trailing and had to throw the ball – a lot. But if the Bears are going to be in situations where they aren’t trailing and boast a more consistent offense overall, a diverse scheme will help.
“We've got to make sure that we as coaches are putting these players in the best position possible and making them take advantage of their strengths,” Nagy said. “If we're not doing that as coaches that's our fault. But if we then put them in a great position, then it's their job to execute it and I think that's where collectively we've got to make sure every single day we are harping on the details to be perfect.”
The execution could still be better but Bears fans should be encouraged by Nagy’s adaptation against the Lions. Perhaps the offensive identity will now match the offense.