Bears

Why Mitch Trubisky's biggest weakness won't preclude him from success in 2018

Why Mitch Trubisky's biggest weakness won't preclude him from success in 2018

As the Bears set their foundation for training camp during OTAs this month, one part of that is beginning to identify each player’s strengths and weaknesses on which to build in Bourbonnais. 

Designing an offense to Mitch Trubisky’s strengths was one of the reasons why Ryan Pace hired Matt Nagy, who then hired Mark Helfrich to be his offensive coordinator. Easy is the wrong word — but it wouldn’t have made sense for the Bears to not build an offense around their second-picked quarterback. 

But as Nagy and Helfrich are installing that offense during OTAs and, next month, veteran minicamp, they’re also learning what Trubisky’s weaknesses are. And the one Helfrich pointed to, in a way, is a positive. 

“Experience,” Helfrich said. “I think it’s 100 percent experience and just reps, and that’s kind of what I was talking about was knowing why something happened. As a quarterback, he might take the perfect drop and be looking at the right guy in your progression, and that guy runs the wrong route or the left guard busts or something. The defense does something different or wrong, even. And trusting that is just a matter of putting rep on top of rep on top of rep and being confident.”

It'd be a concern if the Bears thought Trubisky lacked the necessary talent to be great, or had a lacking work ethic or bad attitude. Experience isn't something he can control, in a way. 

This isn’t anything new for Trubisky. His lack of experience at North Carolina — he only started 13 games there — was the biggest ding to his draft stock a year ago; while he started a dozen games for the Bears in 2017, the offense was simple and conservative, designed to minimize risk for Trubisky (and, to be fair, a sub-optimal group of weapons around him). 

But even if Trubisky started all 16 games in an innovative, aggressive offense last year, he’d still be experiencing plenty of things for the first time. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made this point back in September that still resonates now with regard to Trubisky:

“I think it takes a few years until you can really get that title of understanding being great or even good, because you see so many looks,” Roethlisberger said. “In Year 2 and 3, you’re still seeing looks and can act like a rookie.”

So the challenge for Nagy and Helfrich is to build an offense that accentuates Trubisky’s strengths while managing his lack of experience. For what it’s worth, the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles succeeded in those efforts last year with Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, respectively. 

For Helfrich, though, one of Trubisky’s strengths — his leadership qualities — are already helping mitigate his need for more experience. 

“He’s still in the mode of learning and doing things out here,” Helfrich said. “We might have run one play 10 times against 10 different defenses, you know? And so his response to every one of those 10 things is brand new. And so, you see his reaction to some of those is good. Some of those things you want to improve upon and then keep your chest up and lead because we need that.”
 

From Bears’ win over Seahawks, 4 takeaways not named “Khalil” or “Mitch”

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USA TODAY

From Bears’ win over Seahawks, 4 takeaways not named “Khalil” or “Mitch”

The Bears reaching .500 is in itself news, since the last time it happened (2014) was two Bears head coaches and three Brandon Marshall uniforms ago, and only three current position players (Kyles Fuller and Long, Sherrick McManis) were on the roster back then.

But beyond getting coach Matt Nagy his first win as an NFL head coach, the win over Seattle occasioned a handful of takeaways beyond all of the ones headed up by Khalil Mack and Mitch Trubisky:

Defense in a rush, even at less than full strength

The Bears lead the NFL with 10 sacks (which is on pace to fall just short of the NFL team record of 72 for a season, set in 1984 by the Bears, for those who delight in frivolous early-season stat’ing). The production is especially noteworthy because the sacks are spread among eight different players.

Even more significantly, the sacks haven’t just come from eight different players; they’ve come from eight different POSITIONS, including every position in the front seven in the Bears base 3-4: both outside-linebacker spots (Mack, Aaron Lynch) and both insides (Trevathan and Roquan Smith); both defensive-end slots (Akiem Hicks and Roy Robertson-Harris); and nose tackle (Eddie Goldman).

The rush has contributed to one of the NFL’s worst pass-picking secondaries effectively sealing the Seattle game with one interception (Prince Amukamara) and having the Green Bay game within its grasp on another (Kyle Fuller).

What makes the sack production even more impressive is that none of the stops have come from Leonard Floyd, still playing with one hand encased on a padded cast and whose playing time was cut back from 77 percent of the snaps in Green Bay to 59 percent against Seattle. Floyd has zero quarterback hits in his 85 total snaps but delivered 3 tackles, a pass defense’d and a fumble recovery against the Seahawks despite his limited hand, which is a factor.

“Oh, for sure,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said last week. “I mean there’s no way around it. Like trying to type on your computers there with one hand. You’ve got your head in the sand if you don’t think that affects a guy’s play.”

Kevin White’s absence is surprising.

White did not generate the wow factor of rookie Javon Wims in preseason but he revealed an eye-opening ability in the open field with the football in his hands, the kind of yards-after-catch that West Coast offenses treasure. Not insignificantly, with the added reps with the No. 1 offense while Allen Robinson was held out for knee rehab, then working with Robinson in a variety of packages, White had developed a positive relationship with Mitch Trubisky; the two worked out together in California, and quarterbacks have a warm spot for 6-3 receivers with downfield speed.

But White played just two snaps against Seattle, down from 12 at Green Bay, and he has yet to be thrown a pass after consistently earning plaudits from coaches through the off- and preseason.

“I think that’s just how the game goes,” Nagy said. “Sometimes depending on whether it’s a slight injury to a wide receiver, a guy’s out of breath or tired, but there’s nothing either good or bad from that. It’s just the way it kind of played out.”

How White’s NFL future plays out is becoming increasingly problematic, and less and less likely to be in Chicago. Allen Robinson is signed for three years, Taylor Gabriel for four, and Anthony Miller’s rookie contract is for four. White went into this off- and preseason with a clean slate in the form of a new coaching staff. That slate still has 14 games remaining, but White doesn’t play special teams, and the only other players with fewer than 21 game snaps Monday were major special-teams contributors: Josh Bellamy, 2 snaps on offense, 18 on ‘teams; Ben Braunecker, 1 on offense, 19 on ‘teams; and Daniel Brown, 1 and 14.

Fourth-quarter’ing

The Bears can talk about finishing but their two opponents have combined for five fourth-quarter touchdowns, leading to the loss of a 20-point bulge and the game in Green Bay, and turning a 14-point lead over Seattle into a one-TD game. Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson have posted a combined passer rating of 98.4, up from an 89.9 for 2017. The Bears held the Seahawks to just 2-for-10 on third downs for three quarters, then had Seattle convert all three in the fourth quarter.

Neither the Packers nor Seahawks scored in their first quarters, but of the 41 teams scored against the Bears, 35 of them have been tallied in the fourth quarter.

Probably a jinx here, but special teams have been special

Pat O’Donnell’s job wasn’t all that secure after last season, the fourth in his four NFL seasons with a punting net less than 40 yards. The Bears re-signed him but just to a one-year contract and brought in rookie Ryan Winslow for preseason competition. O’Donnell rose to the challenge with a net of 41.7 yards on 12 punts, five yards longer than Winslow on his seven.

O’Donnell has kept his game on: nine punts with a 41.8-yard average net, and four of the kicks inside the 20. His work has combined to allow the Packers and Seahawks to return just two of eight punts, the inverse of the Bears, who’ve had Tarik Cohen return six of the eight caught.

The NFL has been awash in missed placekicks this year – 15 last weekend – and the Bears have had constant and serious kicker issues in the past few seasons, ever since cutting Robbie Gould, come to think of it. Conor Barth after Gould, then Cairo Santos and Mike Nugent and Cairo Santos brought in last year after Barth missed five of his 23 field-goal attempts.

Cody Parkey has made all five of his PAT’s and his four field-goal tries, although none longer than 33 yards. The results have made the Bears one of only 10 teams to be 100 percent in both field goals and extra points through two games.

Bears film breakdown: Matt Nagy's playcalling shines in critical second-half scoring drive against Seattle

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Bears film breakdown: Matt Nagy's playcalling shines in critical second-half scoring drive against Seattle

One of the more important questions the Bears had to answer Monday night was how Matt Nagy would call plays if given another second-half lead. Nagy answered that question well against the Seattle Seahawks, specifically with how he dialed up a well-executed 11-play, 66-yard scoring drive midway through the second half of the Bears' 24-17 win on Monday Night Football. 

The Bears never gained more than nine yards on a single play until the final one of the drive, which went for 10. But the Mitch Trubisky-led offense also never faced a third down, with this group staying on schedule while out-scheming and out-executing the Seahawks. There's an argument to be made it was the Bears' best offensive drive of the young season: The other two touchdown drives of 2018 came on the first drive of each game when plays were scripted.

Nagy had to make an adjustment with the Seahawks frequently dropping eight men into the box and selling out to stop Jordan Howard. He did so on this drive, and it got the Bears into the end zone. Here's the blow-by-blow of how:

First play: First and 10, ball on Bears' 34

Tight ends Dion Sims and Trey Burton are lined up to the near sideline, and Trubisky quickly fires a screen to Taylor Gabriel. It’s the first time the Bears give this look in Monday’s game after Nagy admitted he over-used some screens against the Packers. Gabriel does a nice job after the catch to gain six yards, starting the drive on schedule. 

Second play: Second and four, ball on Bears' 40

In 11 personnel (one tight end, one running back), Howard runs a stretch to the right, away from the middle of the field the Seahawks had so successfully clogged all night. Kyle Long delivers a punishing pancake block, and Gabriel holds his own as a run blocker, too, to net Howard a gain of five and a first down. 

Third play: First and 10, ball on Bears' 45

This is the only ineffective play of the drive, and it underscores how the Seahawks' defense had been playing the Bears' offense. On the far sideline, safety Earl Thomas picks up tight end Trey Burton (red arrow), which would've left Allen Robinson (blue arrow) in one-on-one coverage with no safety help over the top because Bradley McDougald (yellow circle/arrow) is in the box. Trubisky sells the pass fake, but McDougald stays committed to the run. The Bears' offensive line does its job but can't block the extra defender, and McDougald makes a tackle for a one-yard gain. 

Fourth play: Second and nine, ball on Bears' 46

McDougald (green circle) blitzes from the edge on a play fake to Howard. Burton (blue arrow) is open for an easy completion at the line of scrimmage, while linebacker Austin Calitro (yellow arrow) backs up as the ball is being thrown, possibly to carry wide receiver Anthony Miller over the middle. He doesn't make the tackle on the play, which goes for nine yards and a first down. 

Fifth play: First and 10, ball on Seahawks' 45

This is the only time the Bears ran the ball into the interior of the Seahawks' defense on this drive. After attacking the edges and getting in rhythm with some quick passing plays, the Bears' offensive line (as well as Sims and Burton) get their best interior run blocking push of the night, with most of Howard's blockers one or two yards upfield before he crosses the line of scrimmage. Howard gains six on the gorund here. 

Sixth play: Second and four, ball on Seahawks' 39

Gabriel lines up in the backfield to Trubisky's right, and the pair run a zone read. Trubisky makes the correct read on the play, and but Robinson couldn't hold his block as the play stretched toward the sideline. Gabriel does well to get four yards on it. 

Seventh play: First and 10, ball on Seahawks' 35

Credit Sims with a good job in pass protection, as he routes Frank Clark upfield just enough for Trubisky to escape the Seahawks' edge rusher and get into open field. Trubisky is keeping his eyes downfield (blue arrow) while moving to his right, and he doesn't see a throw he likes so he takes off and runs for four yards. That Trubisky kept his eyes downfield was generally a good thing, though had he put his head down and took off sooner he probably could've got more than the four yards he did. That's a lot easier to say from the comfort of a couch, though. 

Eighth play: Second and six, ball on Seahawks' 31

Another play fake to Howard draws linebacker Barkevious Mingo (green arrow) toward the backfield, and Trubisky has no problem throwing a quick swing pass to Josh Bellamy (blue circle) for a gain of six and a first down. 

Ninth play: First and 10, ball on Seahawks' 25

A well-designed and well-executed jet sweep with some misdirection to Gabriel (red arrow) draws linebacker Mychal Kendricks (green arrow) the wrong way. Left tackle Charles Leno gets to block Calitro in space (blue circle), to highlight a good matchup for the Bears. This play is well-blocked, but it's again safety Earl Thomas who's the only reason why it didn't go for more, as he diagnoses the play and makes a tackle on Gabriel for a gain of eight to end the third quarter. 

Tenth play: Second and two, ball on Seahawks' 17

The Bears go back to Howard, who goes off the left end for a gain of seven. While only three of Howard's 14 runs came on this drive, over half his yards (18/35) were gained on it. 

11th play: First and goal, ball on Seahawks' 10

Miller runs an excellent route, beating cornerback Akeem King with a perfectly-set-up move. Trubisky, rolling to his left, fires a perfect pass to Miller. Touchdown. 

Final takeaways

A number of players deserve credit for making this drive work, from the obvious (Trubisky, for taking what was there) and Gabriel (for slipping through or past tackles for a few extra yards) to the less obvious (Sims, in particular, had a strong series as both a pass and run blocker). But Nagy stood out, too, for calling the right plays to kick-start an offense that punted on its previous two second-half possessions.