On Sunday, the Bears trounced the Buffalo Bills by a score of 41-9, thanks to a dominant defensive performance led by, among others, Bills quarterback Nathan Peterman.
The offense had a bit of a weird game, as one would somewhat expect from a unit whose services were no longer required after about ten minutes into the second quarter. There was a healthy mix of great, good, bad, and ugly and I entered the film room to find out more.
Here’s what I learned after reviewing the tape of the Bears’ offense in Buffalo.
Trubisky update: still inconsistent, but clear progress shown
After a week in which national media pundits spent a decent amount of time criticizing the young signal caller, Mitch Trubisky did not exactly silence his critics with a relatively pedestrian stat line (12/20, 135 yards, a score, and a pick). He did, however, display considerable improvement in a few areas, especially on third down.
Let’s start off with a key third and ten early in the game, on the Bears’ first possession. Buffalo shows a heavy blitz here but they don’t bring it, instead only rushing the three down linemen and linebacker Matt Milano. This was cleverly designed and fooled the Bears into allocating linemen to imaginary blitzes and forced Benny Cunningham to pick up Milano on his own.
He did about as good a job as one could hope for in that situation, but Milano still got deep enough in the backfield to throw off the progression of Trubisky’s drop. Because of this, he can’t step up and hit Anthony Miller, who had just flashed slightly open around the top right corner of the Bills’ logo.
Trubisky recognized his altered pocket and adjusted, stepping up into open space. His presence outside the pocket and near the line of scrimmage forced two of Buffalo’s defenders (57 and 24) to vacate their responsibility in the Bills’ zone coverage scheme.
Trubisky kept his eyes downfield, something he struggled with mightily in the first few games of the season, especially on third down. He saw them leave their zone and, while off balance no less, threw a perfect ball to Miller, hitting him in between two lurking Bills and picking up the first down.
Yesterday, former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky pointed to this play as a sign of Trubisky’s progress and I couldn’t agree more. Against another zone scheme on third and moderately long, Trubisky flashes an anticipatory throw that we haven’t seen nearly enough of with him.
Pause the clip when Trubisky first cocks his arm back to throw, and look at the positions of Taylor Gabriel (middle of the field, 33-yard line) and Julian Stanford, the linebacker in coverage. They are on the same vertical plane, with Stanford a yard or two in front of his man.
Trubisky recognized zone coverage immediately and knew that Stanford would be flat-footed (and even if he wasn’t, he doesn’t have the speed to catch up to the man they call Turbo) when Gabriel came across the field. From that point on, it’s an easy pitch and catch and a key third down, exploiting a middle of the field that was open all day.
This isn’t necessarily a uniquely outstanding job from Trubisky; good/great quarterbacks should regularly be making these kinds of plays. That being said, number 10 wasn’t making them early in the season. This means he’s much more adjusted to the offense than he was in September and he’s reading defenses much more easily than he was then.
This being said, Trubisky still made two critical errors in Sunday’s contest. One of them was the interception, but that doesn’t really need to be analyzed; he just sailed the throw. But he should learn a crucial lesson from the other key mistake, which came early in the ballgame.
You may notice that Trey Burton came open right away and the impulse should be that Trubisky should throw it right then. I agreed at first but then I saw Jerry Hughes screaming off the edge when Trubisky would have had to make the throw. He felt the pressure and he likely knew that if he throws that ball, there was a decent chance of a strip sack. And anything after that is moot, because of the linebacker at the left hash that was in a QB spy but based on his position could very well have been a robber, waiting to pick it.
That last line provides a perfect segue into Trubisky’s mistake. Once he stepped up and rolled out to the right, he had no check down option and because of the spy (which given his success on the ground he’s going to see much more often as the season goes on), there’s no way he’d accomplish anything if he decided to run.
That leaves two choices: either chuck the ball out of bounds or tuck it and take a one to three-yard loss on the sack. He does neither, escaping Hughes but continuing to hold the ball in one hand even though he had nowhere to go with it. The result: a fumble. The Bears luckily recovered it but were knocked out of field goal range, costing them a chance at three points.
A common negative theme with Trubisky since the bye week is that he’s trying to do too much. He’s been forcing throws in the red zone and far too often compounding mistakes with unforced errors. That can’t continue and he needs to learn when to just throw the ball away.
Despite the inconsistencies, and along with the improvements, we saw what made Ryan Pace and many other scouts and GMs salivate over Trubisky’s potential leading up to the 2017 draft. Here, Kwon Alexander eviscerates Bobby Massie with a spin move, resulting in pressure in Trubisky’s face immediately.
Instead of spinning out of the pocket, likely resulting in a sack, Trubisky hoisted a perfect throw to Burton, placing it exactly where it needed to be. Any further and it’s probably picked off by the safety; any shorter and Burton would have overrun it. This was a fantastic play by Trubisky and a clutch one as well, converting third and 15 on a drive that ended in the end zone.
This is what we would all like to see more of from Trubisky moving forward, and if he continues his not linear but progressing development, it’s what we’re going to get.
Run smart, not hard
Despite a seemingly excellent effort from Jordan Howard, the third-year back only averaged 3.3 yards per carry in Buffalo, and this was (again) mainly due to too many carries halted at or behind the line of scrimmage.
So whose fault is that? Mainly, Matt Nagy, for calling inside runs that are dead before the play begins.
Ordinarily, I might not mind a counter to the weak side of an unbalanced line (Charles Leno shifted to the right side of the line and was replaced by Dion Sims on the left), but you have to know your opponent. The Bills love bringing Jordan Poyer into the box for these types of heavy offensive formations, and this play is no different.
Anthony Miller motioned around the backfield, as he often does, and Howard took a step to his right then took the ball and headed left. Counters involve two kick-out blocks, which in this instance were fullback Michael Burton and right guard Eric Kush.
The problem here: Buffalo’s stacked box put three players on the left side for the two of them to block. As a result, Kush and Burton blocked Matt Milano and Poyer (respectively) very well but nobody was there to take the squeezing defensive end Eddie Yarbrough, who makes an easy tackle for loss.
Similar scenario here – short yardage situation, eight-man box. Even when Tarik Cohen – always a threat to beat defenses outside – motioned into the backfield, the Bills still loaded up the line of scrimmage with bodies and made it clear that they were selling out to stop the inside run.
Either Nagy or Trubisky needs to recognize this and check out of the play. Howard is swallowed up in the backfield because it’s completely unreasonable to expect any offensive line to make eight one-on-one blocks and get any push whatsoever against a defensive set like that.
Both of those plays were needless suicide and amounted to running the ball for the sake of running the ball. Nagy has the jet sweep/end around (more on that later) and passing play designs down to a science but he has to get better at putting his running back and O-line in more favorable situations.
Low point: Sims, you dunce
I came quite close to an out-loud “GAAAAAAH” in a high school library when I saw this play because this should have been a touchdown.
The play design was perfect. Trubisky faked the rollout to the right and that got everybody on Buffalo’s defense except a blitzing safety (Micah Hyde) moving to the offense’s right, which was the perfect opportunity to hand it off to Cohen running right. All that was left was one block from Dion Sims on Hyde and Cohen would have been off to the races.
Instead, Sims ran right by him. Yeah, I get that his assignment was pulling around and walling off the linebacker Stanford, but he has to have better awareness and knowledge of the play design than that. As soon as Hyde walked up towards the line of scrimmage before the play, his mind should have been screaming “FIRST THREAT.” If he kicks out Hyde, Cohen runs right through that C gap, Stanford has no chance with the angle he took, and it’s a one-on-one with Cohen against Jordan Poyer. And I’ll take Cohen one-on-one against anybody.
The play looked done when Hyde met Cohen in the backfield, but…
High point: What Cohen did after that clip ended
Not sure how he does it, but Cohen has this uncanny ability to make something out of nothing. It takes a perfect combination of speed, agility, strength, balance, and perhaps most importantly, a low center of gravity.
Cohen reversed course in an instant and Buffalo could not contain him, turning what should have been a five-yard loss into a seven-yard gain. He did this on a punt return, too.
This is why Cohen is the Bears’ most important offensive player whose nickname in college wasn’t Mr. Biscuit. He’s dangerous whenever he touches the ball, and his presence makes everyone else on the field’s job much, much easier.
A lesson in the complexities of NFL play design
To finish the column, I wanted to highlight one of my favorite plays Nagy has run this year, and it occurred on the first play of the game. It’s a great example of how everything anybody does on a given play has a purpose, and sometimes more than one.
First of all, the method of getting the ball to its intended target is vital to the play. Miller begins this play on the line of scrimmage and motions into the backfield, still running as the ball is snapped. This helps the blocking scheme so that the Bears can ignore anybody in the box whose first step is to the defensive left because Miller’s momentum gives him an inherent head start.
Trey Burton’s first responsibility is Hughes if he steps outside but he doesn’t, so Hughes goes free but has zero chance to make the play. This allows the Bears to allocate blockers to players who do, like number 20, who judging by his reaction to the motion is clearly in man coverage on Miller. Burton doesn’t block him perfectly but he does more than enough to take him out of the play.
Jordan Howard is the lead blocker, making sure first that nobody missed their block at the LOS and looking to stave off any blue jerseys in front of him. He actually messed up here; he should have taken out Jordan Poyer but he got away with it because Poyer took a poor tackling angle.
Lastly, Taylor Gabriel’s path after the snap is the finishing touch. He runs a faux slant pattern towards the play side linebacker (Matt Milano) and it serves two purposes. First, it uses Milano’s instincts against him as he’s going to shift to his right to pursue Miller, leading him right into Gabriel’s block and sealing him off. But it also helps put cornerback Phillip Gaines out of position, because he has to account for the possibility of play action and make sure Gabriel doesn’t pull off a double move and beat him deep. This gives Miller space to pick up a solid gain on first down.
That’s all for this week. The Bears take on the Lions in Chicago on Sunday in a massive divisional matchup. You can read more about said matchup on The Loop Sports.
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