Mark Schofield: The Mitch Trubisky roller coaster
In 1983 a story captivated the collective heart of a nation. The story of a man yearning to provide for his family, and give them the trip of a lifetime. A man from the Chicago area, wanting to bring his family to the happiest place on earth, to ride the roller coasters, and experience life on the road together as a family.
The 2018 version of Clark Griswold could avoid the angst and simply watch his beloved Chicago Bears and their young quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, the human roller coaster.
Spurred by a ferocious defense and helped by an offense that was successful on yet another opening drive of the game, the Chicago Bears notched a 24-17 victory over the visiting Seattle Seahawks on Monday night, avoiding an 0-2 start which often dooms teams when it comes time for playoff spots. For his part Trubisky’s performance was...mixed. A series of highs and lows, peaks and valleys, often found at your local amusement park.
Let’s start with the mistakes, focusing on one of his two interceptions, as well as a pass that really should have been an interception and was likely Trubisky’s worst decision of the night.
The Bears began their third drive of the game with fairly decent field position, after the Seahawks were forced to punt from deep in their own territory. Chicago looked to immediately capitalize and extend their 7-0 lead, and head coach Matt Nagy called for a route concept that sent wide receiver Allen Robinson, who is quickly becoming Trubisky’s favorite target, on a vertical route along the right sideline. While Robinson (#12) got separation on his route, Trubisky underthrew the pass and Shaquill Griffin (#26) makes an impressive interception:
The issue here starts with his feet, as highlighted by sideline reporter Booger MacFarland. With quarterbacks of all ages and experience levels, you can see accuracy dip when the QB sets, resets and throws. Looking at the replay angle you can see how Trubisky initially sets his feet in the pocket, then quickly resets his feet while trying to throw this route. With unsettled feet, it is often difficult to maintain both accuracy and strength on passes:
Throws made from an unsettled base like this have a tendency to drop short of their target, and that is exactly what happens here. While it is difficult to get into the head of a QB at a given moment in a play, it is unclear why Trubisky chose to reset his feet on this snap. His “happy feet” were an issue highlighted after Week 1, and they were a factor on this play.
The more egregious mistake from Trubisky will not be reflected in the box score, but quarterback play is a constant examination of process over results, and it is a play that the young QB will be hearing about in film review from his coach. Late in the first half the Bears faced a third-and-6 on the Seattle 7-yard line, while holding a seven-point lead. Trubisky is eventually pressured off the edge but he flashes impressive athleticism and play strength by shaking off a sack and remaining upright, spinning away from the defender and rolling to his left. But from there, the play nearly turns to disaster:
Everything Trubisky does until the decision to throw is worthy of praise. Earlier this season we talked about trump cards for the rookie quarterbacks. Traits that might ease their transition to life in the NFL. For Trubisky his trump card might be his athleticism, as on display here, or later in the game when he had a nifty scramble for a first down that included a nice change-of-direction move in the open field. But when Trubisky tries to throw this pass, he is trying to fit it over – or maybe even through – two defenders underneath his target:
This is a throw that Trubisky cannot make in this situation. Or frankly, in any situation.
Mechanics have been an issue of inconsistency with Trubisky, dating back to his days at the University of North Carolina and continuing into his second season in the league. The issues are mainly in the lower body, where the young signal-caller has a tendency to flare open his left leg and hip on throws, leading to poorly placed throws. This was something that showed up again early in this game, when the Bears opened up their second possession of the game:
Gabriel is running a crossing route from the right slot toward the numbers on the left side of the field. On this throw you can see that left leg and hip flare out quickly, almost violently, which is the issue that we saw from him back at UNC. Such a step like this disrupts the throwing chain. Here’s how former coach Steve Axman described situations like this, from his book “Coaching Quarterback Passing Mechanics:”
If the quarterback oversteps too far to the left of the target spot he will end up having to use extra throwing-arm follow-through to get the football to go where he wants it to go. The excessive overstepping action will pull his body to the left, thereby forcing him to compensate with his arm and hand follow-through. In this situation, the stepping action and the pass-release action are not working together in harmony.
Axman, who was Troy Aikman’s offensive coordinator at UCLA, knows a thing or two about QBs.
This was the only misfire among Trubisky’s first seven passes, which brings us to another curious aspect to Chicago’s offense through two games. There is a stark dichotomy between the Bears offense on their opening drives of games, and how they fare during the rest of the contest.
They opened up with a touchdown drive last week against the Green Bay Packers, and opened up Monday night with another touchdown drive. Until Trubisky’s second touchdown pass of the game, coming in the fourth quarter, the Bears had been unable to score a touchdown outside of those two drives.
Having started two games in impressive fashion it seems that Trubisky is very comfortable running the “scripted plays,” i.e., the first 15 plays of each game that Nagy scripts and puts together during the week of practice, that the team spends a great deal of time practicing. As a quarterback, having the script in hand before gametime allows you to mentally prepare and run through every potential scenario before the game begins. Trubisky has been near-perfect so far during the scripted portion of the proceedings. But when the game gets into the free-flow portion, is when we see some struggles. This speaks to the fact that yes, Trubisky is still growing comfortable with life as an NFL QB, and with life in Nagy’s offense.
Let’s get away from the valleys of the Trubisky Coaster and get to some of the peaks. As we saw last week, there are moments when you can tell the game is slowing down for the young QB. Trubisky made a few impressive throws with anticipation, starting off with this example, a play to open Chicago’s sixth offensive possession of the game:
A quarterback can do wonders for his receivers when he gets the ball out of his hands with anticipation, on time and in rhythm. That gives his target a chance to secure the catch away from coverage and make a move or two on any nearby defenders, leading to yardage after the catch opportunities. That is what we see on this throw to Robinson. That timing, coupled with the placement on the throw, leading Robinson toward the boundary, leads to the additional yardage.
Speaking of timing and rhythm, Trubisky seemed to make some strides in this area over the course of Monday night’s game. The previous play is one example, and here is another:
This is a simple out route from Trubisky, but the timing of his drop and the footwork he uses retreating into the pocket are synced up perfectly with the cut and break from the receiver. For Nagy’s offensive system to run at peak efficiency, the marriage between the quarterback’s timing and the route concepts must be on the same page. This play is a good example of that process.
Let’s close things out with a discussion of Trubisky pair of touchdown passes.
Trubisky got credit for a touchdown pass on a short toss to Trey Burton to cap off Chicago’s opening drive. While this “pass” did not take a great deal of skill to deliver, the execution from the quarterback is worthy of discussion. This play is a power shovel toss, a design that Andy Reid, Nagy and Alex Smith used a great deal last season to target Travis Kelce, after scaring defenses with a fake sweep to Tyreek Hill.
On this play Nagy puts Tarik Cohen in the Hill role, having him carry out what looks to be a zone read play with Cohen (#29) and Trubisky meeting at the mesh point in the backfield. Burton (#80) aligns in a wing to the right side of the formation, and he tracks down the line of scrimmage looking for the late flip from his QB:
The critical element to this scoring play is how well - and how long - Trubisky rides along with Cohen at the mesh point. Trubisky keeps the ball in Cohen’s belly until the last possible second, which freezes two Seattle defenders in particular: Poona Ford (#97) and linebacker Austin Calitro (#58). That elongated mesh creates a crease for Burton, and makes the play that much easier to execute:
Finally, let’s end with another example of growth. Studying Trubisky last season there was another mechanical issue that was worth tracking in year two, apart from the lower body mechanics. Look at this interception Trubisky threw against the Detroit Lions late last season:
Look at Trubisky’s shoulders on this throw. The quarterback fails to get his shoulders properly involved in making the throw. For a right-handed quarterback rolling to his left he needs to first point his left shoulder at the target, and then finish the throw with the right shoulder pointing in the direction of his receiver.
That process ensures that the quarterback will generate sufficient torque in his upper body, thereby creating sufficient velocity on the throw. Trubisky did not get it done against the Lions on this play. The left shoulder gets close, but the right shoulder does not finish toward the target.
Now look at the difference on this touchdown throw to Anthony Miller (#17):
Look at first his left shoulder, which Trubisky almost points at Miller twice, making sure to turn his shoulder toward his target. But then the QB finishes the throw by getting that right shoulder turned toward Miller as well, generating the torque and creating a much better throw. A minor point, but again, signs of his continued development at the position.
The bottom line? Trubisky remains a work in progress, a roller coaster of a QB who delivers with both peaks and valleys. But the progress is there, and while it not be coming as fast as Bears fans may like, development is not linear. It is an ongoing process that will also have peaks and valleys. With a defense like Chicago’s, a developing quarterback might be enough.