It was no secret: The Chicago Bears hired Matt Nagy to make Mitchell Trubisky a star.
Despite positive stretches, the returns before Sunday were overwhelmingly disappointing.
Of 32 quarterbacks to attempt 40-plus passes through Week 3, Trubisky (4.8) ranked ahead of only Sam Bradford (3.3) in adjusted yards per attempt, which incorporates touchdowns, interceptions and sacks. Nagy even suggested this week the team might scale back the offense some and put less on Trubisky’s plate.
Then came Sunday’s evisceration of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Trubisky’s stat line — 19 of 26 for 354 yards, six scores, no picks and one sack — translated to an eye-popping 17.2 net yards per attempt, the third-best single-game figure (min. 20 attempts) in the NFL since 2013.
So did Trubisky turn a corner? Well, not quite.
No quarterback throws six touchdowns on accident, but the second-year player’s production came largely because Nagy’s designs rained cannonball-sized holes in the hull of the Bucs’ defense.
As he showed with Kansas City, Nagy is superb at beating predictable coverages via downfield route design. On Sunday, he tore up Tampa Bay’s base Cover-3 on early downs with four variations of a classic Cover-3 beater: the post/wheel concept.
In each case, an outside receiver ran a post route to occupy the outside cornerback and the free safety, who are each responsible for a deep third of the field. With those defenders turning to run with the post, another target came from the slot or the backfield on a vertical route up the sideline — either on a pure wheel or an out-and-up double move — requiring a safety or linebacker to turn and run without help. Four such plays produced wide-open receivers for gains of 39 (Trey Burton), 35 (Tarik Cohen), 28 (Cohen) and 20 (Josh Bellamy), including walk-in touchdowns for Burton and Bellamy.
Nagy blended the post/wheel with a series of bunch formations. The alignment created confusion by blurring the responsibilities of deep and underneath defenders.
The biggest gain of the day, a 47-yarder to Burton, came directly from this tactic. Burton’s corner route — run from a bunch in which the other two receivers ran post routes — was left completely unattended while no less than four Bucs keyed on blocking tight end Dion Sims’ drag route from the opposite side.
Nagy supplemented the explosive downfield designs with his usual grab bag of bells and whistles near the line of scrimmage, including zone-read elements, misdirection pitches and assorted pick plays. Taylor Gabriel’s two 3-yard touchdowns were perfect examples.
The second was a relatively traditional pick play on third-and-goal, as an Allen Robinson screen gave Trubisky a layup to an uncovered Gabriel in the flat, but the first was evil genius material.
Nagy took a play that old friend Andy Reid used for two scores in Week 1, having Gabriel line up directly behind the left tackle and practically hiding from the defense. At the snap, Trubisky and the line faked a sweep to the left while Gabriel bolted right, giving Trubisky an easy flip for the score. Nagy even added his own flavor to ensure the misdirection worked, lining up backup QB Chase Daniel with Trubisky to take the fake handoff.
Praising Nagy’s designs is not to say Trubisky didn’t execute extremely well. He threw the ball beautifully and with much better accuracy than in the first three weeks, when he missed far too many open targets. Trubisky also flashed excellent anticipation, touch and timing on a pair of big plays that weren’t simply schemed wide open.
On the game’s second touchdown, he delivered a perfect teardrop to the left corner of the end zone for Robinson, releasing the ball before the receiver had even planted his right foot to break to the corner. Less than three minutes later, he dropped another throw in the bucket on a slot fade to Gabriel, leading the wideout perfectly to the outside for a 33-yard gain.
But as Nagy hinted at with talk of scaling back the offense, he took the majority of the offensive burden off Trubisky and put it on himself instead. Doing so became even easier when Nagy’s designs worked so well, giving the Bears a healthy lead and also keeping them out of third downs (i.e. obvious passing situations).
Chicago faced just eight third downs all game — only two in the first 28 minutes. Three of those required just 1 yard to convert, and two others required 3 yards. Trubisky was asked to drop back, read the field and find an open receiver on only two third downs: He took a sack on third-and-7 in the first quarter and dumped it off underneath on third-and-15 while leading by 35 in the fourth. Trubisky also had a pristine pocket almost all day — per TruMedia, he was pressured on just five of 29 dropbacks, going 0 for 4 with a sack.
Things will get much tougher, and Trubisky must show he can be as precise — especially with his footwork and accuracy — when teams know he has to throw. Rather than having receivers sprung wide open by scheme, he’ll have to decipher who to target and deliver before that window closes.
But it’s also OK he’s not at that point yet.
Nagy’s job is to help Trubisky succeed in the present while buying him time to grow into a player who can handle a heavier burden. That’s exactly what Sean McVay has done with Jared Goff for the Rams, where the healthy environment is already showing in Goff’s development. Nagy’s designs must remain similarly effective for Trubisky to follow the same path.
-Patriots go old school and pound it
Bill Belichick’s teams famously shift their identity week-to-week, and the offense will surely morph again with Julian Edelman’s return from suspension against the Colts this week. But the Patriots’ approach to Sunday’s 38-7 pasting of the AFC East-leading Dolphins was fascinating, as it showed yet another way New England can win.
Despite using a pass-heavy spread offense, the Patriots employ a fullback (James Develin) as often as any NFL team, but usually not to line up and run the ball. They regularly split Develin out in empty sets, using the defense’s response as an indicator of man or zone coverage. But on Sunday, they made no secret about their intentions to simply run it down Miami’s throat. And it worked like a charm.
New England ran it on 29 of Develin’s 33 snaps, including five on the first series of the game (a 13-play drive) and six on the last possession before halftime (15-play drive). Most were basic iso lead runs, sending Develin straight downhill and daring a linebacker to meet his 251-pound frame in the hole. Coordinator Josh McDaniels also sprinkled in the occasional wrinkle, like crack tosses with Develin leading outside, a counter play and a few lead draws.
By the break, the Patriots had racked up 118 rushing yards on 21 carries (5.6-yard average), holding the ball for 19:28. It matched their highest carry total in a first half since October 2014 and their second-most rushing yards before halftime since November 2014.
First-round pick Sony Michel (80 yards on 15 carries before half) shined behind the lead blocking, showing off a silky ability to weave from gap to gap and sneak through creases upfield. James White (six for 38 at half) runs with a similar sort of slitheriness, which can help make blockers right even when no initial hole is created, like on White’s 22-yard touchdown run.
The duo’s success in an old-school rushing attack was particularly encouraging following injuries to Rex Burkhead and Jeremy Hill, showing the Patriots can pound the ball efficiently no matter who dots the “I.” Even as the effectiveness waned in the second half while draining clock, New England finished with 40 carries — most in a game since 2016 — for 175 yards (4.4 average).
Surely Tom Brady and McDaniels will get back to slinging the ball everywhere, especially with Edelman returning and newly acquired Josh Gordon getting more comfortable in the offense. But Sunday’s old fashioned pounding is an uncomfortable reminder to opponents that the Pats’ offense can also beat you to a pulp if you don’t prepare for it.
-A.J. Green, slot machine?
Since high school, Green has been a prototype X receiver: A huge, lanky target who draws regular double teams with an elite combination of speed, leaping ability and ball skills. He filled that role from Day 1 in the NFL, becoming one of only four players since 1990 to reach the Pro Bowl in each of his first seven NFL seasons.
But now in his eighth year, Green is moving inside more than ever before, and the Bengals are reaping the benefits.
Sunday’s game-winning 13-yard score wasn’t purely from the slot — Green was isolated in a 3x1 formation, with no receiver outside of him — but it did come from a tighter split from his traditional wide position, as he lined up on the right numbers. Counting that, all five of Green’s touchdowns this season have come from the slot, compared to just 12 of his 57 TDs through 2017. Likewise, half of Green’s 20 receptions have come inside, compared to 88 of 556 (15.7 percent) in his first seven seasons.
For most of his career, Green lining up in the slot portended a deep shot, as the Bengals tried to match him against a linebacker or safety down the middle of a zone defense. That’s exactly what Cincinnati did on Green’s first touchdown this season, a 38-yard score in which he split and outran the Colts’ safeties.
In the weeks since, he’s been featured inside more often, especially in high-leverage situations like the red zone. Always a crafty route-runner, Green’s precision footwork is more deadly from the inside alignment, where he can run a much more expansive route tree and often winds up matched on a lesser corner.
Two of his three touchdowns against the Ravens in Week 2 came against the 5-foot-10 and 185-pound Tavon Young. Green outran Young on a crosser off play-action for the first, then broke his tackle on a slant and went 32 yards for the score. Baltimore next tried second-year man Marlon Humphrey on Green, who ran a comeback to the front pylon and scored easily.
Green struck again Sunday, as the inside split freed him up for a corner route behind rookie Isaiah Oliver’s underneath coverage, and Andy Dalton found him before the safety could arrive.
Green’s physical skills have shown no signs of eroding, but effectiveness inside is an outstanding way for receivers to extend their careers, like Reggie Wayne and Larry Fitzgerald did by moving primarily to the slot under Bruce Arians in Indianapolis and Arizona, respectively. Taking that job full-time requires more dirty work, most notably as a blocker, but the tradeoff is getting to pick on linebackers and safeties more often.
It may yet be years before (or if) we see Green make the full transition, but he’s already proven very capable, and the Bengals’ offense is more dangerous as a result.
—David DeChant, Field Level Media