Anatomy of a wild-card win: Scheming Mitchell Trubisky for pseudo-greatness

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Doug Farrar
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When the Bears take on the Saints on Sunday afternoon, they’ll have a couple of obvious issues to deal with. First is a Chicago defense that has fallen right off the map in the second half of the season, dropping from third to 28th in defensive passing DVOA from Week 10 to now. The run defense has been fairly stable, dropping from sixth to eighth in that time, so the overall drop from fourth to 21st in defensive DVOA has just about everything to do with a pass defense very much in flux. That might be okay against a Saints team that has Drew Brees bouncing errant passes off the helmets of enemy linebackers, but…

…the other obvious issue is whether quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, fresh off a five-game stint as the starter in which he completed 70.1% of his passes for 1,495 yards, 7.1 yards per attempt, 10 touchdowns, five interceptions and a passer rating of 96.0, can keep it up. It’s the best stretch of his career since the first half of a 2018 season in which he made the Pro Bowl (no, really), but given the arc of Trubisky’s career, you can’t be blamed for wondering if it’ll all go away — especially against a Saints defense that ranks first against the pass in DVOA since Week 10. Converging positive arcs to be sure, so how can head coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor keep Trubisky consistent?

There have been three elements to Trubisky’s relative rebirth: Boot-action, tempo no-huddle, and the RPO game. Each element presents designed, early in the down reads for Trubisky, allowing him to make completions without thinking too much. Boot-action, in which Trubisky fakes to the back and then rolls out of the pocket, does two things: The fake sucks linebackers and safeties in, and the rollout cuts the field in half, simplifying reads. It also presents the opportunity for Chicago’s receivers to gain an advantage from scramble routes that may deviate from the original plan.

In boot-action this season, per Sports Info Solutions, Trubisky has completed 32 of 49 passes for 301 yards, 109 air yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 106.3.

“It’s been key — that’s obvious,” Nagy said of the moving pocket in mid-December, per John Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times. “When you have somebody like Mitchell that can extend plays with his legs — and with the background that I came from in Kansas City and some of the things we did, there wasn’t as much of that. It takes some time. It doesn’t just happen overnight.”

However long it took, it’s working now. This 53-yard pass from Trubisky to receiver Darnell Mooney against the Packers in Week 17 shows the value of boot-action in Chicago’s offense with this particular quarterback. When Allen Robinson motions inside pre-snap, taking safety Ibraheim Campbell with him, that leaves a one-on-one matchup between Mooney (No. 11) and cornerback Kevin King (No. 20), with safety Darnell Savage (No. 26) trailing overhead. Mooney does a great job of influencing King to the boundary before cutting back to the seam, and Trubisky makes a bang-on throw to Mooney over Savage’s head.

This eight-yard touchdown pass to Mooney in Week 15 against the Vikings is another example. Pre-snap motion indicates zone coverage, Trubisky fakes to running back David Montgomery, everybody takes the cheese, the tight end crosser further complicates the picture, and Mooney is wide open to the left side. Note that this is a quick pass — that crosser is more for coverage disruption than anything else. Trubisky is just getting the ball out in time because linebacker Eric Wilson is rushing unblocked off the edge, and that’s all Trubisky needs to do. Make it simple, make it work.

No-huddle has also been a big deal in Trubisky’s turnaround — since Week 12, he’s completed 20 of 33 passes for 224 yards, and 112 air yards without a huddle to break things up.

“You’ve just got to get the ball to your playmakers in space and stretch the field horizontally and vertically, but also keeping the defense off-balance, and I think the change in tempo really helps this offense,” Trubisky said in mid-December. “I think moving the pocket really helps me and helps our offensive line and also helps create run lanes.”

There are those two things, and there’s also the RPO game, which once again gives Trubisky the quick read off the snap. Trubisky has completed 13 of 15 passes for 142 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions this season on RPO throws.

“So these are things I’m very comfortable with, things I’ve been asking for, and I think everyone’s buying into it, and I think we’re starting to build an identity,” Trubisky concluded. “We just need to keep getting better and better. When we play 11 guys as one and we’re playing as a unity and we’re executing, that’s when the good plays will continue to happen.”

Well, perhaps. This season, the Saints have allowed 19 completions in 30 no-huddle attempts for 219 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions, and an NFL-low opponent QBR of 57.5. What we also know is that the Saints have played more man coverage than any other team, and they’re not always great at it. New Orleans has lined up in Cover-0, Cover-1, or 2-Man on 258 snaps, allowing 149 completions for 1,821 yards, 19 touchdowns, and four interceptions. The touchdowns in man coverage are skewed as many of them come in the red zone, but there are clues there, as well.

Niek Foles was the Bears’ quarterback in Week 8 when Chicago lost a close 26-23 game to the Saints, but this particular man-beater for a three-yard Mooney touchdown is something Nagy and Lazor might want to revisit all over the field. The Saints will man up and plaster through boot-action, making those throws more difficult, and they can disrupt the RPO game, but watch on this play how discombobulated they are against the Bears’ bunch-right formation.

So, that’s the recipe. Give Trubisky bite-size reads with the potential for chunk plays, work no-huddle judiciously, run boot and look for the busted openings, and give the Saints all the motion, crossers, and congested receiver formations they can handle. That won’t turn Trubisky into a top-10 quarterback — I think we’re past that possibility — but in the postseason, if you can repeat what works effectively and efficiently, you just never know how far you can go.