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As NFL training camps begin to open around the league — and the NFL world waits for news on Aaron Rodgers — football fans were treated to a bit of news over the weekend. The Chicago Bears traded wide receiver Anthony Miller to the Houston Texans. The franchises swapped late-round selections as part of the deal.
The move shakes up the Bears receiving room, and probably means an increased role for Darnell Mooney, a fifth-round selection in the 2020 NFL draft out of Tulane who has become a fan favorite in Chicago due to his ability to separate from coverage. The organization also added the speedy Damiere Byrd in the off-season.
But what about Allen Robinson, who remains one of the game’s premier receivers? Apparently, he might see more time in the slot:
Per a league source with reason to know, the Bears plan to deploy Allen Robinson more out of the slot in 2021 following the departure of Anthony Miller
Ran 25% of routes out of the slot in 2020
Would imagine he’s flanked by Darnell Mooney and Damiere Byrd on the outside
— Brad Spielberger (@PFF_Brad) July 25, 2021
What might this mean for the team and the player? Here’s a look at what moving Robinson inside offers the organization.
Helping your receiver
(Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports)
Let's begin with the idea of 11 offensive personnel. As many reading this are probably aware, for a good majority of NFL teams 11 personnel -- with three wide receivers -- is the personnel package they employ most often. The Chicago Bears are not an exception to this, as in 2020 they used 11 personnel on 56% of their snaps. A result of this trend has been the rise of the slot receiver. That position is, for many teams, a pseudo-starting position, given how often teams are in 11 personnel. Some organizations have even run a good portion of their offense through the slot receiver, such as the New England Patriots during the Wes Welker/Julian Edelman days. Back in 2012 Welker was fourth in the league with 174 targets, behind Calvin Johnson, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Marshall. In 2016 Edelman ranked third in the league with 159 targets, behind Mike Evans and Odell Beckham Jr. Beyond the rise of the slot receiver, however, there is another reason to put a premier weapon in the slot. Slot receivers enjoy some advantages over those on the outside. First is the idea of a "two-way go," where the slot receiver can be a threat to the defender covering them to the inside or the outside. Receivers aligned on the boundary have to contend with the sideline, whereas those inside can release inside or outside and be an immediate threat. The other reason is this: You can do things to help receivers in the slot that might not be feasible for receivers on the boundary. Using bunch formations, motion, stacks and other alignments you can create traffic off the line of scrimmage and give slot receivers a free release into their route. Take this play from Chicago's playoff game, which finds Robinson in the slot in a condensed alignment: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/07/RobinsonVideoA.mp4">[/video] You can see how the alignment of the receivers, coupled with the switch releases off the line, create a bit of traffic. Robinson exploits that on his dig route and is open, but a late throw from quarterback Mitchell Trubisky results in an incompletion. On this play against the Carolina Panthers you can see the impact of the "two-way go." Robinson runs an out route out of the slot, but uses a hard jab step to the inside to stress the defender: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/07/RobinsonVideoB.mp4">[/video] The move is subtle, but enough. The ability to stress the leverage of the defender to either side gives Robinson an advantage, and he exploits that for a big gain. So by moving Robinson to the slot for more snaps, the Bears are taking their best receiving threat and putting him in a position to be even more successful, given what the offense can do with alignments, and how Robinson can stress defenders. Helping your players succeed...what a novel concept.
Helping your young quarterback
(Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports)
But let's be honest. The biggest question facing the Bears right now is not where Allen Robinson lines up outside, but how quickly Justin Fields lines up on the inside. Like many, I have long been a proponent of finding ways to help your quarterback, particularly younger quarterbacks facing a transition to playing on Sundays. The Bears face such a transition of their own, having traded up for Fields in the first round of the 2020 NFL draft. When Fields takes the field, head coach Matt Nagy will want to do things schematically to give him easy and defined reads and throws. Having Robinson in the slot will go a long way towards that process. We all know that Nagy's offense is heavily rooted in the West Coast passing game, given his time under Andy Reid. That offensive philosophy places a premium on quick decisions and throws, accuracy from the quarterback and yardage after the catch. Yet what was holding the Chicago offense back over the past few years was that some of those components -- particularly the accuracy and quick decisions -- were not provided by the quarterback with any manner of consistency. Still, there is hope that Fields can make those kinds of reads and throws. Take this read against Indiana: [video width="1280" height="720" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/07/FieldsIndiana6.mp4">[/video] This is a quick decision and throw from Fields reading the rotation of the coverage. The kind of read and throw he will need to make under Nagy in his offense. With Robinson in the slot, some of those decisions will be made easier for Fields. Take two of Nagy's favorite concepts: Flat-Seven Smash and Tosser/Stick. Nagy liked to put Robinson in the slot for both of those, as you can see on this video: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/07/RobinsonSchemeCut.mp4">[/video] On the first play you see the Flat-Seven Smash, with Robinson running to the flat. Trubisky knows before the play that he has this throw, and it makes the decision easier for the QB. The same goes for the next two plays, which pair the Stick concept on the three-receiver side of the formation with the Tosser (double slant) to the other side. On both, Trubisky trusts that Robinson -- perhaps thanks to the two-way go -- will win his slant route, and again the throws are made on-time, allowing for that critical yardage after the catch. As an example, here is Fields reading and throwing slant/flat, another West Coast staple featured in Nagy's playbook: [video width="1280" height="720" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/07/FieldsIndiana5.mp4">[/video] But beyond making some of Nagy's favorite concepts easier to read by putting Robinson in the slot, that formational tweak also can put Fields on somewhat familiar ground, thanks to the run/pass option game. Now Fields did not run a ton of RPO designs last season, at least by college standards. According to data from Sports Info Solutions Fields attempted 22 passes off RPOs, placing him 80th in college football (and tying him with Zach Wilson). But Fields completed 17 of those throws for 123 yards. It is not a ton, but anything you can do to put your quarterback on familiar footing is a good thing. For example, here is Fields throwing a slant route on a slant/flat concept, working off an RPO: [video width="1280" height="720" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/07/FieldsRPOSlant.mp4">[/video] Now in a similar vein, the Bears did not run a ton of RPO concepts last season. But when they did, they often looked to target Robinson running that slant route out of the slot, as you can see on these four plays: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/07/BearsRPOCut.mp4">[/video] By running RPOs, the Bears can dial up some familiar concepts for Fields. By also having Robinson in the slot, they can pair the concept with their best weapon. Helping both the rookie quarterback and their best receiver. Perhaps change truly is in the air in Chicago.