LAKE FOREST, Ill. — It’s a good thing Bears head coach Matt Nagy has “the horse blinders and ear muffs” on this week, because he’s been the target of plenty of criticism from national analysts.
Just consider this exchange between two former NFL quarterbacks, one of which is a Hall-of-Famer:
Much like Warner, I’ve spent most of this week trying to answer this question: Are the Bears’ offensive woes rooted in scheme or a lack of execution?
Usually, the answer is both, but we certainly know how Rosenfels and Brian Baldinger feel.
I’ll admit, I started the week thinking Nagy’s scheme and play calling — particularly only running the ball seven times against the Saints — deserved a lot of the blame. The more digging I did, however, the more the answers kept tilting back to a lack of execution.
For example, let’s take a look at the Bears’ first offensive play of the game, a run for zero yards, and a failure Baldinger put on Nagy:
What Baldinger failed to point out, however, is that Taylor Gabriel’s motion also took linebacker Demario Davis away from the run, so the hats were still there. It was 6-on-6.
The first thing I noticed when I watched this play was left guard Cody Whitehair falling down. It appeared that either he or center James Daniels could have accounted for safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson if Whitehair hadn’t fallen down. And credit to the Chicago Tribune’s Rich Campbell, who confirmed that Daniels knocked Whitehair off his block. If he hadn’t, Daniels would have been able to climb to the second level to seal the safety.
Execution. Not scheme.
Next, let’s take a look at the pitch to wide receiver Anthony Miller that he fumbled in the first quarter.
A common question echoed after the game: Why run it with a wide receiver when running back David Montgomery only received two carries?
Well, here’s your answer:
That’s the same play. A nine-yard gain on the first play against the Buffalo Bills in 2018.
There are some subtle differences: This year’s play went right instead of left. The ball is at the right hash, instead of in the middle of the field. Allen Robinson runs a route, taking his man with him, whereas last year, Taylor Gabriel immediately blocked to the inside. David Montgomery is blocking on this year’s version and not Jordan Howard. The Saints also play this better than the Bills did.
But the biggest difference? Trey Burton fails to block Vonn Bell on the outside. That leaves Bobby Massie, Montgomery and Burton all blocking one player, while no one blocks the guy who makes the tackle and forces the fumble.
Execution. Not scheme.
Next, let’s take a look at the RPO sack that has been under a microscope all week:
There are a number of problems with this play, including the fact that if you watch Saints linebacker A.J. Klein (No. 53), he not respecting the run at all. He turns and runs backwards before the ball even gets to the mesh point. That might be part of the reason why Trubisky said he should have handed the ball off to Montgomery.
“Just hand the ball off. Easy. Hand the ball off,” Trubisky said.
That’s fine, but I’m willing to give Saints defensive end Cam Jordan credit. He’s the read for Trubisky on this play and he’s an extremely talented player and one of the few players who can play both the running back and the quarterback on a run-pass option. You can even argue that Jordan isn’t the right player to leave unblocked, which is part of the scheme on this play. I think he tackles Montgomery for a minimal gain if the ball is handed off.
That said, the pass is still there.
“I made a bad decision,” Trubisky said. “(Jordan) does do a good job with that but it would have been an easy handoff read. I was doing too much with my eyes on that. I never look at the running back and then try to throw a free access out route. That was just bad by me. Should have been a handoff and, if anything, I would have thrown the RPO to the other side to where my eyes were, same side Cam was on.”
Indeed, Anthony Miller was wide open on the side of the field Trubisky was angled on the RPO. For some reason, he turned around and went to the backside of the play, which you usually don’t do on an RPO. So what would cause a quarterback to do that?
“There was a similar play, what was it? Deshaun Watson threw the ball,” Bears offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said, referencing the Texans-Chargers game in Week 3. “He was trying to ground it to the running back’s legs, threw it backward and they got the ball at the 8-yard-line. I’m laughing. It’s the same play. From quarterback decision-making, in hindsight, there’s a couple very easy options — hand the ball off, throw it away, throw it in the dirt, throw it to the next guy in the progression. And then there’s that moment sometimes where guys panic.”
It wasn’t exact the same play, but it was the same moment of panic. For the Texans, the play called for a backside screen. Watson realized it was blown up and tried to throw the ball at the running back’s legs, forgetting he was still throwing it backwards. In hindsight, taking a sack would have been better. For Trubisky, he just needed to hand the ball off or hit the wide open receiver in front of him.
Execution. Not scheme.
Finally, let’s take a look at what I thought was the most embarrassing play of the game — Trubisky throwing the ball away on fourth down:
The All-22 video revealed that Miller was coming open on the shallow cross and had a lot of room in front him. Trubisky faces a little bit of pressure and never looks left while getting flushed right.
“Perfect example of fundamental execution,” Helfrich said. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve executed that play in practice and in games, that particular action. So that’s, again, time of the game and feet and eyes. Feet and eyes. Could the front have protected it in a cleaner fashion? Yep. But I know Mitch expects and we expect him to make that play 100 times out of 100.”
Execution. Not scheme.
In processing what happened against the Saints, I felt a lot like Kurt Warner this week (the only time I’ll ever feel like Kurt Warner). A day after his original tweet questioning Nagy’s scheme, the Hall-of-Fame quarterback came back with this:
In truth, the four plays we just examined aren’t that complicated. Fundamental execution is lacking.
“Certainly there’s no play that goes in that didn’t work in practice. That doesn’t happen,” Helfrich said. “You don’t go, ‘Hey, it might work on game day.’ The routine plays, we just have to make.”
When things are going well for the Bears’ offense, you’ll hear coaches and players talk about “plays-on-plays.” A lot of what’s on Nagy’s call-sheet on Sundays are secondary plays that are dependent on the first play working.
You know, like the first play of the game that wasn’t blocked correctly.