LAKE FOREST, Ill. — The Bears may have found their offensive identity.
It’s just not the identity Matt Nagy thought it would be.
“I really loved that first drive of the third quarter, being able to just take that down the field,” Nagy said Monday. “(The Chargers) kind of knew that we were running by the personnel that we were in and what we were doing, and then finishing it off with a (touchdown) run was good.”
It was a great drive. And it was the Bears’ only touchdown drive in a game in which the offense put up 388 yards, but only converted 1-of-5 red zone opportunities into touchdowns while losing 17-16 to the Los Angeles Chargers Sunday.
So what did the Bears do on that one touchdown drive in the third quarter that was so effective?
They lined up in the I-formation. They ran the ball. And then they used play-action to get Allen Robinson open on a 31-yard completion. One play later, running back David Montgomery lined up behind fullback J.P. Holtz and pounded the ball into the end zone to put the Bears up 16-7.
It didn’t matter that the offense suddenly looked like Dowell Loggains was the coordinator again. On a day in which none of Matt Nagy’s red zone gimmicks were working, an old-school, I-formation touchdown was about as pretty as it was going to get.
At that point in the game, the Bears had run 16 plays in the red zone for a total of 13 yards. That’s 0.81 yards/play for those scoring at home. Eleven of those plays were run out of the shotgun. None of them were run out of the I-formation with a fullback. And one was just a quarterback spike to stop the clock and set up a field goal with one second left in the first half — at the 1-yard-line.
To Nagy’s credit, he realized at halftime that his normal West Coast approach wasn’t working. So he opened up the third quarter by calling three straight runs out of the I-formation. Montgomery picked up eight yards, five yards and then another five yards. Suddenly, the offense had some rhythm. Trubisky even completed a six-yard pass out of the I-formation. Then came the big 31-yard play-action throw to Robinson. One play later, touchdown.
All-in-all, the Bears ran the ball on eight of the 11 plays on the drive. Eight of the plays were run out of the “I” with six runs for 25 yards and two passes for 37 yards. The Chargers knew what was coming and they couldn’t stop it. That hasn’t happened much for the 3-4 Bears this season.
Forgive fans for not believing what they were seeing. Even Nagy admitted on Monday that he never thought he would have called a drive like that.
“I did not, but if we have to do different things, you obviously know I’m open to that,” he said.
And yet, it seems like he’s still struggling to accept that his offense might be best running concepts out of his own comfort zone. Even within that run-heavy drive, Nagy couldn’t resist throwing the ball out of the shotgun on a crucial 4th-and-1. Fortunately, Trubisky hit Anthony Miller for eight yards on the throw, otherwise Nagy might have been carried out of the stadium by an angry mob of fans.
The entire successful sequence left one glaring question after the Bears coughed up their 16-7 lead and lost in heartbreaking fashion: Why did Nagy get away from what was working?
On the next two drives, the Bears threw the ball on six out of nine plays. Nagy didn’t use the I-formation once. And his quarterback turned the ball over twice.
“They make adjustments after the touchdown,” Nagy explained. “They go to the sideline and they look at everything we look at and then say, ‘OK, next time they get in this, this is what we’re going to do.’ And then we test them and we see it and then we’re able to decide whether or not we want to keep doing that or do something else. It’s just part of the adjustments that we make as well.”
Basically, Nagy was trying to stay one step ahead of Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. Instead of sticking with what was working until the Chargers proved they could stop it, Nagy went back to the shotgun on three straight plays. Then, after one run from under center, Trubisky attempted a deep throw to Trey Burton out of the shotgun (with play-action) and was picked off by Casey Heyward.
On the next drive, all four plays were run out of the shotgun, and Trubisky lost a fumble that set up the Chargers’ go-ahead touchdown.
“I wanted to be careful of getting in too much of a tendency of it’s always run-run-pass. I was just a little cognizant of that,” Nagy said Sunday after the game.
And yet, out of the 20 plays that had been called in the second half, there was only one three-play sequence that resulted in run-run-pass.
While most were hung up on the decision to kneel down before Eddy Pineiro’s missed 41-yard field goal at the end of the game, Nagy’s reluctance to stick with his successful power running game was much harder to defend Monday. And yet, the two questionable sequences are related. If he didn’t trust his quarterback to throw the ball in the final moments of the game, why did he trust him with a lead earlier in the fourth quarter? The two turnovers were devastating.
In fairness to Nagy, Trubisky missed a wide-open bomb to Taylor Gabriel on the play before he fumbled the ball. And that bomb came off of play-action, even if it was out of the shotgun.
“That’s one that we knew all week that we were going to get. We knew that and Mitch knew that. We had it and we didn’t hit it,” Nagy said. “Man, it’s 16-10, you hit that touchdown, after the way our defense is playing, you hit that and it’s close to being the dagger.”
It could have been the dagger, but it also wasn’t the first time Trubisky missed a throw that was practiced all week. Perhaps it should have been a reminder that the best way to finish off the game was on the ground.
It’s not a stretch to suggest that Nagy is struggling with the reality that his players — specifically the quarterback — might be better at running concepts that aren’t a big part of his offense. After charting all 77 offensive plays from Sunday’s game, I’m came away with these notable numbers:
- Excluding a Rashaad Coward holding call, the Bears averaged 8.6 yards/play out of the I-formation Sunday. Overall, they averaged 5.0 yards/play in the game.
- They averaged 6.1 yards/carry on eight runs out of the “I” and 18.5 yards on two passes.
- Out of the shotgun, the Bears averaged 4.94 yards/carry, but it’s worth noting that 55 of their 89 rushing yards out of the shotgun came on one play. Outside of the 55-yard run by Montgomery (which was executed perfectly), the Bears averaged just 2.0 yards/carry out of the shotgun.
- Interestingly, they averaged just 0.86 yards/carry on seven runs from under center, but without a fullback.
Monday, I pointed out the 8.6 yards/play out of the I-formation to Nagy and asked him if he’s struggling with the idea that his players might be better at running concepts that aren’t a huge part of his offense.
“I’m not concerned. That’s in the West Coast offense,” Nagy said. “Back in the day, that used to be three yards and a cloud of dust. So it sounds like eight yards and a cloud of dust now. I like that.”
Nagy promised that he’s OK running more I-formation: “Whatever works, I’m down with.”
Perhaps that’s a realization of what got away from him Sunday, because his fourth quarter play calls say otherwise. And if Nagy wants to turn the Bears’ season around, he’s going to have to embrace his quarterback’s limitations and apparent comfort with running a simpler offense.
“There were a lot of runs from that I-formation, but we also had a couple passes, too,” Nagy said. “We’ll see what we end up doing against Doug Pederson and his boys.”
Can Nagy accept going old-school against a man who influenced the new-school scheme he brought to Chicago? He might not have a choice.