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First down passing: a Bears' offensive unicorn

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Predictability has sunk Chicago's offense. So it's no shock that when the Bears threw on first down against the Packers, it worked.

Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The bye week was supposed to give the Chicago Bears' coaching staff time to evaluate their roster and work on areas the team could improve. A crucial evaluation period to set the table for the second half of the season.

One of the most contentious points was opening up the offense for the prodigy, Mitchell Trubisky, i.e. throwing the ball 30-plus times and establishing a sense of offensive balance. This was (and still is) an aspect the Bears struggle with. All of which led to a boiling point of offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains talking at length about putting the future of the franchise in better positions in the lead up to this past Sunday's game against the Packers.

“We need to do a better job in pass (protection), we need to do a better job of creating separation out wide,” Bears offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said last week. “When he’s (Trubisky) had time and had clean pockets, he has thrown some really good balls.”

At first glance, that's exactly what Loggains and company did for Trubisky against Green Bay in his first start against Chicago's long-time rival. 35 passing attempts to go with 279 yards is easily the most Trubisky's had the ball, and game, in his hands in five starts to date. Yet, Trubisky was sacked five times (some of which where the blame lied at his feet), with predictability still hampering any real chance of carving the Packers up consistently.

The Bears had 57 offensive plays against the Packers across 11 possessions. 24 of those plays took place on first down. 11 of those plays were a first down run, meaning a little less than 50 percent of the time the Bears ran a first down play, it was a run, which doesn't seem too glaring of an error on paper. But should it be noted that that 50 percent is skewed with late drives necessitating the Bears get downfield quickly to tie the game in the fourth quarter, where the run game was abandoned altogether. The last six Chicago first down plays were a pass.

To the success of these overall runs that mostly featured Jordan Howard (10 carries), and one sprinkling of Tarik Cohen, Chicago gained a whopping 27 total yards. With that rampant lack of success to get ahead of the chains, the Bears faced a third and 10 or longer on the final play of nine of those possessions. For all of the talk of getting a young quarterback comfortable by Loggains, putting him in a position where a defense can pin it's ears back with an obvious pass coming is not the way. Naturally, Chicago only converted four of 14 third down attempts the entire contest, or 28 percent.

The Packers, who were the NFL's 20th rated defense according to Football Outsiders' DVOA coming in, knew what to expect. That's how they were able to take advantage of work-in-progress pocket presence from Trubisky. As Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews espoused after the game, the defense didn't have to try all that hard to stymie Chicago's attack.

“His pocket presence will come along. You have to take advantage of that. That’s exactly what we did. We ended up with five sacks, a number of quarterback pressures and hurries. That’s what you expect to do when a team is so one dimensional," said Matthews.

Whatever game plan the Bears have to help acclimate Trubisky isn't working. Throwing it 30-plus times is nice, but that's when play calling has the defense off balance beyond "opening it up", which Loggains and company have struggled to do to the utmost degree. It's an illusion of that ideal, of balance.

All of this isn't mentioning how running your tailback into continual expected eight to nine-man box makes little to no sense. Overall, only the Jacksonville Jaguars have run more on first down in 2017 (61.45 percent) to Chicago's 60.96 percent. But the Jaguars also have over 30 more first down plays indicating that their plan is actually working for them with more earned possession. They're not running into a brick wall for the sake of it.

In the Bears' case, there's not trusting your quarterback by never giving him opportunities, and then there's expecting different results with a play that isn't working.

What's the definition of insanity, again?

The best indictment of these disorganized game plans was how Trubisky relatively lit it up on first down passing plays against Green Bay. On first down passing plays where Trubisky wasn't sacked, he was six of 11 for 121 yards. The majority of his incompletions came on the final possessions in an obvious passing situation. Stop me if you've heard that before.

That stat line includes Trubisky's 46-yard touchdown to Joshua Bellamy in the fourth quarter. We'll break down that bomb with along with his other biggest first down successes here, showing that the Bears could indeed throw when they want to: if they only made the attempt.


Perhaps sensing running on first down wasn't logical the entire game, Loggains and company dialed up a nice bootleg for Trubisky on the first play of the Bears' second drive right about halfway through the first quarter.

The reason this play works is because the Packers sell out to stop the run, which shouldn't be a shock given they know. Almost the entire Green Bay defensive front collapses in on Howard on the fake, which affords Adam Shaheen the perfect amount of space to slip out unaccounted for. Shaheen makes the rest happen and rumbles down field for 31 yards showcasing the athleticism that had him drafted in this year's second round of the draft.

Couple this play also working with the fact that Shaheen has only four total targets on the year and this was actually a well-designed play that you couldn't blame the Packers for falling for. Throwing on first down from their own side of the field to a tight end they never throw to is exactly what we call confusing a defense. Now if only Chicago had thrown to Shaheen after this (they didn't) or kept this rhythm up.

Next up, with the Bears desperately needing a spark late in the fourth quarter after the Packers had tacked on a field goal for a 16-6 lead, they allowed Trubisky to let it rip to Bellamy for the only touchdown Chicago would score. The definition of irony.

Trubisky, of course, receives ample time on the play with the Packers rushing five, and is allowed to go through his progressions. Because Green Bay keeps eight guys in the box expecting the run on first down, Bellamy also gets a one-on-one matchup on the outside: the key to the play. This is something the Bears have seldom attempted to attack previously. Going for it here worked wonders.

Trubisky eventually works his way over to Bellamy after looking right, and Bellamy absolutely torches cornerback Davon House. There's no advanced analysis here. Bellamy literally runs a go route eventually separating from House, who wasn't even looking in the backfield to cheat as an excuse. Trubisky dials up his arm strength and you have a one-score game.

For all of Bellamy's faults in actually catching most passes, he sure can run, and another first down pass goes exactly the way the Bears drew it up.

Finally, we get to the Bears' second to last drive where they would tack on a field goal with the hope of eventually getting the ball back to tie the game late. This drive was the embodiment of the Alshon Jeffery ... I mean Dontrelle Inman show and what he brings to the table as a competent pass catcher in his Chicago debut (that No. 17 is very distracting).

This play was an obvious passing situation, so for the first time all game, the Packers finally dropped defenders back in hopes of slowing Chicago's passing attack down. It's also a testament to the growth of Trubisky and a physical receiver that can win a deep post route inside such as Inman. Again House is schooled as he gives up entirely too much space on a cushion. Inman, given his savvy, sells the route perfectly and is in excellent position in between House and linebacker Blake Martinez at the top of his route. All Trubisky has to do is fire a rifle to his new No. 1 option, which he does beautifully, keeping Chicago's offense on schedule.

On the very next play, Trubisky and Inman go after House once more, exploiting Green Bay's biggest defensive weakness (something they could've done all game, but no one's counting, right?).

This time, Inman freezes House at the top of his route, and makes a play for his quarterback after breaking to the outside. House, once again affording too much cushion, never had a chance with two players working together in tune. Pitch and catches between two guys who understand each other will always be one of the more difficult plays to defend, especially if you're a mediocre cornerback such as House.

What these last two first down pass plays to Inman indicate is that these Bears can have success throwing on first down even when the defense expects a pass. The Packers knew Chicago would throw, and still couldn't stop them on these individual plays.

Overall, what this first down passing demonstrated is that even despite a lack of weapons or offensive injuries, there's potential the Bears aren't tapping into. There's no excuse not to mix up the formula throughout games, to keep opponents on their heels. Opening the playbook up and allowing Trubisky to throw more often isn't enough. Keeping defenses guessing and staying ahead of the chains is more important.

Through nine games, even after a bye week, the Bears haven't gotten the jump on any defense with either Trubisky or Mike Glennon. Which begs the question as to when, or if they'll put their offense and quarterback in a position to succeed any time soon.

Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron, and contributor to The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.