Small sample sizes can be problematic in the NFL. Evaluating a player based off a few games or plays doesn’t work. Flash matters in individual contexts. Consistency across the duration of a game matters even more. Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky has taken that next step.
Before Sunday’s evisceration of the Bengals through eight starts, Trubisky had not put together a complete game. Sure there were his occasional dime throws, and pure will fourth down plays that only special signal callers can accomplish. The progression has been there throughout ever since his first start on October 9th. But he had not played a 60-minute game. The kind where he’s leaving a defense grasping for straws.
After the Bears’ dominating 33-7 win in Cincinnati, Trubisky offered a stark reminder of exactly why Chicago invested everything in his future. He finally put out an unmitigated stellar performance. He looked like the face of the franchise.
Kendall Wright put his quarterback’s Bengals game in the most succinct context.
"That’s why you trade up and get a quarterback like that. He played light outs, and he’s really becoming a leader and he’s really coming into his own, just being himself,” said Wright.
Before we dive into the tape, a few statistical designations for Trubisky against the Bengals and in the past five weeks.
Only three quarterbacks had a higher passer rating than Trubisky in Week 14. That would be Dak Prescott, Blake Bortles (a surprise), and Phillip Rivers. In the light of Prescott and Rivers, those are two of the more highly touted youthful and veteran passers in the NFL: great company for Trubisky to share.
Trubisky has now completed at least 75-percent of his passes in back-to-back weeks. Against the 49ers with a minimal 15 attempts, this mark was less impressive. With 32 throws against the Bengals, you can begin to speak to accurate ball placement from the 23-year-old. It appears if you let a young quarterback play, he won’t disappoint. A novel concept.
In these same last two weeks, Trubisky has had a least a passer rating of 110, topped by his stellar 112.4 against Cincinnati. Now, passer rating isn’t everything as sometimes that number can be skewed and isn’t enough context as a whole. The number alone is designed to suggest a player in rhythm, ready for more responsibility.
Since the bye week, Trubisky is 94 of 143 on pass attempts or, 64 percent: about the accurate mark you’d eventually at least like him to settle in on with more experience. Including those two 110-plus performances, four of his five games have had at least a passer rating of 88.1 (a subpar outing against the Eagles aside).
In the most heartening number: Trubisky has thrown a mere two picks since early November. Ball security and solid decision making at its finest.
Yes, it’d be a stretch to suggest Trubisky is in any way fully locked and loaded to regularly run roughshod on the rest of the NFL until we see more. However, it’s undeniable that he’s settling into a place of comfort.
Let’s break down some of the best examples of Trubisky’s total command in Paul Brown Stadium.
The first play takes us to halfway through the second quarter. The Bears are backed up near their own goal line with no breathing room. Without any positive gain here, Chicago’s offense is in a precarious high leverage position the following play against a rabid Bengals defense.
Which is why the trust in Adam Shaheen (who enjoyed a stellar day of his own with more use. Who would’ve thought?) and anticipation from Trubisky becomes key.
The play action sets the table, as it draws in linebackers Kevin Minter (No. 51) and Jordan Evans (No. 50). By the time both players realize it’s a pass, they’ve been taken out of their lanes, opening up space for Trubisky down field.
Trubisky knows then that he immediately has the one-on-one matchup on the designed deep drag route for the 6-foot-6 Shaheen against a safety, in this case No. 43 George Iloka. All he has to do is climb the pocket after Bobby Massie rides out No. 75 Jordan Willis to the outside, and put the ball right in Shaheen’s wide catch radius. A sign of trust. Iloka, who is a lesser athlete in comparison to the rookie tight end, never had a chance with a quarterback who understood where his best matchup was going to be.
A little later in the second quarter on the same Chicago possession that started at their own five-yard line, we get a do-or-die play, with the Bears sitting on fourth and short deep in Bengals territory at the 34-yard-line. Uncharacteristically (perhaps more of a sign of a lack of faith in Mike Nugent), John Fox and company elect to go for it.
Faith in Trubisky invested well.
This time, Trubisky had a deep seven-step drop on a shotgun pass. The Bengals only rushed four with a half-hearted stunt on the right side going nowhere, elected to deploy a zone defense. A free release off the line of scrimmage allows Shaheen to build a full head of steam on virtually the same route ran earlier. With another deep drag across the field, this time Shaheen instead finds a hole in the zone without a man sticking to his back.
To Trubisky’s credit, he doesn’t fully go through his progressions on this play, because he doesn’t have to. This was a pre-snap understanding that the Bengals were going to leave a gap and when and where Shaheen was going to get open. All he has to do is wait, and lead his target.
Later in the drive, the Bears are now sitting in the red zone at the Bengals’ 18-yard line, looking to punctuate an impressive possession. Once more, the rookie connection shows out. After a play action pass, and a shotgun drop back, the Bears decide to have their athletic young quarterback roll out.
This was the most simplistic read Trubisky had all Sunday afternoon. Shaheen is the “Y” lined up on the right side and on this dump-off, is supposed to sell hard that he’s blocking down. Once the defensive end Willis crashes too hard off Shaheen’s pretend pass block, the tight end is mandated to spin out release into the flat, as he does, with no one accounting for him.
As Trubisky completes his roll to the right, his favorite big man with nary a defender within five yards is already awaiting. You see Trubisky look downfield for a second before quickly turning his head back to the left, not expecting Shaheen to have that much space. Put the ball on the money, watch him go to work. Credit Shaheen for slow playing a designed read perfectly and giving Trubisky enough time to escape outside the hashes.
Jumping to the second half, Trubisky’s legs come to the forefront on Chicago’s second possession of the third quarter, in the form of a rushing score.
On first and goal, with every Bengal defender zeroed in on the bulldozing Howard, all Trubisky does is present the ball to his tailback. Then, he sneaks back out to the right side of a Bengals defense that crashed way too hard into the interior in reaction. A bang-bang play read in real time. If a college quarterback can execute this play, so can one at the NFL level. A patient but necessary move from the sneaky fast Trubisky creating the confusion.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one that noticed this late but it appeared the Bears wanted to add an exclamation point to an offensive output that ran on all cylinders. One that showed they trusted their young tight end most had been criticizing them for not using enough.
Because on the play prior to this next touchdown at the start of the fourth quarter, Chicago and Trubisky ran a fade on a third and short to Shaheen that fell incomplete that ended up with the tight end drawing a pass interference. Given how well the Bears’ running game was rolling to this point, even they surely knew they could easily pick up the necessary yard if they wanted to.
No, instead they wanted to make a statement. On the next play, Trubisky went back to Shaheen, this time on a short corner route to have the tight end sky over Minter for the easy score on his final reception of the day.
It all only happens thanks to Howard’s fantastic cut block right as Trubisky pulls the back out of a short play action. That gave the quarteback enough time to find Shaheen in the middle corner.
What was most impressive about it is that Shaheen is jammed by Minter while coming off the line and he’s not impeded in the slightest. The tight end is barely pushed off his spot by a 246-pound linebacker trying to disrupt the route. Shaheen gets body position and runs past Minter in an athletic mismatch. A sure sign as any of to Shaheen’s growth and NFL readiness: he’s starting to shred physical battles.
At that juncture, it’s all about Trubisky high pointing the ball for his freakishly sized rookie roommate to play catch in the backyard. As evidenced, the Bengals had no answer for two best friends.
Finally, we come to the most prominent example of Trubisky taking matters into his own hands. Of a quarterback leaving a defense with no answers. It’s on the Bears’ next possession, one that would result in their nail-in-the-coffin final touchdown of the day.
On third and long, the Bengals elected to mix it up for pressure by bringing a cornerback blitz, having Darqueze Dennard come off Chicago’s left edge. A well-designed stunt fools Charles Leno Jr. as he lets Dennard come untouched and unaccounted for. It doesn’t matter. From the start, Trubisky knew what was coming, as he immediately scrambled to his right to avoid the corner and create time for a receiver to get open.
Not only does Trubisky deftly slide to his right, he continually keeps his eyes downfield in the process. On one last meaningful third down, he flashes the arm talent off his back foot with two defenders closing in, to an area only where the streaking Wright could get the ball. There’s nothing fancy about this besides play recognition and natural talent. The type of throw and play that demoralizes an already hapless defense, desperately trying anything. Trubisky’s best pass of the day.
With a balanced buzz saw of a running game and a tight end connection built in seamlessly, Trubisky decisively displayed exactly why there could be hope for Chicago’s future in Cincinnati. He’s already showed the flash. He’s already had the big game in totality. The next step is to string these methodical games together. There are three more opportunities in 2017 to do that.
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.