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Situational Study: What Trubisky’s Red Zone, 3rd Down Play Tells Us About 2019

Robert S. digs into Trubisky’s 2018 red zone and 3rd down film to draw conclusions about 2019.

Chicago Bears v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

What makes a great quarterback?

While the answer is constantly changing, I’m sure we can agree on this — great quarterbacks make big throws in big moments. Whether on 3rd down or in the red zone, the best of the best consistently find ways to come through for their team. With that in mind, I set out to analyze how well Bears’ QB Mitch Trubisky performed in these situations throughout 2018. What did he do well? What should he look to improve on? Find out in this film breakdown!

As usual, if your platform doesn’t display the videos being referenced within the article simply look for the italicized portion of each paragraph — that’ll contain a link to the video you need.

We’ll start off by looking at Trubisky’s play in the red zone...

Let’s face it, Bears fans, Trubisky’s play in the red zone was... sporadic. Plays like these, where throws bounced off defenders’ hands, happened more often than we like to admit. But why? What gave Trubs so much trouble?

Trubisky Red Zone Play Chart Sample
Trubisky Red Zone Conclusion Summation

To find out, I charted and timed all of Trubisky’s red zone plays individually. And, after doing so, a trend emerged — if Trubisky took longer than 3 seconds to throw the ball, the play likely wasn’t successful. When he threw within 3 seconds, Trubisky produced a 111.58 passer rating. On the other hand, throws that took longer than 3 seconds produced just a 58.23 PR. Take a look at the charts above for more information.

The film bears this out — when Trubisky can simply drop back and make a throw, his accuracy shines through. Both this bullet throw to Miller and this touch throw to Robinson are perfectly placed, each well away from their defender’s reach. But what gives him trouble on longer throws?

To answer that, we must first acknowledge one of Trubisky’s legitimate weaknesses: he struggles reading off-ball defenders during the play. He’ll often miss defenders charging back to the ball or, in some cases, literally standing in front of his intended target. It should go without saying, but this will cause huge problems for our offense if not corrected.

I also think he got nervous when throwing potential touchdowns — while his mobility often gave him space, he seemed to struggle with steadying his nerves and making calm plays. He missed more throws that targeted the end zone than any other, only registering a 31.81% (7/22) completion percentage on those throws.

His nervousness is a big part of why I think he performed so much better on quicker throws — he didn’t have time to think. When plays asked him to throw to a spot at the back of his drop, Trubisky was at his best.

Ultimately I think Trubisky has a lot of room to improve his play in the red zone — while he probably won’t master off-ball reads in one offseason, simply gaining experience throwing into the end zone should help him steady his future red zone play. He may never be Brees-level, but he should improve.

So that’s the bad news: Trubisky struggled in the red zone, especially when throwing the ball into the end zone. But while you’d think the issues plaguing him in the red zone would affect his 3rd down play, they didn’t seem to — Mitch was consistently good on 3rd downs. What made him so much better on 3rd down than in the red zone?

Trubisky 3rd Down Play Chart Sample
Trubisky 3rd Down Conclusion Summation

To find out, I charted all of Trubisky’s 3rd and 4th down plays. What I found surprised me — outside of a rough first 4 games, Trubisky was one of the league’s best QBs on 3rd downs, especially in the 1st and 4th quarters. The 4th seasonal quarter’s 52.63% 3rd down conversion rate, in particular, was ~4% better than the NFL’s best (IND).

I find his 4th quarter numbers especially interesting — if Trubisky was “entirely a product of Matt Nagy’s genius”, I’d expect his 3rd down numbers to consistently drop over the course of each game (almost exactly like they did in Weeks 1-4). But that’s not what I found at all — after starting the year converting only 9.09% of his 4th quarter 3rd downs, Trubisky converted over 50% of his 4th quarter 3rd downs throughout the rest of the year. There’s no beating around the bush here, that’s elite production.

But enough numbers, what does the film say? From what I can tell, Trubisky’s success on 3rd down was largely due to accuracy from the pocket. His 3rd down tape is littered with beautiful throws into tight windows that gave his receivers (and only his receivers) chances to make plays.

Another secret to Trubisky’s 3rd down success was his mobility — watch here as he pumps the SF LB out of position before exploding through the LB’s now-vacant gap for the first down. While over-reliance on mobility will hurt a QB’s play, Trubisky seems to scramble efficiently, converting 12/19 (63.16%) scrambles on 3rd down in 2018.

2018 also saw Trubisky improve his pre and post-snap reads — this first play shows him diagnose-and-defeat the Week 14 Rams’ zone coverage while the second play shows him draw-&-dump a defender in Week 15. Neither play is “special”, per se, but each demonstrates a fundamental read that QBs need to make to succeed.

In short, Trubisky’s play on 3rd down leaves a lot to be excited about. Between accurate throws, improving reads, and quick-twitch mobility, Trubisky is starting to look like a quarterback that can extend drives both early and late in games. If he can build on 2018, 2019 will be fun.

Based on the studies above, I think Trubisky needs to improve his post-snap reads further. I counted 7 balls in the red zone alone that should’ve been intercepted — that’s simply unacceptable. That said, experience and continued growth in the offense should help him improve his nerves in the end zone.

Trubisky’s play on 3rd down also gave me a lot of hope for 2019 — he displayed accuracy, poise, and converted 3rd downs at an elite rate. Considering the 162-play sample size I generated his conversion rates from, I feel confident in saying that we should expect him to continue converting at a high level next year.

Overall, Mitchell Trubisky shouldn’t hold the Bears’ offense back in 2019. While he still has some issues to work through (footwork, progression speed, improvisation), he’s displayed a solid foundation to build on and could, if everything works out, challenge for a top 10 QB spot.

What do YOU think of Trubisky? Does his red zone play worry you? Are you excited for his future?