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Film study: Breaking down Bears WR Darnell Mooney’s hot start to 2020

In an Xs an Os breakdown, we take a look at what Darnell Mooney is doing right early in his Bears career.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Bears have managed to get some solid use out of their 2020 rookie class through the first two weeks of the season.

Jaylon Johnson has been, through many metrics, one of the top performing cornerbacks in the entire league so far, not just among rookies. Cole Kmet only has one catch through two weeks, but he has played a valuable role in multiple tight end sets and has offered value as a blocker.

While their two second-round picks have seen solid playing time through two weeks—Johnson especially—one of the Bears’ fifth-round picks has also stepped into a key role early on.

Darnell Mooney, the 5-foot-11, 174-pound wide receiver out of Tulane, has caught the eye of Bears fans for how well he’s stepped in early in his career. He has six catches for 74 yards and a touchdown heading into Week 3’s matchup against the Falcons, placing him second on the team behind Allen Robinson in receptions.

The speedy rookie has quickly been able to carve out a role for himself in the Bears’ lineup, playing on 60 percent of offensive snaps in their Week 2 win against the Giants. His collegiate tape was surely impressive, but what has helped him succeed right out of the gate?

Let’s head to the film to look at what Mooney is doing right.

Located at the top of the screen on the far side, Mooney recognizes the cornerback playing playing off of him in man coverage, giving him plenty of cushion at the line of scrimmage, so he accelerates at top speed off the snap to quickly eat up that cushion. Notices he has leverage at his inside shoulder, Mooney drifts his route towards the middle of the field in order to open up his cornerback’s hips. By doing so, he leaves his man susceptible to the hook route, which he executes with textbook sharpness in how he drops his hips and how quickly he halts momentum. The cornerback has to work across his body to turn back around and get to Mooney because he sold the vertical route towards the middle of the field, giving the Tulane alumnus more than enough space to make the grab with ease.

This play design ended up working well against this particular scheme, as the Lions only had one safety in deep coverage in a Cover 1 look and the other safety, Will Harris, started off in the box and was too far away to be a legitimate threat deep across the middle of the field by the time he started breaking upfield.

On this next play, Mooney, lined up as the ‘Z’ at the bottom of the screen, utilizes a single move and attacks the cornerback’s leverage point by planting his outside foot to burst upfield and obtain the inside track. With his full speed off the snap, he is able to sell the go round efficiently only to cut back for a comeback route. He recognizes that his cornerback has the leverage towards the boundary and that cutting directly towards the sidelines would likely get him shut down. Thus, Mooney sinks his hips drifts slightly inward at the top of the route to create some initial separation, then he cuts back inside. He does a very good job of extending to make the grab, and he is even able to make the cornerback miss with a stop juke after the catch.

Mooney isn’t the targeted wide receiver here, but he makes his cornerback look absolutely foolish on this route. Located as the field-side receiver at the top of the screen, he bursts off the snap in off-man coverage again, selling a vertical route and allowing him to pick up momentum against cushiony initial coverage. He sets his man up for the double-move by planting his foot ever so slightly towards the cornerback’s inside shoulder, opening up his hips and leaving him prone to allowing another cut towards the sidelines. Mooney does exactly that, and while the play ended with Mitchell Trubisky’s footwork and weight distribution falling apart and Jimmy Graham mistiming his high point of the ball, the rookie’s route was executed well, even if the safety playing single-high made him a less-than-ideal option to get the ball to on that particular play.

Switching gears now to the Giants game, it becomes apparent that Soldier Field’s All-22 tape is far less easy on the eyes to watch. It also becomes apparent that Mooney’s Week 1 performance was no fluke. The cornerback shadowing over him on the near side didn’t end up covering him on that assignment, but Mooney’s idea to execute a single-move release at the line of scrimmage by planting his outside foot to burst upfield was still a good call. His speed makes it really easy for him to sell a vertical route, because typically when a receiver runs at that high of a tempo, they’re not planning on stopping any time soon. That makes Mooney able to pull off another hook route here, dropping his hips and making his cut without wasting any steps. He sits in a soft spot of zone coverage and slightly positions himself outward to make it tougher for the linebacker to enter his frame.

For reference, a hook route is essentially the same as a hitch route, except it’s usually executed 10 or more yards down the field. This is a great route to run for a player like Mooney, who can hit top speed quickly and sell the vertical concept and still stop on a dime.

Apologies in advance for the size of this GIF, I had to trim it down in order to fit it into the article.

That said, let’s break down Mooney’s touchdown catch from Week 2. He’s the wide receiver located at the very bottom of the screen here, and his initial hitch route isn’t anything to call home about. However, within a split second of Trubisky starting to scramble in the pocket, Mooney is quickly able to improvise and do his best to help his quarterback out. He starts to burst upfield towards the end zone, and while the cornerback does a good job of tracing his movements, it’s what happens once the ball is released that gets Mooney the touchdown here. He recognizes that his defender is currently out in front of him and would surely win a jump-ball battle with his given leverage. He quickly breaks on the ball and sneaks out in front of the cornerback, who turns his head towards the ball to attack it and loses sight of Mooney’s last-second move. The rookie does a great job of attacking the ball at its highest point and extending himself to make the grab.

All told, Mooney is a dynamic athlete, but just one look at his 4.38 40-yard dash, 37-inch vertical jump and 10-foot-4 broad jump from the Combine would give enough context there. Rather, it’s his combination of his athletic ability and his route-running IQ for someone as young as he is that has helped him succeed right out of the gate. He has such a high understanding of leverage in man coverage and how to sell one route concept and execute another that it’s a genuine challenge to figure out what his next move will be.

With the Bears’ other options as the ‘Z’ receiver being 35-year-old Ted Ginn Jr. and Riley Ridley, who has been a healthy scratch in each of the first two games this year, Mooney appears to have seized control of a starting lineup job. His start to the 2020 season has certainly been impressive, and if he manages to keep up this level of play, then the Bears could have a steal on their hands.