January 24, 2021

Bear Down, Nerd Up: The short passing game is paying off for Mitch Trubisky

The Bears wore their classic 1936 throwback uniforms Sunday for the third time since they debuted last year. The team is 3-0 in those games.

Coincidence? I think not.

But in all seriousness, here are some stats worth considering in our latest Bear Down, Nerd Up, where we break down the numbers that made this week unique for the Bears.

Short and sweet: The Bears have made adjustments since Mitch Trubisky returned to the starting quarterback job.

That's likely a confluence of at least three major factors. The offensive line has been stable for the first time in months. With that stable O-line, the run game has been much improved. Finally, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor took over as play caller prior to the Nov. 29 game against Green Bay.

Two deep shots against Green Bay didn’t go well, ending in interceptions. Since then, Trubisky has rarely tested the ball down field. The Bears fell behind early in that game and maybe the situation dictated those shots more than anything.

Against Detroit in Week 13 and Houston in Week 14, Trubisky was 43-for-50 on passes fewer than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. In those two games, he attempted just 11 passes between 10 and 19 yards down field, and only three of more than 20 yards.

That is in stark contrast to early in the season. Coming out of training camp, the Bears – with head coach Matt Nagy calling plays – wanted Trubisky taking shots down the field. He won the starting job, in part, because he wasn't afraid to take those shots. In Week 1, Trubisky attempted 17 passes of 10 yards or more beyond the line of scrimmage, including six passes of 20 yards or more.

OK, you argue, but the Bears were trailing by 17 points. They needed to do that in Week 1. I counter with his Week 2 totals, a game the Bears led throughout: 13 attempts of 10 yards or more. That’s still more than he attempted in Weeks 13 and 14 combined. Two of those intermediate passes in Week 2 were intercepted.

The Week 13 and 14 version of the Bears offense is rolling Trubisky out of the pocket and giving him short, easy targets.

“He's taking the check-downs and those check-downs have gotten him positive yardage,” Bears passing game coordinator Dave Ragone said. “In the naked [boot] game, obviously, he's a really good athlete, but what makes him special on the edge is his ability to be a threat running the football or being able to change his arm angle like he did on Sunday. And some of those 5-yard completions, 3-yard completions are going for 10 and 12 yards, the degree of difficulty is high on those completions.”

Just after halftime Sunday, Trubisky rolled out left and saw a charging pass rusher in his face. He threw a sidearm pass to tight end Cole Kmet, who caught it at the line of scrimmage, broke a tackle and gained a first down.

Ragone said those rollouts with an athlete like Trubisky make a defense think. That’s giving Trubisky a split-second advantage.

It might not make for gaudy highlights from the QB, but it has been more effective than the dangerous shots down field (see the Packers game). With Trubisky at quarterback, this iteration of the Bears offense appears to give them the best chance to win.

Drought over: With a sack of Deshaun Watson for a safety in Sunday's win over Houston, outside linebacker Khalil Mack ended a sack drought that dated back to Nov. 1. Mack went four consecutive games without a sack. With the bye week in the middle, it felt like even longer.

The five-time Pro Bowler had not gone four consecutive games without a sack in any single season since his rookie year in Oakland in 2014. He had one four-game stretch that included the final three games of 2016 and the season opener of 2017 where he didn’t have any sacks, as well as a five-game stretch that spanned the end of the 2015 season and the start of 2016.

There was a three-game sack-less stretch last season, and in 2017 with Oakland he had a five-game stretch during which he recorded just half a sack.

With Mack, it’s impossible to know how much injuries play a factor because he rarely opens up about it. The fact is, Mack has been on the Bears’ injury report nearly every week this season, though he hasn’t missed a game.

Sacks are not a perfect stat. They don’t tell you the true value of a pass rusher. But they are flashy and they do earn players like Mack enormous contracts. They can also be unpredictable and come in bunches. The Bears are hoping that's the case with Mack over the final three weeks.

Three-game stretch: Bears running back David Montgomery leads the NFL with 7.38 yards per carry over the past three weeks. Montgomery rushed for 288 yards and three touchdowns on 39 carries, aided by the 80-yard carry this week against Houston. Others have more yards – Tennessee's Derrick Henry had 453 yards and five touchdowns on 68 carries – but also more opportunities.

Since Tarik Cohen’s season ended in an ACL tear in Week 3, Montgomery has proved to be valuable in the passing game. Montgomery has caught at least three passes in every game except one (not counting the one game he missed due to a concussion) since Cohen’s season ended.

Montgomery’s 121 receiving yards over the last three weeks ranks second among NFL running backs during that span.

Montgomery’s 80-yard touchdown against the Texans tied the mark for the longest Bears run in the Super Bowl era (since 1966). Bears running back Neal Anderson also ran for an 80-yard touchdown on Nov. 27, 1988.

Montgomery was the first Bears rusher with more than 100 yards at halftime (he had 106) since Matt Forte did it on Sept. 13, 2015.

Rookie record: Bears receiver Darnell Mooney is narrowing in on a 66-year-old team record. His third touchdown of the season on Sunday marked his 42nd reception. The Bears record for a rookie is 45 receptions set by Harlon Hill in 1954.

Kickin' Cairo: Bears kicker Cairo Santos has now made 18 straight field goals. The last Bears kicker do accomplish that was Robbie Gould in 2006, when he made 24 consecutive from Week 1 to Week 11.

Sean Hammond

Sean is the Chicago Bears beat reporter for Shaw Media. He also contributes to high school football coverage at Friday Night Drive. Sean has covered various sports at the amateur, college and professional levels since 2012. He joined Shaw Media in 2016.