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Mitchell Trubisky’s mobility makes him an attractive fit for Matt Canada’s offense

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a new quarterback in Mitch Trubisky, and the film shows why they were aggressive in going and getting him.

NFL: Houston Texans at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Free agency opened on Monday at noon, and the Steelers moved quickly to address their need at quarterback by signing Buffalo Bills free agent Mitchell Trubisky.

Trubisky, a former No. 2 overall pick by the Chicago Bears in 2017, has been labeled a bust by some because his production hasn’t matched the lofty expectations of his draft slot. His numbers, however, are better than a “bust” implies. In 50 career starts, Chicago and Buffalo went a combined 29–21 with Trubisky at the helm. His career completion percentage is 64.1 and he has thrown 64 touchdowns against 38 interceptions. Trubisky also has 1,081 yards rushing on 203 attempts with 9 touchdowns.

The last statistic — Trubisky’s career rushing total — makes him attractive as a candidate to run Matt Canada’s offense. The Steelers’ quarterbacks the past few seasons were an aging Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, Devlin “Duck” Hodges, Joshua Dobbs and Dwayne Haskins, meaning they were not particularly mobile at the position. Trubisky will not be a runner in the Lamar Jackson mold, but he is an athletic upgrade from any of Pittsburgh’s recent signal callers.

This provides a great opportunity for Canada. It’s no secret he struggled to fit his movement-based passing game to Roethlisberger’s desire to operate from the pocket. Canada’s system prioritizes read-options, sprint-outs and bootlegs. These are particularly important with an offensive line that has been dismal. Moving the pocket so defenses don’t have a stationary target upon which to tee off, like they often did with Roethlisberger, will both protect the quarterback and allow Canada to incorporate longer developing routes. The disappearance of these concepts hamstrung the passing game in recent seasons and reduced it to a dink-and-dunk attack.

Trubisky struggled in Chicago to make full-field reads from the pocket. He is best when he can use his legs to buy space. Canada is most comfortable with a quarterback who can move. On paper, it feels like a proper fit.

For a closer look at how Trubisky’s mobility makes him effective, I pulled film clips from his preseason start last year against his former team in Chicago. Trubisky played the entire first half against the Bears, going 20-28 for 221 yards while leading the Bills to a 34-0 advantage. Granted, it was only preseason, but the contest showcased Trubisky’s strengths, and how he can add complexity to an offense.


Play-Action

In this first clip, we see an immediate contrast between Trubisky’s game and how Pittsburgh operated under Roethlisberger. Trubisky’s athleticism allowed the Bills to use play-action from under center out of a run-heavy 12 personnel set. He was willing to turn his back to the defense in order to sell the run fake, something to which Roethlisberger was never truly committed. Trubisky’s footwork was sound, his fake was convincing, and the linebackers reacted accordingly:

This did not result in a big play, as Trubisky opted to throw the short pivot route to the receiver on his right instead of the deeper “over” route to his left. But it was an efficient drive-starter which gave Buffalo a 2nd and short. More importantly, it planted a seed of doubt in the minds of Chicago’s linebackers as to whether they could trust their eyes. Plays like this slow down a defense, something Pittsburgh did infrequently last season.

Next, Trubisky ran a play-action concept from the shotgun. Play-fakes from the gun are never as good as those from under center since the quarterback faces the defense and cannot hide the football as well. But Trubisky smartly looked left as he made his fake, which drew the alley player to his right up and over. He then looked back that way, paused a beat to let the receiver clear, then threw a nice ball into the window between the alley, corner and safety.

Again, there was nothing spectacular about this play, but Trubisky’s ability to use play-action displaced the defense, which created seams into which he could throw. Those seams were few and far between in Pittsburgh last season, where so often it felt as though defenders were glued to the hips of the receivers and Roethlisberger was constantly throwing into tight coverage.

Per BTSC’s own Geoffrey Benedict, the Bears in 2020, with Trubisky at quarterback, ran the 4th most play-action passes in the league. The Steelers that season ranked 32nd. Surely, Pittsburgh’s play-action frequency will increase if Trubisky becomes the starter.

RPOs

So, too, will their use of RPOs. In that same 2020 season, Chicago ran the 8th most RPOs in the league while the Steelers were 25th. Canada is a proponent of the RPO game, but he was forced to alter their use so Roethlisberger, who was never comfortable with them, could make a pre-snap read rather than having to read the defense as the play unfolded. Essentially, the Steelers packaged an inside run play with an outside vertical route, and Roethlisberger made a pre-snap determination of which he would run. That’s not really an RPO.

Specifically, an RPO, or run-pass option, gives the quarterback the ability to manipulate a play as it unfolds. While certain RPOs do contain pre-snap reads, most also contain a post-snap component. This is what can make them so difficult to defend. If read properly, a quarterback can make a defense wrong no matter how it reacts.

Buffalo ran a couple of these against the Bears. Below, we see a still-frame image of one of them. On this play, the Bills blocked a sweep concept to their left while the slot receiver to Trubisky’s right ran a slant. The back-side linebacker, who is circled in the photo, was left unblocked. This allowed Trubisky to read him. If the backer flowed with the run action, Trubisky would throw the slant. If the backer sat, Trubisky would hand the ball to the back:

As you can see, the backer flowed with the run action, so Trubisky threw behind him for a nice gain:

Later, the Bills ran the same concept, with a similar result. The line blocked sweep, the slot ran a slant and Trubisky read the back-side backer. Again he flowed, and again Trubisky hit the slant in the window:

These concepts feel like play-action passes, but they are not. Play-action constitutes a designed pass, while an RPO could be a pass or a run. RPO runs involve handoffs to backs, not quarterback keepers; so, they are low-risk plays because the quarterback is unlikely to get hit. RPOs provide an added level of complexity to an offense. They should be welcome in Pittsburgh for that reason alone.

Bootlegs

Another area where Trubisky’s mobility is welcome is on bootleg passes. Bootlegs are slower-developing play-action passes where the quarterback fakes a run then escapes the pocket on a designed roll-out. They are great for getting the quarterback away from the pass rush, where he has clearer lines of sight to his receivers. They also allow him to run if the defense falls too far off into coverage.

Against Chicago, the Bills scored on a bootleg pass. They used some Canada-inspired motion to bring a second back into the backfield, then crossed the two off a play-fake to muddle the read of the defense. Chicago’s edge player collapsed with the run action, allowing Trubisky to slip outside, where he found his backside receiver for the score:

You can see the effect the bootleg action had on the play by studying Trubisky’s read progression. He initially looked at the high-low concept into the boundary from the tight end and running back. Both were covered. But, by escaping the pocket, he had enough time to locate the drag. Had Trubisky thrown that same concept from the pocket, odds are he never would have gotten to that backside read.

Plays like these have been non-existent in Pittsburgh the past few seasons. Their ability to constrain a defense by making defenders play assignment football is another great way to slow them down.

Designed Runs

While it’s unlikely Canada will go heavy on a read-option run game with Trubisky the way Greg Roman does with Jackson in Baltimore, he may dial up a designed run or two when the situation supports it. At a sturdy 6’2”-220 pounds, Trubisky is built to run.

Buffalo didn’t use Trubisky on any designed runs in their preseason game against Chicago. During the regular season, though, he had more runs (13) than passes (8). He was particularly effective near the goal line on bootleg runs like this one, where the defense was ganged up inside and Trubisky could use his effective ball-faking to escape out the back door:

Trubisky ran for between 193 and 425 yards in each of his four seasons as Chicago’s starter. I would expect him to fall somewhere in that range for the Steelers, too.

Extending Plays

The area where Trubisky’s mobility is most beneficial is when it comes to extending plays. These are instances where a scripted play breaks down when a quarterback escapes the pass rush and improvises. Roethlisberger was a master at these earlier in his career, and Trubisky has proven capable as well.

Here, Trubisky gets pressure in his face, so he neatly pivots away, losing ground to clear any potential edge rusher, and sprints from the pocket. This is a polished move on his part, one he has undoubtedly drilled hundreds of times in practice. He looks at ease doing it, and his throw — on the run, to his left — is natural and accurate:

Here’s that move again. The pressure comes, Trubisky pivots, neatly maintains his balance, then takes off and runs for a first down:

On this one, Trubisky escapes pressure from his left by rolling right, then throws a strike on a comeback route almost 30 yards down the field:

All of these examples represent things the Steelers have been unable to do in recent years. Trubisky will not be the pocket passer Pittsburgh had in Roethlisberger, but he will threaten defenses in ways Roethlisberger no longer could. This fits well with the philosophy Canada wants to employ, which is likely why the Steelers targeted Trubisky in the first place.


Now that I’ve pumped you up, take everything you’ve just read with a grain of salt. Trubisky wouldn’t be available to the Steelers if he’d lit the world on fire in Chicago. It’s only because he struggled there that he finds himself with this current opportunity. History suggests quarterbacks don’t often bloom after moving on from teams where they were considered disappointments.

One who did is Ryan Tannehill, whose career was resurrected in Tennessee after an inauspicious start in Miami. Maybe, like Tannehill, Trubisky will benefit from playing for a solid franchise that does not expect him to be a savior. Maybe, in a system that accentuates his strengths, he can follow Tannehill’s arc. That would be a win for both Trubisky and the Steelers.

The good news is that, by all reports, his time in Buffalo was a blessing. Sitting behind Josh Allen and learning from Brian Daboll, the former Buffalo coordinator who is now the head coach of the New York Giants, Trubisky feels he’s found his game again. He had this to say to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler about his time with the Bills:

That “instinctual” football Trubisky re-discovered seems perfect for Canada’s system. Canada’s passing game has never been overly complex, so odds are he won’t ask Trubisky to process too much information. Canada will certainly need Trubisky to improve his pocket play. But, thankfully, he won’t have to confine him there. If Canada can harness Trubisky’s best element — his mobility — while keeping him decisive, the Steelers may have found a solid bridge between Roethlisberger and their next iconic quarterback.