Author’s note: This article was completed on Friday night, about 12 hours before I learned of the passing of Dwayne Haskins. It feels odd in retrospect, and almost inappropriate, to critique Trubisky at a time like this. It was at his Florida home where Haskins and others had gathered to train, and it seems impossible for Trubisky not to be heavily impacted by this. Still, the show goes on, and we are compelled to do our jobs. And so, I submit this with sympathy and respect. May we all be a little kinder in the aftermath of this tragedy.
The original intent for this article was to focus on the wide receivers the Steelers may consider in the upcoming 2022 NFL Draft, and how they fit with Mitchell Trubisky and Matt Canada. However, while digging through film of Trubisky to get a feel for his receiving corps in Chicago, I came across a drive from 2019 against the Dallas Cowboys that caught my attention. It was quintessential Trubisky — reasons for optimism, but flawed enough for concern. It was everything a Steelers’ fan should be excited about when contemplating a Trubisky-led offense, and everything they should fear.
This was the opening drive of one of Trubisky’s best performances in Chicago. He went 23-31 for 244 yards with three touchdowns and an interception as the Bears won, 31-24. It was a big game for both teams, with the 6-6 Bears and 6-6 Cowboys jockeying for playoff position. While Trubisky outplayed his more heralded counterpart, Dak Prescott, he was far from perfect. This drive details the full gamete of his game.
The drive is also Matt Canada-esque. It features many of the concepts Canada is expected to utilize next season. So, it’s a good reference for those pondering a Steelers offense with Canada calling plays and Trubisky at the helm.
Let’s dive in.
1st and 10, Chicago 34-yard line, 5:54 1st quarter, 7-0 Dallas
The Bears opened with a spacing route which attacked Dallas’s zone coverage both vertically and horizontally. You can see in the diagram below the horizontal stretch from sideline to sideline and the vertical stretch that mixed swings and hitches with a take-off from the slot. It was a simple concept at heart: create a hole in the zone by spreading the targets and forcing defenders to cover as much ground as possible:
Trubisky zeroed in on his middle hitches by identifying the drops of the underneath defenders. His eyes initially went left, where he likely saw the safety (23) come down in the “rat” role to attack receiver Allen Robinson (12). This prompted him to look right, where the backer was playing softer:
While this was a nice drive-starter, Trubisky squandered a chance for a bigger play by giving up on his initial read too quickly. Ideally, he could have thrown over the safety to the vertical route breaking behind it. With no All-22 of this drive, we can’t see Dallas’s coverage on the back end. If we could, we’d find a single-high safety on the far hash (you can see him come into the frame at the very end of the clip) and a corner trying to squeeze the vertical route from the boundary. With the low safety (circled below) committed to the hitch, and the corner (also circled) out wide, Trubisky had a bigger play on the vertical route if he’d waited just a beat:
Trubisky probably came off his initial read so quickly because he wanted to start the drive with a safe throw. Waiting for the vertical to clear, then throwing him away from the corner, was trickier. However, the difference between mid-level quarterbacks and great ones is often how well they read and react to post-snap movement. Trubisky’s development in these areas may determine whether he can make that leap.
2nd and 3, Chicago 41
On 2nd and 3, the Bears dialed up a bootleg pass from a 3x1 look. Trubisky faked a hand-off then rolled right, where the tight end created space by sealing the edge player. It looks like Chicago ran double hitches with their slot and outside receiver while Robinson (12) ran an Over route from the back-side. Nothing was open, so Trubisky used his mobility to run for a first down:
This was a strange route combination. It’s unusual to have a quarterback roll out to throw hitches. Most out-of-pocket progressions involve layered routes: one low, one middle and one high. Here, all three broke to a catch-point at 8-10 yards. You can see Trubisky gesture with his left hand just before he took off to run. It feels like he was trying to move one of his receivers, most likely the slot, who traditionally would have a deeper-breaking route. It makes me wonder if the slot blew his assignment.
Or, it could be something else. It could be that Matt Nagy, Chicago’s head coach and play-caller with whom Trubisky had a frosty relationship, did not trust Trubisky from the pocket enough to throw from there consistently. It could be that, even on a simple double-hitch combo, he wanted Trubisky out in space where the reads were simpler and he could tuck the ball and run if necessary.
Whatever the case, two things seem clear: Trubisky is a threat with his legs and will be used extensively in that capacity under Matt Canada; and, Trubisky must develop as a pocket passer in order to maximize his running ability. If boots and roll-outs make up the bulk of his repertoire, defenses will bring heavy edge-pressure to keep him contained. Trubisky must show he can make NFL-level throws from the pocket to keep defenses honest.
1st and 10, Chicago 46
This is a simple play on the surface, but one where there’s more going on than initially meets the eye.
It starts with a detached bunch set where the tight end (81) comes in motion across the formation. This is done so he can kick out the back-side edge player, but also to set up a play-action pass Chicago used later in the game where the tight end bluffed his block and proceeded into the flat, and Trubisky hit him on the move after a nice ball-fake. It was a well-designed set-up by Nagy, and one I can see Canada utilizing with his capable tight ends.
There’s also a bubble screen built in to Robinson. Trubisky probably had the freedom to throw the bubble if the defense over-rotated to the motion. I would have liked to have seen him throw it here to make the safety come down and tackle the 6’3-220 pound Robinson in space. But Trubisky, perhaps deterred by the high snap, made the safe play instead.
There’s no doubt Canada will implement dual-action plays like this, where Trubisky will have multiple post-snap options. These concepts will add complexity to a Pittsburgh offense that was far too simple last season.
2nd and 8, Chicago 48
Here’s another thing I suspect we’ll see from Canada: as soon as the previous play ended, Chicago lined up and snapped the ball quickly. They aligned in another wide bunch set, but switched it up by putting the tight end on the back side. The speed at which they got to the line, combined with the 3x1 bunch, forced Dallas into a generic four-under, three-deep zone. Nagy called another zone-beater, with the routes again providing vertical and horizontal stretches:
The thing I liked most about Trubisky on this play was how quickly he recognized coverage and knew where to go with the football. Watch how decisive he was in identifying the hole in the zone to the weak side. Trubisky ripped this throw as soon as he hit the back of his drop, and it reached the tight end just as he came out of his break, before the backer (54) could undercut it or the safety could break it up:
This is the kind of throw Steelers’ fans watched Ben Roethlisberger make in his sleep. Trubisky, with his RPO game, pocket movement and read-options, plays the position differently. Still, if he can consistently make throws like this one, he may become more than a bridge quarterback in Pittsburgh.
1st and 10, Dallas 33
This is a fairly simple concept: a split-zone run with jet motion as window dressing. Steelers’ fans saw plenty of this from Canada last season:
What makes it potentially different for 2022, however, is the quarterback. Watch how hard Dallas’s right defensive end closes to disrupt the inside run. This is a perfect setup for a read-option play. Rather than call a prescribed handoff, Canada would have Trubisky read the end. If he closes like he did here, Trubisky would pull the ball and run to the edge. The tight end, rather than block the end, would arc around him and lead Trubisky into the alley, like so:
Chicago dabbled in this with Trubisky, and Canada ran it a lot as a college coordinator. It’s a Swiss Army knife type of play. With the jet sweep threatening one edge, Trubisky threatening the other and the back diving up the middle, the offense can attack any area of the field with a single action. They can, in essence, make the defense wrong no matter how it reacts. That’s option football in the 21st century, something we’ve yet to see in Pittsburgh.
2nd and 9, Dallas 32
And now for something completely different. The I-formation! With a fullback on the field! And the quarterback under center! And a play-action pass! And a scramble for 13 yards! It’s sorcery, I tell you. Sorcery!
1st and 10, Dallas 19
Back to the concepts with which Steelers’ fans are more familiar — the jet sweep, out of shotgun formation, from 11 personnel:
There will still be plenty of this in the Pittsburgh playbook. With the departures of Juju Smith-Schuster and Ray-Ray McCloud, however, the question becomes who runs the jet? Anthony Miller? Gunner Olszewski? Draft Pick X? And is there a bootleg coming off of the jet action? Or a designed quarterback run? A halfback counter? The options are exciting to consider.
2nd and 7, Dallas 16
Nagy was mixing things up well. Trubisky was running the offense efficiently. The Bears were into the red zone. All they had to do was finish.
When you watch that play again, the thing that seems obvious is this: throw it away, Mitch. There’s no one open. Throw it away! The reason he doesn’t is probably because, like many young quarterbacks, he’s reluctant to waste a play. While throwing the ball away makes sense in hindsight, it’s harder to do in the moment. Young quarterbacks often have great confidence and are used to success. They believe they’re capable of making plays no matter the difficulty. It’s not hubris; it’s inexperience. They haven’t yet learned that the margin for error in the NFL is slim, and that bad decisions have consequences.
In college, Trubisky may have tried to jam in a throw like this and, if he missed high, it was incomplete. Here, though, the defensive back tracking the throw was talented enough to make a difficult catch and to complete the even more difficult task of getting both feet in bounds. The road to success for young quarterbacks in the league is often paved with lessons learned the hard way.
There was a lot to like on this drive. The mobility, the play designs, the no-huddle tempo and the way Trubisky ripped that skinny post to his tight end all looked great. Conversely, the nuances on some of his pocket reads weren’t quite there, and the interception was awful. The 2019 version of Mitchell Trubisky showed promise, but was flawed enough to cause concern.
What will the 2022 version look like? Hopefully, with maturity and a year in Buffalo to soften the edges in his game, he’s learned enough to be the quarterback Pittsburgh needs. We’ll find out soon enough.