Finding the Fit: Matt Nagy and Mitch Trubisky, Chicago Bears
Potential franchise quarterbacks are not an asset to be wasted. When Chicago Bears general manager traded up for Mitchell Trubisky in the 2017 NFL Draft, it was not to simply have an exciting quarterback on the roster. Pace had a vision — a plan to eventually build around Trubisky. Though Trubisky’s rookie season was somewhat wasted, the Bears found new direction early this offseason.
Matt Nagy, formerly the offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs, was named Chicago’s head coach shortly following the New Year. After an impressive career as a quarterback in the Arena Football League, Nagy started his coaching career as an intern with the Philadelphia Eagles under Andy Reid in 2008, and spent nearly a decade working for him in various roles: offensive quality control assistant (2011-2012), quarterbacks coach (2013-2015), and offensive coordinator (2016-2017).
Now that Nagy is in Chicago, let us take a look at how he and Trubisky will work together…
With the help of Nagy, the Chiefs ushered in the most college-like offense in the NFL. It was a wide-open spread attack, littered with RPOs (run-pass options), option runs, four verticals, and the pistol formation. Plenty of Reid’s traditional West Coast principles were still at the core of the offense, but Kansas City’s offense looked more like Mike Norvell’s Memphis offense than any other NFL offense.
This is the triple-option play for the modern era. The quarterback is first reading the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMLOS) and optioning off of him. If the quarterback decides to pull the ball, the quarterback is then reading the perimeter defenders. He must decide whether to run the ball himself or throw the screen on the boundary. The quarterback must know it will take three immediate defenders to stop the screen. If one of them chases the quarterback, the quarterback must throw the screen.
In the Chiefs example, the defense is explicitly taking away the run threat with a loaded box and single-high safety. The defense wants to put the ball in Smith’s hands and force him to make a decision. Smith is able to pull the ball, force one defender to crash him at the line of scrimmage, and throw to the numbers advantage out wide. Conversely, the defense in the Memphis example is more concerned about the perimeter threat. By using a two-high safety coverage and an apex defender (between WR set and offensive line), the defense is prepared to work in space, but exposed between the tackles. The apex defender becomes the read defender, lending to a weaker box for the defense. Memphis’ quarterback recognized the weakness pre-snap and handed off the ball without hesitation.
Nagy’s offense also incorporates more traditional option elements. Inside zone read-options and speed options are regular play calls for Nagy. He recognizes the value of having a quarterback run threat.
Additionally, Nagy weaves jet action into many of his concepts, both run and pass. Jet action can be a good way to get numbers to one side of the formation in an instant. The defense is forced to re-calibrate their responsibilities on the fly, often catching one or two defenders with their feet stuck in the mud.
Here is a blend of Nagy’s option love with the use of jet action. In this case, the jet action across the formation is designed hold the free back side defender in his place so as to not allow him to chase. The quarterback and running back then take off opposite the jet action to execute a speed option. As the quarterback and running back widen, the quarterback presses the line of scrimmage. His job is to force the read defender to attack him or allow the free yards. Once the defender stalls, the quarterback pitches to the running back who can now roam free down the sideline.
Trubisky is perfectly suited to execute all of these option concepts. He’s a threat to pick up chunk plays if left unattended on option runs. Additionally, Trubisky has experience with the read-option. Adding a pass element to option plays should be no issue for Trubisky. In fact, having a lightning quick throwing motion will give Trubisky a slight edge in run-pass options, too, given how important it is for the quarterback to maintain a run threat for as long as possible before throwing at the last second.
There is more to Nagy’s offense than bells and whistles, though. He dips into more traditional concepts to fill out the rest of the short-to-intermediate passing game, namely using Air Raid and spread principles. Trubisky is already familiar with those type of concepts from his days at North Carolina. The second-year quarterback should be able to transition into the quick-pass portion of Nagy’s offense with ease.
Y-stick is an Air Raid cornerstone — Y is the No. 3 receiver to the strength of the formation and a stick route is a short option route that is played off of the defender’s leverage. On a stick route, the receiver gets vertical to about five yards, then makes a decision based on the defender. If the defenders play outside leverage, the receiver turns back inside and shows hands to the quarterback. Conversely, with the defender playing inside leverage or tight coverage, the receiver will break the route to the outside and find room. Versus softer outside leverage, the receiver should be able to find room immediately after the break, but may need to continue moving horizontally if the defender is playing tight to him.
This is a basic Y-stick example from Nagy’s offense. The linebacker playing over the No. 3 receiver is showing clear inside leverage. As a result, the receiver has a green light to find space outside of the defender. After a quick three-step drop, the quarterback finds him between the zone coverage and fits in an easy completion.
Nagy’s offense also features many 2×2 mirrored passing concepts, which are typical of college spread offenses. With former Oregon Ducks head coach and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich being brought in as the Bears offensive coordinator, mirrored passing concepts are all but certain. Helfrich’s offense at Oregon, which was a watered down version of Chip Kelly’s offense, featured mirrored pass concepts on a regular basis.
All-outs is a simple pass concept designed to attack any coverage with minimal risk. In this example, the Chiefs align in a tight 2×2 formation, which will often coax defenses into playing off-coverage. All-outs is particularly effective versus off-coverage because the quick-hitting route is too difficult for defenders to close on from that alignment. By going to this formation and play call, Nagy dictates the defensive structure and attacks it directly. It does not get any easier for the quarterback than that.
A Favorite Primed for Success in Chicago
In addition to giving life to the RPO and spread offense in the NFL, Nagy helped usher along another trend resurfacing in the league. Running back seam routes are showing up more and more, and Nagy is at the forefront of the revolution. Nagy, along with Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan, have realized the value of spreading out a defense and getting a running back the ball in the middle of the field. Running backs play their position because they are best with the ball in their hand, so it only makes sense to get them the ball where they can do the most damage.
For Chicago specifically, this is a wonderful development. Tarik Cohen is the perfect candidate to be a seam threat in a creative offense. Cohen possess the same speed that enabled Tevin Coleman to torch the Denver Broncos and others when Shanahan was with Atlanta.
These two plays differ in aesthetic, but the function is the same: clear the seam for Kareem Hunt out of the backfield. The first play features motion crossing to the right and tight end Travis Kelce running a deep crosser to the left. The horizontal stretching of the defense gives Hunt room down the seam to burn the linebacker. On the second play, Hunt is lined up to the weak side with tight end Travis Kelce. Kelce runs up the seam then breaks inside, pulling the coverage toward him. Hunt is able to fly down the seam uncontested and catch a pass for a chunk gain.
Cohen has the speed and hands to make this concept work as often as Nagy calls it. If Hunt — a less natural pass-catcher than Cohen — can catch 53 passes for nearly 500 yards, the ceiling is the roof for Cohen in Nagy’s offense.
The beauty of a Nagy and Trubisky pairing is that Nagy’s offense can remain largely unchanged. Trubisky has a comparable skill set to Alex Smith, who Nagy most recently turned into an MVP candidate. Trubisky is more aggressive than Smith, but in terms of mobility, processing, and accuracy, the two are along the same spectrum of player. All of the concepts Nagy used to maximize Smith can apply to Trubisky, with the added bonus of Trubisky’s mentality opening up wiggle room to attack the intermediate and deep portions of the field.
Of course, part of Chicago’s offensive success in 2018 will be contingent on how well Trubisky develops his skill set. He was an incomplete, albeit exciting player as a rookie and he needs to prove to be more consistent moving forward. That being said, the Bears could not have put together a more fitting staff for their hopeful franchise quarterback. Trubisky and the rest of the Bears offense are in good hands.