By: Johnny Hatelak
On day one of the 2018 version of NFL Free Agency (the two day legal tampering period), the Bears took the early lead on the winning of Free Agency. Of course, this isn’t historically a good thing as teams who evidently win the Free Agency period rarely fare well. Well at least as far as championships are concerned in the same season as their signings. However, there’s no reason for alarm Bears fans as the Bears aren’t necessarily competing for the Superbowl. Not this season anyway.
The Bears are approaching this like the draft. Albeit a more expensive version of it but the same approach nonetheless. All of their signings are young high upside signings. Players who will be a part of their core going forward and will be here when the Bears are in fact legitimate contenders for the Superbowl on an annual basis. That’s the goal here. To build a team for sustained success. One that brings you a chance of celebrating a Superbowl each and every season.
Now that their targets have been identified and reeled into the fold how do the Bears intend on using these guys? Obviously, the Bears offense is fluid as the offensive coaching staff is very diverse and it has been stated by Matt Nagy that they all will influence what this Bears offense evolves into.
The one thing we can count on is that this will be an exciting and versatile system that installs plays to complement their pieces. Not one that looks for pieces to fit their vision alone. So in that regard, it’s kind of hard to peg any certainty of the plays they’ll run for these guys other than what they’ve been good at in the past. I think since this is the early period of free Agency the Bears staff have already discussed how they’ll implement their new weapons. So I’ll try and solve some of the mystery by reading tea leaves of both the blend of offensive influence by this Bears staff and the skill sets of these players. I’m going to stick to the big three offensive signings alone.
Allen Robinson: We start off with the biggest fish caught by the Bears and that is, of course, Mr. Robinson. Robinson offers a lot of intriguing possibilities as he is a fantastic route runner along with being a physical mismatch for almost every cornerback in the league. So you can line him up at every single spot possible outside of running routes out of the backfield.
I think sometimes there’s a misconception among fans about play creativity. Some may look at the routes as the true measure of creativity but it’s really what’s done at the Line of scrimmage that defines creativity and it’s success rate. RPO’s, motions, play fakes, and the use of decoy formations help create hesitation for the defense as they have multiple things to have to watch for.
Here’s a play you might see the Bears run or some variation of it for Robinson. Here, Mark Helfrich runs a creative play with a motion from the wideout on the right side of the formation with a jet sweep look giving yet another thing for the defense to watch out for. He also has the play fake to the back. After Marcus Mariota sees the reaction of the defense as they all bite hard on the action behind the line of scrimmage he pulls the ball out of the Backs gut. You can see the defensive back responsible for covering the Wide Receiver who eventually catches the pass started forward towards the line of scrimmage to defend a run. This reaction no doubt coming from the jet sweep fake or the ball fake to the back. The entire defense reacts to it hard as you see every defender make some sort of move towards the line of scrimmage. The Defensive Back lets the Receiver just run past him while the Safety gets to the spot of the throw way too late and after running a simple seam route Mariotta hits the receiver downfield for a big play.
Even though this route is run by Travis Kelce a Tight End this is a typical X route. Kelce was basically their X on a lot of snaps too. On this play, Kelce simply runs a delayed go route where he releases off the line against press lackadaisically to lull the defender into a false sense of security and then cuts in hard, plants and cuts back to the outside and simply sprints away from his coverage for an explosive play of 44 yards downfield. At first, it kind of looked like the off-ball Linebacker was going to double Kelce at the last moment in a disguised double but he was simply locked on Kareem Hunt who ran a short out thus keeping the one on one coverage outside intact. As you can see Kelce is an accomplished route runner as is Robinson to be able to pull this one off. The timing will have to be worked on between him and Trubisky but I feel it’s merely a formality and both will make a nice duo.
On this next play, this is more about what you can expect with Robinson and what he provides and not how you can scheme him open or his excellent route running ability. The Dolphins actually play this coverage perfectly. everyone is covered and Robinson himself has a double on him even though the deep Safety came over a little too late. The point here is that even when a play is defended perfectly in the secondary you can still count on a play being made especially deep downfield with Robinson going up and winning the 50/50 ball. Trubisky does not need to feel like he has to throw a perfect pass every time. Just put it up in his vicinity and Robinson will win one for you. You also see him get away with a little push off just before his break inside to separate and knocks the Cornerback off balance for just that brief moment to get that fraction of a second separation to have full access to the ball. That’s another benefit you get with a respected veteran like him and that’s officials swallowing the whistle a little bit.
Taylor Gabriel: A lot of people see Gabriel as a slot Receiver but the truth is he only ran out of the slot just over 7% of his snaps last season and just over 5% in 2016. Now, this doesn’t mean he won’t or isn’t capable of playing primarily in a Y Receiver role. Quite the contrary he most certainly is. However, he is more valuable running Z routes and even out of the backfield stretching that defense out and creating spacing for his teammates to operate underneath. Expect a good amount of jet sweeps as well and a lot of decoy type routes and sweeps. I don’t see them changing his role all that much than what it’s been in Atlanta. This coaching staff is far too progressive to acquire a player to force him to switch to their perceived role of him.
There are a lot of ways they can use him, but I actually see the Bears using Tarik Cohen as their swiss army knife slot Receiver on third downs a lot and will spread out the other Y routes with their other Receivers. I don’t really think they look at this as limited to certain types running certain routes other than the X 50/50 routes. This is an offense that requires versatility in order to be less predictable as any receiver can run any route from anywhere.
Here’s a Helfrich inspired play that they can use Gabriel in. Not all Red Zone weapons are 6’3″ plus 40″ vertical jumping back shoulder monsters. Sometimes the smaller shiftier speed guys get the job done close to the end zone. RPO’s are a way that can get the little guys in the end zone. Here is a classic RPO play. You can see the Offensive Line on the interior especially fire off the ball like a run play. As Mariota reads the post-snap reaction to the play he pulls the ball away from the back and hits the Flanker who runs a simple post route for the Touchdown splitting the Safety and the Cornerback.
On this play, you can envision how Gabriel would fit in perfectly in the role of Tyreek Hill. This play just goes to show you that everyone runs everyone’s stuff. It’s all about how you employ your personnel and how you use little intricacies to disguise what your intent is. Here, is a concept that has been around the NFL for 50 years or so. The four vertical offense. Basically, they just spread everyone out and have them all run various vertical routes. On this one Hill runs a crossing flag route and Smith hits him perfectly in stride with a dime for the 30-yard Touchdown. This concept has also been used by Mark Helrich who originally learned his craft under the tutelage of Tampa Bay Head Coach Dirk Koetter who runs a Coryell variant and uses the four vertical fairly prolifically. So expect to see a lot of these throughout this regimes tenure and Gabriel lining up as the Y in it. It’s not just going to be West Coast stuff.
Here you see some of the physical skills Gabriel brings to your offense and why teams have to respect him downfield which should open up space for Robinson, Cameron Meredith and Kevin White along with Burton and Shaheen. Even add Tarik Cohen in there. Can you imagine trying to cover a play involving both of these speedy jitterbugs running routes? Here you also see along with the sharp cut inside after faking an out route Gabriel may have gotten away with a little push off. So as I stated with Robinson earlier in the piece Gabriel comes with a little league respect that may allow him a little infraction here and there to get some separation without getting whistled. Gabriel runs a combo route with the Tight End with mirroring deep slants. Gabriel runs the post the Tight End runs the flag while the Split end runs a go route on the weak side of the formation.
Trey Burton: In Burton, the Bears got themselves a versatile player that can play a variety of positions executing a variety of duties in an offense and should serve this Spread Coast Offense well. He also showed he can throw a pretty accurate touch pass too as you saw in the Superbowl. Burton has good speed but isn’t a burner. However, he has very fluid hips, extremely coordinated and very cerebral so this all coincides with his excellent route running. He blocks a little too as is required for any U Tight End (also known as a Joker Tight End) worth his salt.
He was the third option in Philadelphia’s offense but he’ll be part of a two Tight End attack the Bears figure to use a ton of. Nagy ran two Tight End sets around 40% of the time last season in Kansas City. Also, Burton only played in a quarter of the snaps last season in Philadelphia and figures to get a lot more here in Chicago. Just as a guideline Dion Sims was in about 56% of the offensive snaps last season so it figures to be a good bet Burton takes a good portion of those snaps.
Here is yet another great RPO play Helfrich uses in the Red Zone to get it to his Flex Tight End. Here the Ducks are in an 11 personnel look with the Flex Tight End playing the Role of the X Receiver in a stack formation right behind the ass end of the inline Y Tight End on the right side of the formation. Just before the snap, the safety walks up into the box anticipating a run play by the Running Back just to the right of Mariota. Mariota reads this and goes with the Pass as the U Tight End runs a post/flag route. Almost a Slugo like route (Slant & Go). after the snap, Mariota play fakes it to the back and pulls it back and lofts a nice touch pass to the wide-open Move tight end in the end zone.
On this play, The Chiefs run an RPO. You can even see the Wide Receivers away from the play side of the field in a bunch formation throwing run blocks. However, Alex Smith Reads the mismatch on the left side of the field with a Cornerback playing off coverage against Travis Kelce and pulls the ball out of the belly of the Back and throws a pass to Kelce who runs an option quick out route reading the leverage by the Corner who plays him straight up for a 12 yard gain. This is a route actually both Adam Shaheen and Burton could run but you expect Burton to be the one split out wide most of the time when they do run a Tight End away from the Tackle.
On this next play, Burton shows the versatility and athleticism he brings to the table. He lines up to the left of the formation with his hand on the ground offset from the line as an H-back making it look kind of like a running play. As the ball is snapped Burton delays a split second before going into his route. As he does he just runs a short hitch route but shows off his athleticism as he almost simultaneously turns to the middle of the field on a spin move after catching the ball slightly to his right in the opposite direction and breaks the tackle to get an additional 4-5 yards and a first down.
Wrapping it up: Predictably Pace went hard after it on the offensive side of the ball. It makes complete sense of course as not only are the Bears in need of upgrades on that side, but they need veteran upgrades to help their young Quarterback out as both Pace and now Nagy are fully invested in developing him into a true blue franchise Quarterback. Also with helping that development, the Bears spent big on a backup Quarterback who can mentor Trubisky and help accelerate his learning curve with Nagy’s terminology and concepts by adding Chase Daniels who of course was in Kansas City and Philadelphia with Nagy.
The defensive moves came from within keeping continuity with a unit that has come to be a top ten group. No doubt the main focus in the draft will now be on the defensive side of the ball early particularly at the Edge Rusher spot. I would not be surprised if they even doubled down on that position with their first two picks. It now becomes the biggest glaring need and a reach or two in value may be necessary. There are still a couple names out there the Bears could entertain signing like Jeremiah Attaochu and Junior Gallate, maybe gamble on the upside of Marcus Smith on a low budget deal? However, regardless of that, the draft is still where the Bears will get their star Edge Defender(s).
For now, it’s all about the offense and that includes the Kicker position which was addressed by acquiring an accurate kicker who has been to the Pro Bowl in Cody Parkey. The Bears are no doubt not even close to done as free agency continues and as it goes further along the second and third wave of guys will be bargains and roster fillers. Likely most coming after the draft where the field should expand even more as teams make their final roster cuts to make room for their draft class.