By Mark Chichester
Through three weeks of NFL play, the Chicago Bears look poised to make another run at the postseason. They're armed with the league's sixth highest-graded defense and the league's highest-graded pass rush, per PFF's play-by-play grading.
But just like last season, their defense will take them only so far.
If the Bears are going to improve upon their wild-card round exit of 2018, they need a vastly improved performance from quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, who currently ranks tied for 30th out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks in PFF grades.
It's a continuation from last year from the second overall pick of the 2017 NFL draft. Despite the Pro-Bowl nod, the 90-plus passer rating, and the Bears' first NFC North division title since the Cutler-led team of 2010, Trubisky ended the 2018 season with a PFF grade that ranked 33rd among 39 qualifying players at the position. This was due to extreme inconsistencies on a throw-for-throw basis, shortcomings that were hidden beneath a top-ranked defense and an offensive scheme that did a good job of boosting his statistical output.
Now those inconsistencies are rearing up again, leaving many Bears fans wondering what exactly they have in Trubisky. Is he a first- or second-tier thrower as his past passer ratings would suggest? Or is he a bottom-rung gunslinger who needs help around him? Our grades give credence to the latter. Here's why PFF's play-by-play grading system says Trubisky is a lower-tier quarterback.
Trubisky far from spectacular in a clean pocket
There is no better way to evaluate quarterback play than by looking at performance from a clean pocket. Clean pocket metrics are the most stable from a year-to-year standpoint, giving a more accurate representation of where a QB lies and projects relative to the rest of the league.
Through three games, Trubisky has completed 55 of 74 clean pocket attempts (74.3 percent), which is decent at first glance. Hidden in that stat is the fact that he has just 494 passing yards at an average of only 6.7 yards per pass attempt, ranking 28th among 37 qualifying players at the position. This is due in large part to his unwillingness to take shots downfield.
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Given his conservative approach and his tendency to work the short areas of the field when he has time, the best way for Trubisky to lift his grade would be with improved ball location and accuracy that can lead his pass-catchers into open space and give them the best chance to rack up yards after the catch. That hasn't been the case three weeks into the season, as just 1.4 percent of his attempts have been "perfectly" placed, according to PFF's QB charting data — only Jets third-stringer Luke Falk has a worse rate — while 19.4 percent of those clean pocket attempts have been charted as inaccurate and uncatchable, which is the 10th-highest rate in the league.
All this has led to Trubisky producing almost as many negatively graded clean pocket plays (11) as positively graded ones (15), coming together to form a 72.8 clean pocket mark that ranks 22nd among the league's 37 qualifying QBs. It's a style of play that hasn't actively cost his team, but it hasn't shredded secondaries, either.
Trubisky worse under pressure
There's no denying that passing under pressure is a huge aspect of a quarterback's game. The ability to make special throws when the pass rush gets home is invaluable, and many of the memorable, high-leverage plays that happen during an NFL season occur when a QB is under duress.
In games against the Packers, Broncos and Redskins this year, Trubisky's work under pressure has been memorable for all the wrong reasons. He has completed only 12 of 29 attempts for 85 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions. His 20.3 passer rating ranks 34th among players at the position. That works out at an average of 2.9 yards per pass attempt — only Mason Rudolph (1.5), Cam Newton (2.6) and Eli Manning (2.6) have averaged fewer yards per throw. He'd be better off, from a passer rating standpoint, if he threw the ball away every time the rush arrived.
Trubisky's decision-making on these plays has been the most concerning, as three of his 29 attempts under pressure have earned a turnover-worthy play rate of 10.3 percent that ranks 26th among league quarterbacks. He's also not making the big plays needed to offset such disastrous decision-making, as he's one of only six QBs who has attempted at least 25 passes while under duress yet not managed to produce a single big-time throw. Add in the eight sacks he has taken on 38 pressured dropbacks, and you get far too many negative plays, far too few positive plays — deserving of a 24.9 pressured-passing grade that ranks 36th among the aforementioned group of 37 passers.
Trubisky continues to miss too many throws
Trubisky’s most significant downfall has been his lack of down-to-down accuracy and consistency. Through three games, Trubisky ranks 14th among quarterbacks in overall accuracy rate at 58.8 percent, and he ranks 35th in the percentage of passes that were put in the "perfect" spot, at only 2.1 percent — only Luke Falk (0 percent) and Eli Manning (1.4) are worse off in the latter regard. All told, Trubisky has thrown an inaccurate, uncatchable pass on 24.7 percent of his total pass attempts, 26th in the NFL. Any offense, no matter how creative, would struggle to stay on schedule when every fifth pass is uncatchable.
The extent of the issue is more evident when looking at throws targeted at least 10 yards downfield when Trubisky’s receiver has at least a step of separation from the defender. These are the throws starting quarterbacks are expected to make. So far this year, Trubiksy hasn't been up to scratch. He has completed seven of 14 such passes for 156 yards, one touchdown and one big-time throw, good for a passing grade of 68.4 that ranks 37th among the 42 quarterbacks who've attempted at least 10 such passes. Of those 14 attempts, one-third have been uncatchable, inaccurate throws, which is tied for the sixth-highest rate in the league.
Too many negatives, too few positives
To some extent, you can tolerate your franchise quarterback letting a few turnover-worthy plays loose if they come with more than their fair share of game-changing throws. It's the style that made the likes of Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger so great — the huge downfield plays would be there, but there'd also be the odd third-down punt, as it were.
It has been equal parts bad and good for Trubisky, who has put the ball in harm's way as often as he has uncorked the big-time throw. So far this year, the Bears' starter has a big-time percentage of just 2.9 percent, 23rd among the league's QBs. For reference, Deshaun Watson ranks first with a mark of 10.8, Russell Wilson is second with 7.6, Tom Brady third with a throw percentage of 7.5 percent and Patrick Mahomes ranks fourth with a mark of 7.0. Two of those QBs were taken after Trubisky in the 2017 draft.
Making matters worse, Trubisky has also earned a negative grade on 15.5 percent of his total plays — the 11th-highest rate up until this point — while his 13.8 positively graded play rate currently ranks 34th among the league's 37 qualifying signal-callers. Once again, it's a case of too much bad and not enough good for the former second overall pick, and that is the major factor in his season grade of 47.2.
Trubisky struggles when first read are gone
He has struggled in most facets of PFF grading. But what sticks out is his play while reading through his progressions. His 29.9 passing grade on second-read throws — throws made after the QB has clearly moved his eyes to his next receiver — is second-to-last in the NFL among quarterbacks who've attempted 10 or more second-read passes, and he has completed just seven of 11 such attempts this year for 29 yards, one touchdown and one turnover-worthy play — all good for a 14th-ranked passer rating (97.9) and a 2.6 yards-per-attempt average that ranks last in the league.
Bears’ best hopes
If the Bears are going to win the Super Bowl this season, it's looking increasingly likely that it'll be a victory that resembles that of the 2015 Broncos rather than the 2010 Packers; one that causes fans to cringe every time their quarterback drops back before they find themselves hoping the third-and-long draw play gets just enough so that their punter can flip the field position and their defense can retake the field to hold up for just "one more drive."
It's a ploy that shouldn't be relied upon. The Bears need their first-round quarterback to play like a first-round quarterback. They need Mitchell Trubisky to take the next step.
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