Adam L. Jahns’ “Inside the Huddle” column appears in game-day editions of the Chicago Sun-Times.
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ record-setting start to the season began with an 11-yard throw to wide receiver Tyreek Hill.
It was a run-pass option play on second-and-four from the Chiefs’ 42 on the road against the Chargers. Mahomes was nearly sacked, but he got his throw off to Hill, who ran a slant.
What happened next is what Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky — still looking for his breakout moment — needs.
Hill sidestepped a tackle by safety Jahleel Addae in the open field, cut across the middle and raced down the opposite sideline for a 58-yard touchdown.
Mahomes’ record-setting start of 13 touchdown passes through his first three games began with an 11-yard toss that Hill took 47 more yards into the end zone. It was the first touchdown pass of Mahomes’ career.
The players around a young quarterback make him better by making big plays for him. And there are more examples for Mahomes, too. Two of his four touchdown passes against the Chargers were reverse shovel passes on the goal line to Hill and wide receiver De’Anthony Thomas.
In Week 2 against the Steelers, running back Kareem Hunt scored on a swing pass in which he stiff-armed his way past rookie safety Terrell Edmunds for a five-yard touchdown. Last week against the 49ers, wide receiver Sammy Watkins broke three tackles en route to a 12-yard touchdown on a slant route.
Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson’s historic success last year as a rookie also featured some greatness from those around him. Watson’s 72-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins against the Seahawks began three yards behind the line of scrimmage. It was a quick screen that Hopkins took to the house.
All of the above isn’t meant to disparage Mahomes or Watson. They’re obviously better than Trubisky at this point in their respective careers. The statistics clearly show that.
But when will those game-changing plays unfold for Trubisky, especially if the Bears are going to pare down his playbook while still demanding chunk plays?
After all, they signed wide receivers Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel and tight end Trey Burton in free agency and drafted wide receiver Anthony Miller (who’s out with a dislocated shoulder) and running back Tarik Cohen to help deliver them.
Who’s going to turn a short completion into something bigger and better? Which receiver is going to turn a quick screen into a long score?
Those are appropriate questions for this week. The Buccaneers rank 31st in pass defense, but they also boast the NFL’s top passing attack. With quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, wide receivers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and DeSean Jackson and tight end O.J. Howard, the Bucs are averaging more than 400 passing yards per game.
Part of the problem is Trubisky himself. He needs to recognize what he’s seeing at the line of scrimmage and be more accurate with his throws. Mahomes and Watson also have been better under pressure.
Still, Trubisky isn’t the one who’s failing to maintain blocks on quick screens or is unable to shake off tacklers down the field. When it comes to yards after catch (YAC), coach Matt Nagy said he couldn’t think of a play in three games in which he felt the Bears were close to breaking one.
“It hasn’t jumped out at me yet,” Nagy said. “But those are nice to have, and those are a big part of having successful plays, some of those chunk plays. We’re down right now in those shot plays, in successfully completing chunk plays, and those [YAC plays] help.”
The Bears only have four pass plays that have gone for 20 yards or more.
Last week, Robinson was one broken tackle away from turning his 39-yard reception into a highlight-reel score. In the opener against the Packers, Gabriel nearly turned a 31-yard reception into more by spinning out of two tackles.
“The run after the catch, it hasn’t necessarily jumped out at me like we’re really good or we’re really bad,” Nagy said. “I feel like there’s not enough volume right now to understand that with three games. Hopefully, by the time we get to the end of the year, that’s something we excel in.”
There are trends to consider, though. According to Pro Football Focus, the Bears have run 21 screens in the first three games, trailing only the Steelers, who’ve run 25.
Trubisky has completed 19 of those passes for 91 yards. With PFF counting shovel passes, that includes Burton’s three-yard score in Week 2. Trubisky’s two incompletions came on a throwaway and penalty.
Offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich described the Bears’ blocking on screens as “not good enough” in the first three weeks.
“That’s another situation where we had guys where they could double-team [opponents],” Helfrich said. “[It’s] just simple things like that of just taking advantage of those types of things, turning a one-yard gain into a six-yard gain. That changes everything. That’s just a totally different mindset on that second down rather than second-and-10 or second-and- nine. But, yeah, everybody has contributed to our lack of production.”
If Trubisky gets the ball to his playmakers — which he often says he wants to do — then it’s time for them to help their young quarterback, who continues to be heavily scrutinized. Such plays have helped Mahomes.
“I think we’ve been one missed connection, a tipped ball away from throwing a hot route for an untouched, walk-in touchdown,” Helfrich said. “Those things are as frustrating as heck, but they’re things you have to go through.”
More from McManis
Bears special-teams coordinator Chris Tabor uses a point system to increase competition among his players.
“Guys are always trying to get their points,” Tabor said. “If a guy gets a tackle, it makes a guy say, ‘Hey I’m going to go get that tackle.’
‘‘We’re competing against the other team, but we’re also competing against ourselves.”
It helps to have Sherrick McManis around to set the tone, too. Against the Cardinals, McManis tackled Christian Kirk one-on-one in the open field on a punt return. He also did it at full speed.
“Boy, that’s a big-time play,” Tabor said. “Obviously, he showed why he’s been such a good player in this league for a long time.
“[Punter Pat O’Donnell] did a great job of flipping the field. That’s a 62-yard bomb coming out in the second half there, and he put it outside the numbers.’’
For Tabor, it’s a highlight that other special-teams stalwarts, namely Josh Bellamy and Benny Cunningham, will have to beat in his points system.
“That’s what makes special teams fun,” Tabor said.
Kush vs. Daniels
Left guard Eric Kush committed two penalties in the first half against the Cardinals, including a chop block that backed the Bears up 15 yards.
Kush, though, is still in good standing with coach Matt Nagy. It doesn’t sound as if second-round pick James Daniels will be replacing him anytime soon.
“He’s done a good job,” said Nagy, who coached Kush with the Chiefs. “He’s a kid that works extremely hard at trying to home in on his weaknesses and get better at his strengths.
“So far, he’s done pretty well. Now with most guys, there’s been a few things that he wishes he could have back on some runs and protections. But those happen to some of the great ones, too. So I like where he’s at. He’s putting the work in every day, and we appreciate that.”
Q: Kevin White? Targets? Ever? — @HalasBearReport
A: Second-round pick Anthony Miller is out against the Buccaneers because of a dislocated shoulder. That leaves the Bears with a hole to fill. But coach Matt Nagy said that special-teamer Josh Bellamy would handle Miller’s spot in the slot. I also wouldn’t be surprised if rookie Javon Wims is active for the first time this season. Bellamy was on the field for 18 plays last week against the Cardinals; White has gotten only 26 this season. Bellamy also has two catches on two screens for eight yards. White has not been targeted this year.
Q: I want to know why you didn’t like my Rex Grossman comparison from my voicemail [on the Hoge & Jahns Podcast]?! C’mon man. — @Thanos6gems
A: I get that certain aspects feel similar to the Bears’ Super Bowl run in the 2006 season. The Bears have an outstanding defense that scores and a maligned offense with a quarterback who doesn’t score enough. But in 2006, Grossman was in his fourth season with the Bears. Former coach Lovie Smith didn’t draft him. He also was working with his second offensive coordinator under Smith and third overall after the Bears took him with the 22nd overall pick in 2003. Sure, maybe some of Trubisky’s errant throws resemble Grossman’s bad ones from back then. But Trubisky is in a completely different situation under Nagy.
Q: Why do you think Trubisky looked more “in control” and “confident” last year compared to now? He doesn’t look like the same QB, and do you think he can get his swagger back?—@AgentMole88
A: Trubisky’s confidence might be an issue. But I think we’ve all been guilty of underrating how complex and intricate Nagy’s offense can be on quarterbacks. I think we’ve also overrated the gains Trubisky made during his rookie season under former coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, too. Last year’s system didn’t do much to develop Trubisky in the modern NFL. Fox wanted it to be as basic as possible. He didn’t want to win with Trubisky; he tried to win despite him.