Bears’ trick plays not just about being fancy, as Matt Nagy is planting all kinds of seeds
We should have known right away that everything would be on the table this season for Matt Nagy and the Chicago Bears. On his first play call of the 2018 season, Nagy gave us his ode to Bears history with “Papa Bear Left,” a handoff to Tarik Cohen out of the old T-formation popularized in the NFL by Bears founder George Halas.
Although that formation has barely been seen in the league since the 1950s, Nagy installed the play — both as a nod to the franchise’s inedible mark on football history and as a sign of things to come.
Since then, Nagy has earned his reputation as one of the more innovative young offensive-minded head coaches in the NFL with his play designs and his creative usage of tomfoolery on the field.
That Week 1 opening drive against the Packers also featured LT Charles Leno split wide; he didn’t get the ball that game, but that’s a formation the Bears and Nagy might opt to revisit at some point. And over the next few games, the Bears started unloading their bag of tricks, one fun play after another seemingly every week.
Some have worked. Some haven’t.
“You’ve got to have value with it, and you’ve got to understand that … the concept works, now what are you going to do with it?” Nagy said. “So I think the guys love it. We’ve done that for a while now, and it just spices it up a little bit.
“It adds a little fun to the process.”
But there’s a method to Nagy’s madness that goes beyond fun, not only in terms of calling the plays in games but back to the point at which they were installed during practice. It’s the kind of thing that gets players a little excited, he said, to help break up the monotony of installation and the daily grind of the season.
“They see it in practice … and I don’t know what they think,” Nagy said. “I don’t know if they think, ‘This coach is crazy,’ or if they think, ‘No, this is pretty good,’ or ‘Is he going to call it?’
“But then when they do get called, you can feel the excitement. And why not? If you have a ‘why’ behind why you do it, then it makes sense.”
Nagy’s experience with trick plays felt pretty up and down last season, when he was the offensive coordinator with the Kansas City Chiefs. It was an occasionally explosive offense, but sometimes it appeared that the team got a little too cute, whether it was asking Tyreek Hill to throw a pass, having Travis Kelce do the same or even trying to throw a pass to offensive lineman Cam Erving. Whether those calls with the Chiefs were Nagy’s or Andy Reid’s is up for some debate, but it’s likely from what we’ve seen this season that Nagy had some hand in them.
Nagy said that Bears players now are pitching their own ideas with creative designs of their own, and the coach appears to welcome it. And so far with the Bears, Nagy’s results been far more good than bad, to the point where these gadget operations have become a bit of the identity of the team, even with the potential for them failing once in a while.
“They’re not all going to work,” Nagy admits. “There’s going to be some where I’m going to be standing up here and [media] are going be saying ‘You’re an idiot.’ But that’s inevitable. I’ll accept that. They’re working right now and the guys like it, so let’s keep going.”
We thought we would sort through some of the Bears’ more successful trick plays — and why they worked — along with a few that fell short this season.
Trey Burton direct snap
By comparison to some of the wizardry we’ve seen in recent games, this play feels like a Day-1 installation. Still, there’s some complexity to it — and some intrigue.
In Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks, the Bears come out for a third-and-1 play from the Seattle 13-yard line with QB Mitch Trubisky in a pistol formation with an inverted wishbone backfield. Burton is lined up directly behind him, with Jordan Howard and Cohen flanked to the QB’s left and right, respectively.
This is what we’d call “30 personnel” if we consider Burton to be a running back here, even if he’s a tight end by trade. This personnel usage is extremely seldom used in the NFL. Warren Sharp, who tracks teams’ personnel groupings, technically has only two teams (the Texans and Lions) running a total of seven plays with three backs, two wideouts and no tight ends on the field together this entire 2018 season. (We’re guessing he charted this Bears play as “21 personnel” because of Burton.)
As the play clock winds down, Trubisky dashes out to the left, flanked as a receiver. Cohen and Howard flip sides. Burton slides up into the pistol QB spot. The Seahawks, who were missing All-Pro LB Bobby Wagner and Pro Bowl sidekick K.J. Wright that game, respond by adjusting to the new look, appearing to show they’re in a two-high man defensive look. They don’t look frazzled, per se, but there’s a lot going on they must quickly adjust and respond to, and only nine of the 11 men on defense have their eyes in the backfield when the ball is snapped.
The snap goes to Burton, and now it’s just a basic read-option play from here. The Bears pull LG Eric Kush into the hole as the lead blocker, along with Howard. Burton can either hand off to Cohen or keep it, depending on what the unblocked end man on the line (LB Mychal Kendricks) does. If he takes the pitch man, Burton keeps it; if he bites down hard on the QB, Burton gives.
It was Kendricks’ first game with the team, too, stressing a player who only had something along the lines of 72 hours to learn the Seahawks’ defensive scheme. This is smart by Nagy to call this play with a lot of window dressing and movement to stress the defense, in particular Kendricks and Austin Calitro, who were making their first starts.
Burton keeps it, and gets just enough for the first down despite Kendricks making a nice tackle (and Cohen perhaps not running quite enough interference on the play). It potentially could have gone for more, and the Bears settled for a field goal in the final minute of the half, so it wasn’t a complete success. But the job was done, giving the Bears a 10-0 halftime lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Boiled down, there really wasn’t a whole lot of magic to this play. But the Bears now have put an exotic look on tape, and Nagy has made a point all along that they can run variations of that play down the road — perhaps one where Burton throws the ball? — that further stresses defenses. Sometimes with trick plays, it’s partially about fooling the defense in the moment, but it also can be a way of giving future opponents a lot to think about down the road.
“I think if you just stay vanilla and you just try to continue to run the same things over and over again, eventually defenses will figure it out and they’ll stop it,” Nagy said. “Adding some creativity to it, some misdirections and doing multiple things from it, it’s hard. It’s hard to defend. So you’ve got to always try to stay one step ahead of these defensive coordinators.”
The clever names of plays started to emerge beginning with this play in the blowout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 4, and we’ve since come to find out that backup QB Chase Daniel might be the secret architect of some of these, including “Willy Wonka.”
This play features the Bears in a tight formation with three receivers, one tight end and two quarterbacks — Trubisky and Daniel — both in the backfield with the Bears knocking on the door at the Tampa 3-yard line. This apparently was something of a Daniel creation, one to which he was more than happy to contribute on and off the field.
“Chase was a big part of coming up with it,” Trubisky said after the game, “and it opened right up just the way we drew it up.”
The Bucs already were down 28-3 at this point and clearly rattled, which made it a perfect time for Nagy to pull this one out. Daniel is flanked to Trubisky’s right in the shotgun, and yet both quarterbacks have their hands out — so who is getting the snap? That’s where all the defenders’ eyes are naturally drawn: into the backfield.
But check out the eyes of WR Taylor Gabriel, who is lined up offset behind Leno. Gabriel (circled in red) is looking to his right, knowing that the ball is coming to him on a pitch, so he’s trying to navigate a path to the end zone. The Bucs never picked up on it pre-snap. That’s actually a pretty big tell that might tip off a more aware opponent.
But the play works just as it’s drawn up, with Trubisky getting the snap and throwing a six-inch “pass” to Gabriel, who runs it in for the score.
There’s some nice chicanery happening here with Burton also on the field, on the other side of the bunch formation, as the Bears have shown quite a few versions of him receiving an inside pitch. This play, however, goes the other way, which crosses the Bucs up. Burton blocks down and Gabriel walks into the end zone untouched.
As for the name? Well, we don’t know exactly the etymology of it, but Nagy offered a nice explanation of how simplifying play calling also has a fun, effective reasoning to it.
“You can sit there and say, ‘Squeeze left, Y left, Zebra right, counter motion, such-and-such,’” Nagy said, “and then the next thing is you look up at the [play] clock, and there’s 14 seconds on it.
“But you go ‘Willy Wonka’. Boom, they know it.”
The beauty again here: The Bears might never run this again all season. Or they could come out in the same unusual formation and run something different with it. Perhaps that’s the secret beauty of the Wonka name, considering the fictional character’s penchant for messing with his guests’ heads a bit.
Sowell’s first target vs. Patriots
Prior to Bradley Sowell becoming one of the greatest receivers in Bears history against the Rams, he actually was targeted on a missed connection in Week 7 against the New England Patriots. The 312-pound reserve offensive lineman hasn’t played that much all season, but he had come on in that game for two snaps previously as an extra blocker.
But on his third snap, with the Bears running a first-and-goal play from the New England 2-yard line, Nagy perhaps had designs on pulling a fast one on Bill Belichick and the Patriots in a different way. Or did he? This play is pretty interesting on a few levels.
The Bears come out with six offensive linemen (Sowell lined up on the outside shoulder of RT Bobby Massie) and three tight ends (with Ben Braunecker lined up as an offset fullback, Burton going in motion from the offense’s right to left, and Daniel Brown in line right in front of Burton). Trubisky is under center, with Howard behind him. Clearly this is meant to look like a heavy goal-line set, although the Patriots might have sniffed something out given that the play was run from the 2.
Trubisky executes a play-action fake to Howard and immediately looks to his right, where he has two receivers running patterns on that side of the field: Braunecker and Sowell, who was eligible on the play. This is a very common concept called a “Flat-7” and is great to run inside the 5-yard line out of heavy personnel against a defense that might not have the best eye discipline.
Braunecker is running the flat route from the offset fullback spot, and Sowell — considered a tight end here — is running the “7” or corner route to the far pylon. Conceptually, it’s a great call. But the execution could be better here. Trubisky and Howard really have to sell the play-action fake, and you could argue they half-assed it a bit. Howard appears just a tad too eager to execute his block on LB Kyle Van Noy, who initially was engaged with Sowell at the line. There also was a breakdown inside, as RG Kyle Long missed on his block on DT Danny Shelton, who turned him around and got good penetration on Trubisky.
The Patriots didn’t appear fooled. Devin McCourty can be seen pointing Braunecker’s direction as if they know a pass is coming. LBs Elandon Roberts and Dont’a Hightower have their eyes up and are not driving down hard vs. the run. And with Shelton winning his inside battle, it forces Trubisky from going off his first read (Sowell) to looking back the other way, avoiding the rush and then forcing a ball back to Sowell on an ill-advised pass that should have been picked.
Howard scored on the next play to give the Bears a 17-7 lead, but let’s face it: They were lucky. Perhaps in ball-don’t-lie karma, the lead was short-lived as the Patriots ran back the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown.
Miller throwback to Chase Daniel
One of the things you have to love about Nagy is that he trusts his players to execute. That’s the case when he calls a play for an offensive lineman to catch the ball, and it certainly applies when a backup QB is in the game. Credit Nagy for being transparent when he said the game plan didn’t change with Daniel replacing an injured Trubisky on Thanksgiving. The coach wasn’t whistling Dixie.
With no actual first-team reps for Daniel in the short-week preparation, it took some serious onions for Nagy to call for Anthony Miller to execute a throwback pass to Daniel with the Bears down four points in the fourth quarter at Detroit. But that’s exactly what happened here:
Miller comes in motion from his flanker spot on the offense’s right side of the formation, joining into the bunch with WRs Josh Bellamy and Allen Robinson. Daniel receives the shotgun snap and whips a backward pass — a lateral — to Miller, who has a man-made wall in front of him with Bellamy and Robinson now becoming blockers.
Meanwhile, the second-and-3 play evolves into a screen on the other side of the formation with four offensive linemen patiently waiting to get downfield and only Massie staying home on the other side. The timing is important because they can’t release too soon or it will be called illegal man (or men) downfield. That means Miller has to catch the ball, quickly reset and fire it back to Daniel for it to work.
The Lions also have to be fooled, too, and it appears they are. It looks like they’re in some kind of combination coverage with the backside corner locked in on man defense against Burton, who is running an over route, and the defenders on Miller’s side of the field all with eyes in the backfield, suggesting those players to that side are in zone coverage.
They fall for the fake of Miller throwing to Burton or Cohen. Daniel catches Miller’s throwback and makes a nice move to make a first down. Now, was there some breath-holding involved with exposing your backup QB to injury on such a play? Absolutely. Trubisky was out, and Tyler Bray — who just was promoted from the practice squad — was the only other realistic option available.
Given that Trubisky would end up missing one more game, we can say that the play itself was a success; after all, it gained a key first down. But was it the wisest decision from Nagy in that spot? We would argue no.
The first successful trick play the Bears ran against the Giants in Week 13 was when Akiem Hicks came onto the field late in the second quarter for a goal-line play.
It’s really interesting that Hicks never had been used on offense for even a single snap in his career, despite spending time on the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots, with two creative head coaches who ask their players to multitask quite a bit. Hicks also hadn’t been used in that capacity in either 2016 or 2017 with the Bears under the old regime, even with former play caller Dowell Loggains a trick-play fan. (Perhaps John Fox put the kibosh on that one if it ever had been brought up previously.)
But here was the 350-ish-pound Hicks trotting onto the field for his second offensive snap of the season. The first came two weeks prior against the Vikings when the Bears went for the two-point conversion midway through the fourth quarter. Hicks and Roy Robertson-Harris were both stacked as receivers to the right side of the field but were decoys as Trubisky fired a fade to Adam Shaheen clear across the field to make it 22-6, Bears.
Against the Giants, however, Hicks was the man. Perhaps the Giants didn’t believe he actually was going to get the ball, but Nagy was not scared — even with it fourth-and-goal in a game the Bears were trailing 14-0. Again, the trust here is off the charts. Fail and Nagy gets shredded by the media postgame.
The Bears were in a split-back formation with Hicks and Howard in the backfield, along with Robertson-Harris — a rare and gifted athlete himself — lined up as the offset fullback. If you’re the betting type, maybe place a small wager on him scoring an offensive TD at some point this season given that he’s now been used on three offensive snaps but has not been given the ball yet.
This play, though, was just a straight dive into the teeth of the Giants’ defense, and Hicks plowed his way into the end zone despite getting met by a host of big bodies near the goal line and the Bears not getting great push up front.
And once again we get a fun name and a great nod to Bears lore. “Freezer Left” was the call, and anyone who knows anything about the team’s history clearly knows about William “The Refrigerator” Perry and his rushing prowess, which was unleashed during the 1985 Super Bowl season. Hicks, who is even bigger than Perry was at the time, clearly has that same level of athletic ability and he converted a huge TD at the time.
The Bears wouldn’t forget this the next week against the Rams.
But before the Giants game was over, Nagy had a few more tricks to throw their way. The play called “Oompa-Loompa” came when the stakes were even higher. The Bears had fought back from down 10 points with 1:49 remaining in the game, having kicked a field goal and gotten the ball back in a goal-to-go situation.
It was fourth down from the New York 1-yard line with a chance to tie the game with three seconds remaining following a Giants penalty.
PFW’s Bob LeGere wrote in-depth about this play, which was designed for Cohen to throw it to Daniel for the touchdown — the Bears’ spin on the Eagles’ “Philly Special” unleashed in the last Super Bowl. The irony here is that Burton, the man who threw that pass for the touchdown to Eagles QB Nick Foles, was involved with the play but was the second man to touch the ball for the Bears and not the one throwing it. With Daniel covered, Cohen went to his second option — Miller — who caught the thrilling, game-tying score in a contest the Bears would drop in overtime.
Still, who calls this stuff at this time? Nagy will. This is a first-year head coach, folks, and he’s got the guts of a cat burglar.
Remember our old friend Sowell? Well, he was one of six offensive linemen on the field when the Bears reached the 2-yard line of the Los Angeles Rams in Week 14. Oh, and there were four defensive linemen out there, too, including Hicks and Robertson-Harris. The Rams couldn’t have realistically known who was getting the ball.
We wrote extensively about that play the night of the game, as well as the following day, so we’ve spilled plenty of words on it. But here’s the bottom line, and it ties together what we’ve been trying to show here: These are not all just cute, clever designs by Nagy trying to look like the smartest guy in the NFL. There’s a theme and a connection running through all of them, even if we’re talking vastly different formations, situations, times of games, parts of the field — all of that.
The point is that the Bears are now stacking a library of plays with their regular offense and supplementing that with a ton of special plays that can be run with their standard personnel or with defensive players and offensive linemen on the field, two QBs playing together, tight ends or running backs throwing the ball, misdirection and so on and so forth.
Imagine as a defense trying to prepare for all of that. Trubisky might not be a Pro Bowl-level QB yet. The offensive line might not be the most dominant group in the league. The Bears’ skill-position players clearly are good, with some real difference-makers out there, but we’re not talking about the same firepower that some clubs possess.
Instead, the Bears make you consume volume and multiplicity. That’s the chore when facing Nagy’s offense, and it’s a lot to prepare for if you’re an opponent. And if you’re a Bears player? Well, it can just be some good, old-fashioned fun. That’s how Nagy is killing two birds with one stone with all these fancy calls.