Bears Notebook: Offensive line settling in, Trubisky gets patient
By Robert Zeglinski
BOURBONNAIS – Patience is a virtue when it comes to a young quarterback learning a fresh offense. Through most of the first week of this year’s Bears training camp, Mitchell Trubisky has struggled. And not just with complex scheming, but simple throws and reads.
On Friday under a beaming Bourbonnais sun, the quarterback didn’t tear a hole in the fabric of the space time continuum. And he didn’t have to. Before or if he gets to planet-destroying status, he has to learn to take what the Bears defense gives him, stay grounded, and utilize a diverse skill position group. The Bears offense runs through Trubisky, but that doesn’t mean the entire burden is on him.
Throughout Friday’s practice, Trubisky took ample time to survey the field and go through his progressions. Instead of sailing passes and putting his receivers like Allen Robinson in harm’s way, he continually gave them chances to make plays. Instead of losing touch or grip on the ball during his release, Trubisky kept composed and acted as the prime conductor.
Over the course of the entire day, Trubisky only made one egregious mistake: a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage directed towards Robinson that Deiondre’ Hall picked off. Otherwise, he kept a clean sheet and his offense on perfect schedule, checking down and making plays as needed. A game manager with a heft of more natural ability like when he threaded the needle in the end zone between Bryce Callahan and Eddie Jackson to Robinson.
It’s almost as if this is a second-year quarterback in a new offense with new weapons getting accustomed to being turned loose.
Matt Nagy has always seen his development this way, though. Trubisky’s been progressing, even if it seems like he hasn’t.
“I’m so happy with where he’s (Trubisky) at,” said Nagy. “We’re in this thing together … and we know he’s gonna do well.”
Trubisky, for his part, hasn’t batted an eyelash. Remember, he’s gone “Zero Dark 10” on social media and the Internet anyway. Mistakes are part of the learning curve.
“He (Nagy) just lets me go out and play and not worry about mistakes,” said Trubisky. “We make sure not to make the same mistake twice is all.”
Offensive line and Leno holding steady
Much has been made of Harry Hiestand’s impact on the Bears offensive line. One of, if not the best offensive line coach in football, Hiestand has made sure his linemen get sometimes around 30 minutes worth of extra work before and after practices. These “hogs” seem like they’re more of a tight-knit group than usual. They look like they understand each other already and have formed a common bond that helps them grasp Hiestand’s philosophies.
On the field this bears out when Trubisky drops back every play and is rarely if ever pressured. When the quarterback has all the time in the world to find his receivers. You could count the number of times Trubisky had a rusher break his bubble on a couple of fingers, let alone one hand on Friday. Save for a couple of false starts, that’s an offensive line working as one.
The star of this protection show was Charles Leno Jr., the fifth-year veteran blindside protector for Trubisky. Leno put on a clinic against Leonard Floyd, giving the edge rusher no space. And Friday wasn’t the first day Leno’s played like this, nor was it surprising. Through all of camp the 26-year-old has had measured and efficient steps, moved naturally in space, and taken advantage of improved hand usage.
Leno, more than anyone up front, is the best example of what could be one of the most improved lines in the NFL simply by virtue of being better schooled. Hiestand is an old school coach that prefers to break his players down from the start. It doesn’t matter who you are, especially with a guy that’s been around like Leno.
“He’s (Hiestand) hung in on the details with me,” Leno told me of his position coach. “Whether it’s my footwork, hand placement, my base. Even when I feel like I’m getting better, he still points out more that I can improve at.”
It’s that kind of relentless coaching that benefits the Bears’ offensive line the most. Forever understanding they can never get too high. They can always take it to another level. There’s something to fix, even when you think there isn’t.
From Leno, to everyone across the board, that’s the type of mentality and inspiration it takes to be a special wall. The Hiestand effect is underway.
“His message resonates well, because he wants the best out of you,” said Leno continued on Hiestand. “He doesn’t want you to be average. He doesn’t want you to be good. He wants you to be the best. And if someone wants the best out of you, you do all that you can to keep improving and be the best.”
Second phase standouts and observations
We’re far enough in camp to start picking out several stars and guys on an upward trajectory.
Through seven practices, the best Bears from this vantage point have been Leno, Anthony Miller, Trey Burton, and Prince Amukamara. Let’s explain each inclusion.
Leno, for his refined technique and composed play. Right now the veteran looks like a top 10 left tackle poised to leave behind the “underrated” conversation. He’s capable of doing more than shutting down one top pass rusher like Floyd. He can lock down anyone.
A drop near the goal line on air on Friday was the first pass, by my count, that Miller has actually dropped since last Friday. Otherwise, he’s consistently looked like a No. 1 receiver and game breaker. No one in the Bears secondary has an answer for the playmaker.
While no Rob Gronkowski or Travis Kelce, it’s staggering how easily Burton operates. There isn’t a wasted movement in any of his routes. Everything’s so smooth and it’s done with a purpose. Burton has been utterly lost by the Bears defense at least once every practice and that’s not by coincidence: he’s finding ways to subtly get open.
And finally, Amukamara has done his best Tim Jennings circa 2012 impression. Meaning a cornerback who didn’t before force turnovers morphing into a feared ballhawk that sticks to receivers like glue. Maybe it’s comfort in Vic Fangio’s defense. Maybe it’s the security of Amukamara’s first long term deal with a team in years. Maybe he’s been hitting the jugs machine hard. Whatever it is, he’s playing like a shutdown cornerback.
“Noquan” and small tidbits
Yes, Roquan Smith’s holdout reached Day 8 as his impasse with the Bears continues. You could tell Nagy was more annoyed by the developments as he was noticeably short in answers about any update on the situation. If the coach is concerned, he won’t outwardly saying it, but body language reveals all.
Floyd, for his part, said that “we still communicate with each other” regarding his former Georgia teammate and friend in Smith. If there’s frustration from Smith’s teammates in his absence, it doesn’t seem like they’re annoyed with the linebacker taking care of his livelihood. If one of the leaders and faces of the team in Floyd is okay with it, that message resonates to the rest of the roster.
Then there’s another edge rusher in rookie Kylie Fitts missing Friday’s practice due to an arm injury. An already dangerously thin pass rush group gets thinner if the college injury prone Fitts is enjoying previous poor fortune. With Aaron Lynch still out due to a hamstring, the Bears are one unlucky hit away from disaster. – R.
Robert is a writer and producer. He’ll be with the Bears all through training camp. You can find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.