This is part of a series of collaborations between film guru Robert Schmitz of Windy City Gridiron and stats guy Johnathan Wood of Da Bears Blog. We’re excited to be working together to bring fans of both sites great content by combining our approaches.
Previously, we’ve identified the deep passing game as one area where Mitchell Trubisky struggled in 2018. He missed a lot of throws to open targets, which resulted both in a low completion percentage and too many interceptions.
However, we also showed that deep passing performance is highly variable, and thus Trubisky is likely to improve there in 2019, especially with some tweaks in his throwing mechanics that can be made to help his accuracy.
Today we want to look at what targets would benefit most from that expected deep ball improvement, should it happen. In order to do that, I used Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Finder to look at what players Trubisky targeted deep most frequently in 2018. That information is shown in the table below for all five players who were primary weapons for the Bears in 2018.
Allen Robinson was Trubisky’s most frequently targeted deep threat, but Anthony Miller got – by far – the highest portion of his total targets and yards from Trubisky on deep plays. Despite finishing 5th on the team in targets and yards, both by a healthy margin, he was 3rd in deep targets and 2nd in deep yards.
So while a rising tide should lift all boats, Miller appears to be the one with the most to gain from Trubisky improving his accuracy on deep passes in 2019, especially if he is able to earn a larger share of the overall passing game in his sophomore campaign than he did while battling shoulder issues as a rookie.
The Film Study
Anthony Miller is a funny case to study, and Johnathan’s numbers above illustrate exactly what I mean when I say that. Why is Miller, a shifty receiver known for his route-running (and not his speed), apparently a deep target in Matt Nagy’s offense? This question’s answer may surprise you – Miller’s unusual abundance of deep targets doesn’t seem to come from his ability to get open deep, but rather because all the short targets that “should’ve” gone to Miller instead went to Allen Robinson. Think about it — how many times did you see plays like those shown below? (Data side note: Robinson saw 38% of his targets on slants and curls compared to just 15% for Miller).
That’s right, when Trubisky and the Bears needed an 8-12 yard first down, they’d often shift Robinson into Miller’s slot position and call a one-read slant or curl route that, theoretically, Miller would’ve run otherwise. From a pure player perspective this switch makes plenty of sense – Robinson is literally a bigger person, giving him both a larger catch radius and a better ability to take hits over the middle, but the switch also takes away from Miller’s opportunity to produce in the short game and leaves him with the lopsided Deep Yards % numbers we see above. It may sound cliché, but there’s only one football to go around, and with a developing sophomore QB in a brand-new offense that needed to keep things simple, Miller often found himself the 2nd or 3rd option on plays where the ball simply wasn’t going to come to him. Thankfully, he had a penchant for getting open deep that made him hard to ignore.
Truly, the wildest part about Anthony Miller’s deep receptions making up 55.1% of his total yardage is that that number is wildly low compared to what it could’ve been – for some reason, most of Trubisky’s biggest misses on deep passes came when throwing to, you guessed it, Anthony Miller. Check out the plays I’ve listed below – if Trubisky hits these throws, Miller might’ve added 200 yards or more to his season, rocketing his Deep Yards % up to 69.5%+.
With these misses in mind, and Miller’s subsequent loss of yardage from them, I can only assume that an improvement in Trubisky’s deep accuracy will benefit Miller the most. Unless Miller is able to wrestle away targets from Gabriel, his role will likely remain what it is – a flexible receiver that consistently sneaks behind defenses, punishing them for over-pursuing Gabriel and Robinson.