Every team in the NFL does some things better than others. Some teams are particularly good at one thing, maybe even the best in the league. Think the New England Patriots and their play-action seam pass to the tight end. Or the Pittsburgh Steelers with the counter run. Or the Carolina Panthers' goal-line QB keeper.
None of these signature strengths are a secret. Opponents prepare for them in the film room and on the practice field, and yet these teams continue to succeed with the same concepts. That is, of course, often due to the presence of some especially skilled players, like Rob Gronkowski in New England, Le'Veon Bell in Pittsburgh and Cam Newton in Carolina. Still, these well-known plays generally require precise execution by many of the 11 players on the field. And when they work, they are often a thing of beauty, at least to football fans.
Each game week during Tampa Bay's 2018 regular season, we are going to look at a "Signature Play" that the Buccaneers upcoming opponent utilizes often and particularly well. With the help of images of a sample play at various points during its execution, we're going to try to understand why this play commonly works so well. This week, the opponent is the Chicago Bears, who have a newly-creative offense under first-year Head Coach Matt Nagy, who has found some interesting ways to use one of his key free agency additions, former Philadelphia tight end Trey Burton.
CHICAGO BEARS' SIGNATURE PLAY: TRICKY WAYS TO DEPLOY TE TREY BURTON
The Bears have a new head coach in 2018, having plucked from the fruitful Andy Reid coaching tree. Chicago replaced John Fox with Matt Nagy, who had spent his entire NFL coaching career under Reid, first in Philadelphia and then with the Kansas City Chiefs for the last five years. Nagy followed Reid to Kansas City in 2013, in the process moving up from a quality control coach to the Chiefs' quarterbacks coach, and in 2016 he took over as the team's offensive coordinator.
Some of the offensive concepts that Reid and Nagy employed in Kansas City are now on display in Chicago, and that includes some creative ways to use a versatile tight end. That was Travis Kelce in Kansas City and now its Trey Burton in Chicago. Burton isn't as big as Kelce but he's very athletic.
Nagy's Bears were busy in the offseason reloading the offensive cast around second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. That included signing two receivers (Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel) in free agency and grabbing another (Anthony Miller) in the second round of the draft, but it also included luring Burton away from the Super Bowl champs for a bigger role with the Bears. Burton was the second tight end for the Eagles behind Zach Ertz but he's the focal point in Chicago, and the Bears are finding a lot of ways to deploy him.
A college quarterback, Burton famously threw the a touchdown pass – the now-famous "Philly Special" – in the Super Bowl, and the Bears have even used him as the quarterback in a Wildcat formation. Another way Nagy utilized Burton's talents earlier this year is what we're going to look at today as our Signature Play. Essentially, the play combined an RPO option with a shovel pass, and ended with Burton in the end zone against Seattle on Monday Night Football.
This first shot sets the scene, which took place on September 17 of this year, in the Bears-Seahawks Week Two Monday night matchup at Soldier Field. It's 10 minutes into the first quarter, with the Bears near the Seahawks' goal line on their first possession, following a Seattle punt on the game's opening drive.
Nagy's Bears seem to have scripted their opening drives quite well this year, as has often been the case through the years with Reid's teams. In Week One, they scored a touchdown on a 10-play drive in Green Bay on their first possession, on their way to a 20-0 lead that unfortunately could not withstand the comeback efforts of a limping Aaron Rodgers. In last Sunday's Week Three win at Arizona, the Bears mounted an 11-play drive to open the game but ended up with a missed field goal.
This Week Two drive was also a success, with 11 plays preceding this one, most of them Jordan Howard runs and short throws by Trubisky, with a 17-yard scramble by the quarterback mixed in. A defensive holding call on Seattle made it first-and-goal at the three. That's when the Bears got tricky with Trey.
We can use a tight end-zone shot to show the formation before the snap, as Chicago has all 11 of its players bunched in the middle of the field. Trubisky is in the shotgun with shifty running back Tarik Cohen aligned to his right. The Bears are in "12" personnel, which means they have one back and two tight ends on the field, with Burton over the right tackle and blocking tight end Deon Sims over the left tackle. The tight ends are lined up off the ball while the two receivers – Gabriel to the left and Robinson to the right are on the line and pulled in tight.
The Seahawks have four down linemen playing one-gap ball, with two 300-pound defensive tackles, Jarran Reed and Poona Ford, in the middle. Chicago's offensive line, from left to right, is LT Charles Leno, LG Eric Kush, C Cody Whitehair, RG Kyle Long and RT Bobby Massie, and all five of them will do something important on this play.
At the snap, Cohen will cut in front of Trubisky, going right to left, and Trubisky will plant the ball in his stomach; this is the RPO portion of the play, or at least what presents as an option to hand off or pass. The play may be designed only to fake the handoff with Trubisky knowing all along he's going to pass it. If it is an RPO, Trubisky is reading the reaction of the defensive end, Nazair Jones, who is filling the gap over left tackle that was created when Gabriel and Sims rushed out to their right to wall off a linebacker and a cornerback.
Jones clearly believes the handoff to Cohen and is moving to his right. Linebacker Austin Calitro has read the play as a handoff, too, and is also moving to his right, not only because of what Cohen is doing but because right guard Kyle Long is pulling in that direction, further selling the run to the left.
Meanwhile, Kush and Whitehair are doing an excellent job of pinning Ford and Reed, respectively, with one-on-one blocks, sealing both of them off to the right. As Calitro starts to flow to his right (the offense's left), Leno, the left tackle, takes off in the opposite direction. Because Kush and Whitehair have done their jobs so effectively, Leno doesn't have to help with the defensive tackles and is instead free to seek out linebacker Mychal Kendricks. Kendricks started out in line with the right tackle but is now reading the direction of the play and is headed to his right (the offense's left). Leno prevents that, getting all the way down to the other end of the line to wall off the linebacker.
The two receivers also help make the play look like a run by immediately trying to block the defensive backs lined up in front of them, though Robinson's man, safety Bradley McDougald, immediately dashes to his right and never engages with the receiver. With all of this going on, Burton is essentially lost to the defense as he darts from his starting spot outside and behind the right tackle to his left, running parallel to the offensive line. The one man who does know where Burton is going is Trubisky.
After getting Jones and Calitro flowing to his left with the handoff action, Trubisky pulls the ball back out of the back's grasp and quickly executes a shovel pass to Burton, who keeps his eyes on the ball but is already starting to bend his route up the field and into the hole that has been created between the Jones-Calitro combo and the two defensive tackles.
The Seahawks defenders aren't fooled for long. Calitro, in particular, sees the pitch and tries to turn back to his left but it takes him a moment to stop his leftward momentum. That moment is enough. Ford also does a good job of shoving himself away from Kush and lunging back towards Burton, but he can't get there in time either.
Burton splits Calitro and Ford and dives over the goal-line for the touchdown, giving the Bears a 7-0 lead. They would go on to win 24-17 and are now 2-1 on the season and in first place in the NFC Central as they await a visit from the Buccaneers. The Bears' defense, led by trade-acquisition Khalil Mack, probably deserves the largest share of credit for that good start; Chicago is ranked 26th in the league on offense while the defense has the fifth spot and is leading the NFL with 14 sacks. But Nagy's team made an effort to add playmakers around Trubisky in the offseason and now they are making use of those playmakers in some creative ways. Tight end Trey Burton is one of their favorite players with which to unleash that creativity.