There are times in football to do things the traditional way, to go by the book. And there are other times when it's best to throw that book away in order to do something radical and unexpected.
On Monday night, the nearly 62,000 fans that packed Soldier Field saw two examples of what happens when a team decides to roll the dice and execute a trick play to perfection. The Bears lost 20-17 to Minnesota in the Week 5 contest, but despite falling short on the scoreboard, Chicago took full advantage of a couple of opportunities the Vikings presented them thanks to some innovative and perfectly-executed calls. By thinking out of the box and dialing up a pair of bold calls, the Bears were able to overcome some of their own mistakes and stay close in a hard-fought contest.
The first of the two trick plays called by the Bears came at a time when the team needed it most, midway through the third quarter when it felt like the game may slip away. Minnesota led by one point at halftime, but then the Vikings had a 13-play, 75-yard drive – which concluded with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph – to start off the third quarter. Reserve quarterback Case Keenum, who had replaced started Sam Bradford just before halftime, was 7-for-8 on the drive. Following the kickoff, Chicago gained a couple of first downs but eventually stalled, forcing a punt to give the ball back to the Vikings and the red-hot Keenum.
Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky scores a two-point conversion.
However, Jeff Rodgers saw something to exploit. During the 11 days of preparation for the Vikings, the Chicago special teams coordinator found something in Minnesota's punt coverage that he felt his squad could take advantage of. Rodgers told safety Adrian Amos, the up-man on Chicago's punt coverage unit, to look for the specific key he had found. If Minnesota's return unit showed the look, Amos was to check out of a punt and punter Pat O'Donnell was going to throw a pass to running back/blocker Benny Cunningham.
On fourth-and-six from the Minnesota 38-yard line, the Bears lined up in their standard punt formation. The Vikings showed the exact look that the Bears expected, and Amos made his call. "(Adrian) told me earlier today, 'If I make the check, you better complete the pass," O'Donnell said. The punter did his job. He lofted a soft 15-yard throw to Cunningham, who was wide open in the middle of the field. The runner did the rest, evading one tackler and then spinning around Vikings returner Marcus Sherels before galloping into the end zone.
"When I saw the guy lined up over me continue to rush, I had a good feeling," Cunningham said. "We already knew the look we would get. So when he continued to rush up field, I just knew, at that moment, just focus on the catch."
"It was a great play call," O'Donnell added. "Jeff Rodgers found the look we needed, so we executed it well. Benny Cunningham wasn't going to get denied, he made a couple of guys miss, so it worked out."
The thrilling play didn't exactly slow down the Vikings offense, however. Keenum led Minnesota right back down the field, going 82 yards in just five plays, capped off by a 58-yard touchdown run by Jerick McKinnon. That put the Vikings ahead by eight points again, and the Bears' next drive took the game into the fourth quarter. If Chicago scored, they were going to have to add a two-point conversion as well. That's when the second example of trickery took place.
Rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, using both his arms and legs, put the Bears in position to tie. He led an 11-play scoring drive, with the points coming on his first-career touchdown pass, a 20-yard strike to Zach Miller that the tight end had to snag out of the air off a deflection. For the two-point play, Chicago lined up in the shotgun, with a receiver split wide to each side, running back Jordan Howard to Trubisky's right and Miller going in motion from left-to-right.
Trubisky took the snap, handed the ball to Howard, who then handed it off to Miller. The tight end, who played quarterback at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, took two steps before pitching the ball over Minnesota linebacker Anthony Barr back to Trubisky, who had nobody around him as he walked into the end zone. It's a play the Bears had introduced during training camp and try in practice every week, but waited until the exact right moment to use it in a game.
"That's fun; takes me back to my college days," Miller said. "Great call and design, really just great execution for all of us across the board. Good opportunity for us to get back in the game and tie it up, but we have to finish things."
When the Bears tossed aside the traditional book and decided to use some trickeration, the gambles paid off. But the two-point pass form the tight end to the quarterback ended up being the last points Chicago scored on the night. The radical plays kept the team close, but it wasn't quite enough to earn the team a win.