In sequestering his starters for nearly the entire preseason, Matt Nagy has accomplished perhaps one unspoken goal — keeping the revamped running game under wraps until the Sept. 5 opener against the Packers.
While most projections for the Bears offense in Year 2 have rightfully centered on quarterback Mitch Trubisky and improvements he can make, the ground game could make the biggest difference.
Nagy termed the running game a work in progress into December last season, saying the Bears were trying to “massage their identity.” At times he appeared bored with a ground attack led by Jordan Howard. As one NFL scout put it, Howard isn’t nearly as much fun for a play-caller as Kareem Hunt was for the Chiefs in 2017, when Nagy got his first chance to direct an offense under coach Andy Reid.
The Bears finished 26th in the league with 4.1 yards per carry last season, and their rushing statistics were propped up by Trubisky, who was fifth among quarterbacks with 421 yards (6.2 per attempt).
Now Nagy has his handpicked backfield after signing Mike Davis in free agency ($6 million for two seasons) and trading up to draft David Montgomery in the third round. They also added Cordarrelle Patterson, who had twice as many rushes (42) as receptions (21) for the Patriots last season. Howard was traded to the Eagles, Taquan Mizzell was moved to wide receiver and Benny Cunningham was not re-signed.
Pair Davis and Montgomery with Tarik Cohen and potentially Patterson, and with more shimmy and shake in the backfield, the running game should be much more interesting to Nagy.
We’ve yet to really see it at work. Montgomery and Davis had three carries each in the preseason opener, and Cohen hasn’t had a touch. They’re expected to remain in bubble wrap until the games count, creating intrigue as Nagy’s mentor Reid has a history of dynamic rushing attacks with backs such as Hunt, Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Brian Westbrook and Duce Staley.
Even when the Bears had successful runs a year ago, too often they failed to capitalize on opportunities. Flash back to the playoff loss to the Eagles when the Bears won the coin toss and deferred, a strategy designed to flip the game with a score late in the second quarter and again on the first possession of the third quarter. It almost worked.
Cody Parkey made a 29-yard field goal on the final play of the first half, staking the Bears to a 6-3 lead. They got the ball to open the second half, and a third-and-1 play on that possession from their 46-yard line encapsulates what had to frustrate Nagy and his staff throughout the season.
From the shotgun formation, Trubisky handed the ball to Howard as tight end Ben Braunecker came across the formation to kick out the edge. The split flow zone was designed for a cutback. Howard saw the cutback lane and headed to it but labored through the hole. Safety Malcolm Jenkins, influenced by Trubisky’s fake, was late to fold inside but managed to bring Howard down with one arm.
Howard popped up after gaining 5 yards — a first down — and hopped up and down three times, realizing the wide-open space ahead of him meant 5 yards should have been 15, 25, maybe more. The Eagles didn’t have a safety in the middle of the field, and if Howard maintained his feet, it would have been a foot race against cornerbacks to the end zone. Maybe he wouldn’t have scored, but it should have been a chunk gain that put the Bears deep in Eagles territory.
It was a positive play and of course the Bears were happy with the first down. But it was a great play call with good design and should have gone for much more — and has to in a playoff game that wound up decided by one point. As it turned out, Trubisky was sacked on the next play, and after two more snaps the Bears punted. Opportunity lost.
How the running game shapes up against the Packers and in the games to follow will be interesting. Montgomery figures to get the most carries, but Nagy will have no shortage of options. We haven’t seen enough of it to say for sure, and live plays in practice have been few and far between.
“You don’t really know until you get into the start of the season where it’s going to be,” Nagy said. “We’ve got new players there and we’re looking at some things to do that we like. But you’re right, there wasn’t a lot of live and they’re not getting a whole lot of preseason (action). You’ve got to have trust in your players and in your scheme and in your coaches that when you get out there throughout the beginning of the season that your run game is going to be more effective than it was last year.
“It’s about the players. We like where we’re at in our running back room now. We think they have good vision, they can do a lot of different things on first, second and third down. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
The Chiefs’ offensive numbers can be blinding because of Patrick Mahomes’ success last year, but Reid traditionally has had a high-powered running game using a lot of misdirection with pre- and post-snap movement to grab eyes and create natural cutback lanes and downhill runs. Reid has always mixed personnel like crazy with all sorts of imaginative formations, much like the Bears did last season under Nagy.
Ask offensive linemen what they would like to do, and they’ll tell you running the ball 30-plus times per game is a great goal.
“We clearly had a lot of success with other things,” left tackle Charles Leno said. “If you highlight one thing that was probably the struggle of our offense, it was the run game. That was last year. We’re on to new things now.”
Montgomery and Davis both run with good contact balance. They can slip off a would-be tackler and keep going. As a rookie in 2016, Howard was excellent after first contact, averaging 2.22 yards, third in the NFL. That figure dipped to 1.87 in 2017 and to 1.57 last year, ranking 42nd in the league. Even with a strong month to close the season, Howard (935 yards, nine touchdowns) finished with 3.7 yards per carry, 39th among qualifying backs.
The other thing about Howard last season — and the third-down run against the Eagles is a prime example — is he didn’t run with the burst and speed through the hole that he did earlier in his career.
A running back’s timed speed in the 40-yard dash isn’t very important. Montgomery and Davis should be an upgrade over Howard when it comes to their burst — the time it takes them to get from zero to 10 yards. When daylight starts to close fast, a running back must navigate the hole with speed. When he does that, he’s at the second level and you’re looking at a chunk gain.
If the new backs find ways to wriggle through closing holes, the Bears will reduce the number of stuffs — defined as running plays stopped at or before the line of scrimmage. They had 46 last year, tied for sixth most in the league.
Add the ability of Montgomery and Davis to catch the ball out of the backfield — that was a true weakness for Howard — and the screen game should be more potent, which should help Trubisky.
“You have to be able to run the football,” Nagy said. “You have to have the threat of the run. You need to be able to play-pass, have movement, have screens to settle down these pass rushers (that) nowadays are so fast, you’ve got to be able to give your linemen an advantage.
“Well, let’s let the line tee off a little bit on a run game. But you’ve got to be effective. You can’t have 1- and 2-yard gains. You’ve got to have some chunks so you can pick that up. We need to be better in the run game. That’s a focus for us, and our guys understand that.”
How much Nagy commits to the running game will be fascinating. Roster construction — all of the moves at the position — tells you it could be a major emphasis in a year with tremendous focus on Trubisky.
Play callers don’t get labeled geniuses for drawing up running plays, and Nagy is a former quarterback. But his background under Reid suggests the Bears will be more committed to the ground game and more successful.
The big reveal comes Sept. 5 against the Packers.