A chronic problem continues to haunt the Bears.
It involves their running game and it is an issue well concealed by the fact they were sixth in rushing heading into Week 12 of the season.
Coach Matt Nagy said the Detroit Lions tried playing with seven defenders near the line devoted to stopping the run, but situated in a way so they could play cover-2 zone in pass coverage. This shouldn’t be easy to do.
The Lions were next to last in run defense but held the Bears to 92 rushing yards.
“I thought we did a good job of counter-attacking that through the pass game,” Nagy said. “We were able to get that going and get some chunks.”
It’s still not creating the advantage that effective rushing from backs brings as a different dimension to complement the passing game.
“It was just one of those days,” Nagy said. “We would’ve loved to be able to get the run game going a little bit more for the averages that we had, but we can’t get away from that. You’ve gotta credit Detroit. They did a good job.”
The Real Bears Running Problem
It wasn’t just “one of those days.” Those days have happened far too much with this team for it to be happenstance. When it happens against a bad run defense, there is a problem.
This was an underlying issue all last year, and it still exists. The running game within the Bears offense will not work unless they have a mobile quarterback.
The fact they have had various incarnations of their offensive line in the past two seasons and it still exists tends to point to the way they wed their blocking schemes and play design as the issue.
It all became apparent last year when Nick Foles replaced Mitchell Trubisky as starter for seven games, and played a half of another game. The Bears averaged 54.3 yards rushing per game from players other than the quarterback without Trubisky in the lineup. When he was in the lineup, they were averaging 123 yards a game.
The Bears went into this season with Justin Fields instead of Trubisky and Andy Dalton a bit more mobile than Foles, but still not mobile like their rookie passer. The difference is nearly as pronounced.
There has been one outlier to the last two seasons and it was the season opener against the Rams when backs and receivers rushed for 5.1 yards per carry and 118 yards and Dalton played quarterback.
But if you watched the game you know something that the stat sheet didn’t show and that was the Rams didn’t care what the Bears did running the ball. They came out throwing deep with Matthew Stafford piling up a big lead with 321 yards passing, while the Bears just kept running and being patient while down big early. They were running against soft zone coverage designed to prevent them from coming back with the pass and they couldn’t get in the end zone enough to counter the big deficit.
In the rest of this season, the same problem persisted. Except for his debut against Cleveland and the total blowout at Tampa Bay, the Bears ran the ball effectively with David Montgomery and Khalil Herbert whenever Fields was at quarterback. In those games they got behind and had to throw anyway.
In games when Fields and Dalton each played half a game due to injuries to the other, the stats reveal this problem clearly.
Against Cincinnati, the running backs and receivers ran for 32 yards on nine carries with Dalton playing and without him 60 yards on 15 carries. When Fields was playing against Baltimore in the first half and on first drive of the second half, the Bears had 11 carries by non-quarterbacks for 50 yards. In the second half without Fields they only attempted to run four times with their backs. This indicates coaches realize the issue.
Then came the Lions game and they couldn’t run again without the mobile QB even against a poor run defense.
The reason for this is the same as it was last year, beyond having a line not as good as the best lines in the game. Defenses fear the quarterback running on bootlegs or throwing on bootlegs, so they keep their defensive ends or edge players home out of fear. Or they see the RPO plays and the same thing happens to some extent with defenders on the edge staying home to bottle up the ball carrier and keep running lanes narrow.
It’s a Design Issue
When there is a Dalton or Foles at quarterback, defenses crash the ends down on runs without hesitation and frequently disrupt the runner in the backfield. Montgomery takes a hit in the backfield or at the line and will get 2 or 3 yards instead of 5 to 7.
The outside zone blocking scheme develops nicely when the defense must keep the edges at home because the defensive front gets scattered widely and nicely across the line of scrimmage. Holes become more apparent. They aren’t bunched up as much. With fewer defenders at the point of attack to block, linemen can get to the second level and hit linebackers or safeties as well.
Then you get big runs breaking.
In RPO, the third option of the quarterback keeping it and running will always prevent ends from crashing. If it’s Dalton or Foles and they run RPO, it’s going to be either Montgomery or a pass. The run out of RPO will have real problems then.
It’s mostly a design flaw and completely overhauling the attack could solve this. If they used tight ends differently as blockers differently within the scheme it could help. The same goes for wide receivers, but that requires some bigger receivers.
The best solution would be to have an entirely dominant offensive line personnel-wise, one capable of effectively blocking inside zone scheme, outside zone while also pass-blocking well. This takes plenty of time to develop.
The Kansas City Chiefs run the offense which spawned Nagy’s system but as he pointed out on Friday, neither the Bears system nor the Chiefs attack are the same as in 2018 when he came to Chicago. Also, the Chiefs have had extremely good lines at various points, and their running attack always operated well with a mobile Alex Smith or very mobile Patrick Mahomes playing quarterback.
But the Bears do not have the dominant line and currently don’t have the mobile quarterback. It would take more than one year to develop that kind of line and they have to stay healthy. This line has been anything but intact throughout the year.
So they’re going to have trouble running now.
This coaching staff isn’t going to solve the scheme issue when it has existed for so long.
Maybe the next staff will solve it by scrapping it entirely and going to something that works.
The other alternative is they wait for their mobile quarterback, Fields, to heal and develop into a passer the rest of the league fears.
Then defenses will have to pick and choose which way they want to accept their defeat, by Fields’ running or by his passing.
At that point, it won’t matter who the coach is or what the system is they choose. Bears fans will be elated.