Ground game matters to Chicago Bears and the NFL

December 29, 2018

The popular idea that the Bears don’t run the ball enough is preposterous, as is the notion that running the ball isn’t important anymore in the NFL.

Only seven teams have run the ball more often than the Bears. And, of the 10 teams that have run the ball the most this year, seven have already clinched playoff berths and two more – the Ravens and Titans – will be in the playoffs if they win Sunday.

That doesn’t mean that Bears coach Matt Nagy is satisfied with his team’s ground game. While the Bears are a satisfactory 14th in the league in rushing yards, they’re just 28th in average gain per rush (3.8 yards), and they’d be much worse without QB Mitch Trubisky’s 6.2-yard average on his 65 runs.

“I understand it because we really haven’t had too many explosive plays,” Nagy said of the frequent question about the run game. “We could be better there. But the running backs we have are so selfless. They don’t care. They don’t talk about, ‘I need more of this; I need more carries.’ They understand we do this offense collectively. They understand we run the ball, too.”

Nagy says he has gotten more comfortable with his team’s ability to run between the tackles, but the ground game is a long way from being a finished product. The truth is, the Bears are running the ball enough -- they’re just not running it very efficiently.

“There’s still so many things that we need to do better,” offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said. “And we’re leaving so many yards out there. At times, we’ve been more efficient throughout the last 3-4 games, and part of that has been on the ground. But we need to be more productive. When we have things blocked, we need to make more yards.

“Sometimes it’s a vision thing. Sometimes it’s a feel thing. Maybe that’s part of still trying to find out exactly what we are best at. But I think up front, overall, we did a decent job in the O-line area. Overall, that’s trending in the right direction.”

That leads to the premise that RB Jordan Howard isn’t getting the ball often enough to perform at peak efficiency, which is flawed. Howard is averaging just two carries less per game than he did last season, when he averaged 4.1 yards per carry. He’s averaging 3.6 this year.

“I feel like a month ago we were really still trying to figure out exactly who we were with our identity (in the run game),” Nagy said. “I do believe we’re starting to get closer to it. We’re still not there yet.”

The Bears have averaged 125.5 rushing yards in the past four games after rushing for fewer than 65 yards in three of the previous four games. Nagy believes the Bears have an effective mix, not only for maximizing their offense but also for keeping opposing defenses guessing.

“We’re not a team -- and I don’t know how many teams there are – that just comes out and run, run, run, run, run, run, and then pass, pass, pass and run at the end,” Nagy said. “We’re all over the place, and I think that’s an advantage for us, that hopefully we don’t have a lot of tendencies as to when we do call runs.”

In its first year implementing a new scheme, the offense as a whole remains a work in progress.

“We still don’t know our exact identity in the pass game,” Nagy said. “We’re getting closer. Where we’re at right now as a team is, we’ve got to make sure (of) ball security with the defense that we have. We’ve got to make sure we protect the football. We’ve got to protect the football. We are getting better situationally. Overall, we still have room to grow. But that’s not unexpected.”

So it’s difficult, even for Nagy, to say what the Bears’ identity is in the run game. And that’s fine, as long as it’s a challenge for opposing defenses to figure out what the Bears’ identity is.

Long could return

OG Kyle Long seems to be on schedule for getting his first game snaps Sunday since he suffered a foot injury in Week Seven that landed him on injured reserve.

“Just talking to him throughout the week, I feel pretty good with him playing most of the game,” coach Matt Nagy said. “But we’ve just got to see if that’s where we’re at, and if it is a pitch count.”

Nagy said Long “petty much,” made it through full practices this week. Long, who spent eight weeks in a walking boot before his return to practice late last week, said he’d be fine playing on a pitch count Sunday

“I think that would probably be the smart thing to do,” he said, “but it’s not my decision.”

The other injury news wasn’t as positive. It appears as if S Eddie Jackson (sprained ankle), WR Allen Robinson (ribs) and OLB Aaron Lynch will not play Sunday. None of the three practiced this week and were all listed as “doubtful.” DL Bilal Nichols (knee), who was limited on Friday, is questionable.

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