Mosher: Chicago Bears among smartest rushing teams in NFL

November 6, 2018

The Chicago Bears are now halfway through their season, sitting at 5-3 and atop the NFC North. Even for the most optimistic Bears fans, that has to feel surreal, considering where they were at this time last season.

With eight games in the books, we can take a look back and draw some pretty fair conclusions about this team. The first conclusion is that the Bears are one of the best teams in the NFC, as their two road losses came by a combined four points. Before this week, they were No. 5 in DVOA, and that should only rise after their impressive blowout win in Buffalo. They’re talented on both sides of the ball and have the pieces to make a run in the playoffs.

However, maybe the most impressive feat by the Bears this season is their coaching staff has put players in the best positions to succeed. Don’t believe me? Look no further than the Bears’ dynamic ground attack. Through eight games, the Bears have already rushed for more than 1,000 yards and have been one of the most efficient teams to reach that milestone. However, if you were to look at the box score or the season stats, you may come to a different conclusion about their run game.

On the year, lead back Jordan Howard has 439 rushing yards on 126 carries. That’s an average of 3.48 yards per carry, the lowest of his career. It is also the fewest amount of yards he has had in the first half of the season in his career (505 yards in 2016 and 662 yards in 2017).

On the surface, it may appear that Howard is in decline and that the team should scale back his work and use scat back Tarik Cohen more often (averaging 4.67 yards per carry on 49 attempts). However, that actually would hinder the Bears’ offense this season, when it has been significantly better as the result of finding a way to use Howard and Cohen to their strengths. How is the Bears’ coaching staff accomplishing this? It’s actually quite simple.

In 2018, Jordan Howard has the highest success rate of his career at 52 percent on the ground. In 2017, Howard totaled 1,122 yards on the ground but had a success rate of just 44 percent, one of the lowest in the NFL. Tarik Cohen has also seen a bump in efficiency, rising from 48 percent last year to 51 percent this season. Together, Howard and Cohen have combined to be one of the most efficient RB duos in the NFL.

In case you are unfamiliar, a successful run is defined like this:

1st down — 40 percent of yards gained needed for a first down

2nd down — 50 percent of yards gained needed for a first down

3rd and 4th down — First down gained or touchdown scored

(If you would like a full primer on successful runs, please check out my story on the subject from earlier this season.)

Basically, Howard’s role has changed dramatically this season. Under ex-Bears coach John Fox, Howard was used in nearly every situation but third-and-long. While he was gaining more yards, he wasn’t really impacting games. At the end of the game, Howard would have a lot of “empty” yards that didn’t actually help the Bears win.

For example, in 2017 Howard had the fourth-most second-and-10-plus runs in the NFL. He averaged just 3.1 yards per carry in those situations and had just a 22 percent success rate. Howard was gaining yardage, but he wasn’t really helping the team get first downs. The same thing was true for Cohen last season. But under Matt Nagy, Howard and Cohen are both being used in a way that maximizes their chance of being successful.

In Howard’s case, he’s no longer a featured back who is asked to carry the rock against any defense on any down. Instead, Howard is used in a way that fits his skill set, depending on the game situation. Shocking, right? It’s incredible what rational coaching can do for a player and their team. Head coach Matt Nagy has found a way to use his two backs in the run game to their fullest potential, and that should be about as simple as it gets. This is a “cheat sheet” of how and when the Bears will use their running backs, depending on the down and distance:

On first-and-10/long, the Bears will use Jordan Howard to run the ball (46 percent success rate)

On second-and-long, the Bears will use Tarik Cohen to run the ball (56 percent)

On second-and-short, the Bears will use Jordan Howard to run the ball (60 percent)

On third-and-long, the Bears will use Mitchell Trubisky to run the ball (43 percent)

On third-and-medium, the Bears will use Tarik Cohen to run the ball (40 percent)

On third-and-short, the Bears will use Jordan Howard to run the ball (46 percent)

This may seem like overkill, but let’s walk through each of these to show why Nagy uses specific players on specific downs. On first down, the Bears often see many defenders in the box, like most teams in the NFL. They need the player that can consistently grind out close to four yards per carry to keep the offense on schedule. On the season, Howard already has 67 runs on first down, when he is one of the most successful runners in the league. Given his size and power, it makes more sense to run him on this down than Cohen.

On second-and-long, the Bears will opt to use Cohen instead of Howard because he offers more speed to recoup yardage on a first-down incompletion or unsuccessful run. However, on second-and-short, the team goes back to Howard, as he has been dominant at gaining first downs this season. His 60 percent success rate on second downs is the best in the NFL. Chicago’s third-down usage of its “runners” isn’t surprising, either. On third-and-long, QB Mitchell Trubisky is often the one making plays with his legs, usually out of shotgun. On third-and-short, Howard gets the nod as he continues to be one of the best short-yardage runners in the NFL.

To Bears fans, none of this usage should be surprising. This is precisely how you would expect the team to use their stable of rushers. However, as we know in the NFL, coaches don’t always do the “rational” thing.

If the Bears can continue to play smart football and put players into positions to succeed, as they have in the first half of the season, then there is no reason that this team can’t become a real playoff threat. They have one of the best (smartest) rushing attacks in the league, a ton of weapons at receiver and a defense that can create turnovers at will.

In just one season, the Bears have gone from one of the bottom-ten teams in the league to a Super Bowl contender. That’s quite a turnaround in Chicago. Continuing to do the simple, logical things on offense will keep this team in contention for a long time.

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