Bears' defense must be wary of Washington's play action, even without a good run game

Bears' defense must be wary of Washington's play action, even without a good run game

A core tenant of football’s analytics revolution is that an offense does not need to establish the run to be effective using play action. The 2019 version of Jay Gruden’s offense in Washington has been a perfect example of that thought.

Only three quarterbacks entered Week 3 with a higher passer rating on play action than Case Keenum’s 145.8 clip. And he’s done it while his offense has averaged 2.5 yards per rushing attempt (30th) and 37.5 rushing yards per game (also 30th).

“Jay Gruden does a great job of creating a great offense and scheming against certain opponents,” Bears safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who played with Washington last year, said. “We just have to be good with our eyes, pay attention to the little things.”

It seems unlikely that Washington will be any better running the ball on Monday night against a dominant Bears front seven — even with Bilal Nichols (hand) all but assuredly out — than they were in Weeks 1 and 2 against the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys.

Adrian Peterson, a healthy scratch in Week 1, is Washington’s No. 1 running back with 2018 second-rounder Derrius Guice on injured reserve. Left tackle Trent Williams, one of the best run blocking tackles in the NFL, is still holding out. And the Bears are allowing a shade under three yards per carry, good for sixth in the league (and two of the teams ahead of them played the tanking Miami Dolphins).

But that doesn’t mean the Bears won’t be susceptible to getting beat on play action. Part of what makes Washington’s play action so good is the respect around the league for Peterson, who defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano quickly pointed out is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer the team still needs to take seriously.

The Bears stopped the run effectively against the Green Bay Packers in Week 1, yet still were beat on a deep ball following a play fake, too. Safety Eddie Jackson pointed to Aaron Rodgers’ deep heave to Marquez Valdes-Scantling in Week 1 — safety Deon Bush bit on play action on that chunk gain — as something the back end of the defense can’t let happen again.

“You've just got to keep your eyes in the right spot and play your keys and just focus in on your job or your man,” Jackson said. “If you've got man, they do a lot of things where they're you know chip-blocking, somebody free releases late or things like that to try to get you off your mark. We've just got to stay on top of our keys and play with discipline.”

Keenum has attempted three passes over the middle that traveled at least 40 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, hitting rookie speedster Terry McLaurin on one for a 69-yard touchdown in Week 1. The 31-year-old Keenum is 7/13 on passes traveling at least 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, with all seven of those completions coming over the middle. It's not just the deep balls where he's had success, it's the intermediate throws, too. 

So there will be a decent amount of pressure on the back end of the Bears' defense on Monday night, even if Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Roquan Smith, Danny Trevathan etc. are making sure Peterson isn’t a legitimate threat.

“They do a great job of selling the run on their play action with their offensive line,” Pagano said. “(Washington offensive line coach Bill) Callahan does a great job coaching those guys so it opens up big cavities in the big spaces between your second and third levels. And then you get one-on-one, big post routes, you know what happened to us in the first game against Green Bay.

“… They do a great job of it so between the run game, the play action, the boots, the waggles, the throwbacks, the screen game it's difficult. Because if it's not there then he checks it down and everybody's turning, they've got their backs turned and they're trying to find all those crossers and then they hit a back on a checkdown and you're having a hard time trying to get him on the ground.”

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can Trubisky help the Bears beat the Saints?


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can Trubisky help the Bears beat the Saints?

Hub Arkush, Sam Panayotovich and Ben Pope join Kelly Crull on the panel.

0:00- Mitch Trubisky practices again and he got all of the first-team reps. So will his return help the Bears upset the Saints on Sunday?

8:30- KC Johnson joins Kelly to discuss Luol Deng retiring a Bull, Wendell Carter, Jr.'s thumb injury and to preview the Bulls' preseason finale.

14:00- Ben has the latest on the Blackhawks including Jeremy Colliton's goaltender plans for the week. He also tells us if we should be worried about Jonathan Toews' slow start to the season.

21:00- Will Perdue joins the panel to talk about the importance of a good start this season for the Bulls. Plus, he has his

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Sports Talk Live Podcast


Matt Nagy's commitment to the run is fine, the Bears just have to run the ball better

Matt Nagy's commitment to the run is fine, the Bears just have to run the ball better

Matt Nagy’s run-pass balance, actually, has been fine in 2019. 

The Bears have run on 40 percent of their plays before the off week, a tick below the NFL average of 41 percent. Nagy is trying to commit to the run, too, on first down: His team has run the ball on 53 percent of its first-and-10 plays this year, slightly above the NFL average of 52 percent. 

On third and short (defined here as fewer than three yards to gain), too, it’s not like Nagy has been willing to ditch the run. The Bears have run on 55 percent of those third and short plays this year, just below the league average of 56 percent. 

Roughly: The Bears’ run-pass balance is the NFL average. That’s okay for an offense not good enough to lean heavily in one direction, like the San Francisco 49ers (56 percent run rate, highest in the NFL) or Kansas City Chiefs (66 percent pass rate, fifth-highest). 

And this doesn’t account for a bunch of quarterback runs, either. Mitch Trubisky and Chase Daniel have averaged 2.2 rushes per game in 2019; last year, those two averaged 5.1 rushing attempts per game. 

So that doesn’t jive with the narrative of Nagy not being willing to commit to running the ball. He is. The will is there, but the results aren’t. 

So why haven’t the results been there? To get there, we need to take a deep dive into what's gone wrong. 

Most of this article will focus on first and 10 plays, which have a tendency to set a tone for an entire drive. 
And rather surprisingly, the Bears don’t seem to be bad at running the ball on first and 10. Per, The Bears are averaging 4.1 yards per run on first and 10 with a 46 percent success rate — just below the NFL average of 4.3 yards per run and a 48 percent success rate. David Montgomery, taking out three first-and-goal-to-go runs, is averaging 3.7 yards per run on first and 10. 

That’s not great, of course, but Nagy would be pleased if his No. 1 running back was able to grind out three or four yards per run on first down. 

“If I’m calling a run, it needs to be a run and it’s not second and 10, it’s second and seven or six, right? That’s what we need to do,” Nagy said. 

The issue, though, is the Bears are 30th in the NFL in explosive rushing plays, having just three. In a small sample size, Cordarrelle Patterson’s 46-yard dash in Week 2 against the Denver Broncos skews the Bears’ average yards per run on first and 10 higher than it’ll wind up at the end of the year if something isn’t fixed. 

Only Washington and the Miami Dolphins have a worse explosive run rate than the Bears on first-and-10. 

“First down needs to be a better play for us,” Nagy said. “Run or pass.”

Not enough opportunity

There are several damning stats about the Bears’ offense this year, which Nagy acknowledged on Thursday. 

“That’s our offense right now,” Nagy said. “That’s the simple facts. So any numbers that you look at right now within our offense, you could go to a lot of that stuff and say that. We recognize that and we need to get better at that.”

That answer was in reference to Tarik Cohen averaging just 4.5 yards per touch, but can apply to this stat, too: 

The Bears are averaging 22 first-and-10 plays per game, per Pro Football Reference, the fourth-lowest average in the NFL (only the Jets, Steelers and Washington are lower). The team’s lackluster offense, which ranks 28th in first downs per game (17.4) certainly contributes heavily to that low number. 

But too: The Bears have been assessed eight penalties on first-and-10 plays, as well as one on a first-and-goal from the Minnesota Vikings’ five-yard line (a Charles Leno Jr. false start) and another offset by defensive holding (illegal shift vs. Oakland). 

“There’s probably not a lot of teams that are doing real great on second and long or third and long,” Nagy said. “So the other part of that too is you’re getting into first and 20 and now its second and 12.”

Can passing game help?

The Bears’ are gaining 6.3 yards per play on first-and-10 passes, the fourth-worst average in the NFL behind the Dolphins, Bengals and, interestingly, Indianapolis Colts (the Colts’ dominant offensive line, though, is allowing for an average of 5 1/2 yards per carry in those situations). 

So if the Bears aren’t having much success throwing on first-and-10, it could lead opposing defenses to feel more comfortable to sell out and stop the run. Or opposing defenses know they can stop the run without any extra effort, making it more difficult for the Bears to pass on first down. 

This is sort of a chicken-or-egg kind of deal. If the Bears run the ball more effectively on first down, it should help their passing game and vice versa. But having opposing defenses back off a bit with an effective passing game certainly couldn’t hurt. 

Situational tendencies

The Bears are atrocious at running the ball on second-and-long, and while 19 plays isn’t a lot, it’s too many. The Bears averaged 2.7 yards per carry on second-and-8-to-10-yard downs before their off week on those 19 plays, which either need to be fixed or defenestrated from a second-story window at Halas Hall. 

But on second and medium (four to seven yards, since we’re going with Nagy’s definition of run success here), the Bears are actually averaging more yards per carry (4.7) than yards per pass (4.5). Yet they’re passing on two-thirds of those plays, so if you’re looking for somewhere for Nagy to run the ball more, it might be here. 

And when the Bears do get into makable second-and-short (1-3 yards) situations, Nagy is over-committed to the run. The Bears ran on 72 percent of those plays before the off week — nearly 10 percent higher than the league average — yet averaged 1.9 yards per carry on them, 31st in the NFL behind Washington. 

“It's so easy as a player and a coach to get caught up in the trees,” Nagy said. “Especially on offense with some of the struggles that we've had, you get caught up in that and consume yourself with it. There's a right way and a wrong way with it and I feel like the past several days, really all of last week, I've had a good balance of being able to reflect, kinda reload on where we are, and I feel good with the stuff that we've done as a staff, that we've discussed where we're at and then looking for solutions. That's the No. 1 thing here.”

So what’s the solution?

Perhaps sliding Rashaad Coward into the Bears’ starting offensive line will inject some athleticism and physicality at right guard that could start opening up some more holes for the Bears’ backs. Perhaps it means less of Cohen running inside zone.

Perhaps it involves more of J.P. Holtz acting as a quasi-fullback. Perhaps it means getting more out of Adam Shaheen as a blocker. Perhaps it means, generally, better-schemed runs. 

Whatever the combination is, the Bears need to find it. 

But the solution to the Bears’ problem is not to run the ball more. It’s to run it better.