The Bears identified David Montgomery as the centerpiece of their run game overhaul earlier this year, trading up in the third round to draft him with the 73rd overall pick. Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy, then, didn’t envision Montgomery averaging just 3.5 yards per carry a dozen games into his rookie year.
But that’s where the Bears stand with Montgomery, who’s rushed 172 times for 594 yards as the Bears enter the final four games of 2019. It feels like Nagy trusts Montgomery, but not the Bears’ run game.
“I’m very happy with where he’s at,” Nagy said last week. “Love the kid to death and I think he has a really bright future.”
But the Bears need to get more production out of Montgomery, whose three best games have come against bad and depleted defenses (Washington, the Chargers, the Lions). He’s averaged fewer than three yards per carry in five games this year, leading Nagy — who has a quick trigger finger with going away from the run anyway — to have games like Green Bay and New Orleans where he shows no trust in the run game at all.
But the Bears’ positive assessment of Montgomery is grounded in reality. All the things he did at Iowa State have showed up in the NFL — the shiftiness, the toughness, the patience, the vision, etc. It’s how he was able to turn this...
And then this...
... Into a 10-yard gain and a first down on the Bears’ game-winning drive against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving. The stop-start ability, patience and toughness to grind out five extra yards after contact are all reasons why the Bears wanted Montgomery, and felt comfortable trading Jordan Howard — who, based on his running style, would’ve been stopped at the line of scrimmage — to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Plays like that one are why Nagy, in the game, said he felt like the Bears were gaining five yards per carry (Montgomery averaged 4.7) — a feel which helped him open up his playbook and call more running plays.
“It makes it a lot easier, because it’s open to what the next play call’s gonna be based off of second-and-3, second-and-4, second-and-5,” Nagy said. “It’s way easier. You felt that. Now, every week is different, because there’s some weeks where you play a defensive line or a defensive front that’s totally (different).
“You can’t just put on Tecmo Bowl and all the sudden be playing this front on arcades. … It’s different every week, so we’ve gotta try to scheme things up as much as we can. But last week felt good.”
The question, then, becomes: How do the Bears get this out of Montgomery on a consistent basis, and not just against sub-optimal run defenses missing guys like Damon “Snacks” Harrison?
Part of it, certainly, is Nagy’s scheme and playcalling. Montgomery is the kind of back who can wear down a defense with his physicality, even if he’s only gaining three yards per carry over the first two or three quarters. There needs to be a greater long-term commitment to getting Montgomery touches.
Of note: It does not necessarily mean running more under center. Montgomery is averaging three yards per carry when the Bears are under center (91 attempts) and four yards per carry from the shotgun (81 attempts), though that latter number is skewed thanks to a 55-yard run against the Chargers in Week 8. Even removing that run from Montgomery’s shotgun runs, he’s averaging 3.3 yards per carry in those — still higher than his under center average.
But there’s a larger issue in play here, and it’s the Bears’ offensive line.
It’s a problem that pre-dates Montgomery and Nagy’s scheme and playcalling, too. Pulling from Football Outsiders’ offensive line database:
3.65 adjusted line yards (28th)
58% power success (26th)
26% stuffed (28th)
1.2 second level yards (11th)
3.92 adjusted line yards (28th)
67% over success (18th)
20.5% stuffed (22nd)
0.96 second level yards (31st)
2019 (through Week 12)
3.61 adjusted line yards (29th)
46% power success (30th)
21% stuffed (24th)
0.73 second level yards (32nd)
The pattern here: The Bears have not been efficient running the ball with different schemes and running back depth charts, though they've largely had the same personnel on their offensive line. Charles Leno, Cody Whitehair, Kyle Long and Bobby Massie have accounted for 66.8 percent of the snaps played by Bears offensive linemen in the last three years, serving well as pass protectors but not as run blockers.
The addition of James Daniels in 2018 did not help improve the Bears’ run game, nor has replacing Long with Rashaad Coward in 2019 under the watch of offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.
And the Bears have little wiggle room for changes to this unit in the offseason. Massie and Whitehair signed new contracts in 2019 and aren’t going anywhere. Leno carries a dead cap figure of over $7 million in 2020. Daniels’ cap hit is a shade over $1.5 million next year, too, making him a valuable asset for a team lacking gobs of cap space.
Effectively, you can expect all four of those players to return in 2020, with the only question being where Daniels and Whitehair play on the interior. At this point in their careers, Leno, Whitehair and Massie are all who they are, for better or for worse (Whitehair, to be fair, is still one of the Bears’ best players). So expecting significant improvement from that group may not be fair, Daniels aside.
That leaves right guard as the position up for grabs, with Long likely to be cut and Coward likely to slide into a reserve role in 2020. But how much improvement, realistically, can the Bears get out of one addition to their offensive line room?
Washington’s Brandon Scherff is the top guard free-agent-to-be, but the Bears would have to get creative — and not address other holes on the roster — to sign him to, say, a five-year, $65 million deal with $35 million or so guaranteed (he might even command more than that). Someone like New Orleans’ Andrus Peat, a former top-10 pick who’s currently out with an arm injury, could be a less-pricey — but still pricey — option, given he was a Pro Bowler in 2018.
The Bears could also target a guard with one of their two second-round picks, seeing as they used one on Whitehair (2016) and Daniels (2018).
It feels like the Bears need a physical brawler to play right guard, sort of along the lines of what Long was in his prime. But those guys are not necessarily easy to find, especially with limited resources.
This is the root of the Bears’ run game problems. An offensive line consistently generating a run push would give Nagy the confidence to call more running plays, giving Montgomery more opportunities to carve out a consistent four or five yards per carry.
But finding the solution to this problem does not appear easy. And that may mean the Bears go through 2020 without an effective run game, again.