Is the Bears’ run game working?
It’s a simple (fine, lazy) question that, however binary, continues to have a complicated answer. It quickly became pretty clear that the David Montgomery-Tarik Cohen combination would be a work in progress, and on the surface, neither have particularly impressive stats thus far. The team ranks 29th in rushing DVOA and only the Dolphins (3-10) and the Jets (5-8) have a lower average yards per carry than the Bears (3.5).
But check this out: The Bears are 7-2 when they rush the ball 20+ times. They’re winless (0-4) when they run it any less.
“For our offense, I just appreciate the way that our guys have continued to just fight through this year and try to figure out where we're at,” Matt Nagy said on Monday. “I do feel a lot better with where we're at right now as an offense. That part, that's good, and that's a credit to our guys.”
The obvious talking point when it comes to the Bears’ running woes has been Tarik Cohen’s decline in production. As a rusher, he’s on pace to set career worsts in yards per attempt (3.1), yards per game (12.1), and attempts per game (3.2). The analytics are brutal too: according to Pro Football Focus, his Yards After Contact per Attempt (YCO/A) is under 2.0 for the first time in his career; Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric says he’s 18% less effective, per play, than the average NFL running back.
Before the Bears’ Week 12 game against the Giants, Nagy talked at the podium about wanting to get Cohen more touches. “Trust me,” he said. “Just like everybody, we want to do everything we can to get 29 going. He’s a playmaker and every time he’s on the field, even if he doesn’t touch the football, the defense has to know where he’s at.”
That Sunday Cohen would have 9 targets and six rushes. Since then? 10 targets and six rushes.
“Teams are doing a good job game planning for him,” running backs coach Charles London said. “I don’t know if you guys have noticed, but every time he’s out on a route, there’s a lineman trying to hit him. He’s usually double-teamed. They’re usually trying to stay on top of him so he can’t go deep. Teams have done good jobs scheming him, but we’ve just got to continue finding ways to give him the ball.”
Cohen was never meant to be the feature back, and his struggles to regain that explosive form is felt far more in the pass game than it is on the ground. He’s having a weird year as a pass-catcher: he’s on pace to set a career high in receptions per game (4.6), but his yards per game (25.4) is barely half of what it was last season, as is his yards per reception (5.5). As well as any stat can, this one says it all: Cohen had a 70-yard play in each of his first two seasons. This year his longest play, so far, has gone for 31.
“It’s just about moving the chains,” London added. “It may be a three or four yard route, but maybe it’s third-and-three and we move it and get another set of downs. I think that’s the biggest thing – obviously we’d like some more explosive plays there, and we’ve got to do a better job as coaches of getting him those touches. But as long as we’re moving the chains, we’re good with it.”
There’s also no denying that Cohen’s usage coincides with David Montgomery, who’s on pace to get more carries in his first season (roughly 265 by back-of-napkin-math) than the Bears gave Jordan Howard in 2018. Montgomery’s season started slowly, but the rookie had his breakout game (27 rushes, 135 yards and a touchdown) against the Chargers in Week 8, and most recently has strung together back-to-back games averaging over 4.0 yards per rush for the first time in his career.
“I think it’s just him seeing the holes,” London said. “I think he’s done a good job, especially the last 2-3 weeks, of just seeing how the line is blocking and getting a feel for how the game’s going, getting a feel for how the run’s being blocked. I think he’s done a really good job of it the last few weeks.”
Running the ball isn't what Nagy was hired to do – or wants to do – but it’s hard to say the ground game isn’t working when the Bears are a far better team when they commit to it.
“I think that just right now, what the feel is with our offense is that it's not just the running back, it's not just the quarterback, it's not just the O-line,” Nagy added on Monday. “Everybody is just kind of syncing right now.”