The Bears' run game solution starts with Matt Nagy trusting David Montgomery

The Bears' run game solution starts with Matt Nagy trusting David Montgomery

Last week in this space, we wrote Matt Nagy’s commitment to the run game was “fine,” which at the time was accurate, and that the solution for the Bears’ woes on the ground was not to blindly run the ball more.

Then Nagy called 54 passing plays and only seven running plays in a blowout loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. He looked skittish to call runs after the first play of the game, on which the Bears missed a block and Tarik Cohen was tackled after gaining just one yard.

The solution this Bears offense needed was not to call the fewest running plays in franchise history.

“I know we need to run the ball more. I’m not an idiot,” Nagy said Monday. “I realize that. Seven rushes and the minimum amount of times, I totally understand that. You need to do it.”

Nagy said that lopsided run-pass balance was partly the product of wanting to pass to open up the run — but the Bears weren’t effectively throwing the ball, with Mitch Trubisky averaging a comical 3.4 yards per attempt prior to some garbage time empty calories. Nagy, too, said the lack of successful run plays led him to call more passes, which he thought would produce better results (again: 3.4 yards per attempt).

The Bears’ run game is officially in crisis. This was not supposed to happen in 2019, not as Nagy and Ryan Pace worked in tandem to overhaul their running back depth chart. Gone were Jordan Howard and Taquan Mizzell and Benny Cunningham, in were Mike Davis and David Montgomery and Cordarrelle Patterson and Kerrith Whyte Jr.

This was supposed to be the personnel the Bears needed to run the ball in tandem with continuity on the offensive line, save for flipping James Daniels to center and Cody Whitehair to guard.

Nagy knows he needs to find a solution. Here’s one suggestion: Just feed Montgomery the ball.

This is something Olin Kreutz brought up on the Football Aftershow edition of the Under Center Podcast on Monday: Montgomery is at his best when he’s running the ball on consecutive plays. The numbers back him up. 

Of Montgomery’s 71 rushing attempts this year, 21 have come immediately after he ran the ball. We’ll eliminate four plays at the goal line, which accounted for only three yards but two touchdowns.

On those 17 runs following a run not at the goal line, Montgomery is averaging 4.7 yards per carry. On the season, he’s averaging 3.3 yards per carry.

It’s a small sample size, and the majority of those plays have been in the fourth quarter of games the Bears controlled (wins over Minnesota and Washington). But if Montgomery is able to have success on plays when the opposing defense knows a run is coming — as is the case in those four-minute drives — why can’t he have success on less predictable downs?

It’s a question worth exploring inside Halas Hall this week. The Bears didn’t trade up to draft Montgomery just to have him get two carries in the worst loss of Nagy’s tenure. He needs the ball more, and he needs to take advantage of those opportunities (and not fumble when he does get one).

It’s may not be in Nagy’s DNA to be a pound-the-rock coach, but that does not excuse him for abandoning the run after a few ineffective plays. Patience is necessary, and that patience needs to turn into trust with Montgomery.

After all, it’s not like this offense is working without feeding a guy the Bears identified as an ideal fit in this offense six months ago.

“With this run game, right, it’s about productive plays,” Nagy said. “… Right now we’re not having productive plays in the run game any way you look at it.

“… I want positive plays. I want plays — and part of the patience is that as well. There’s no doubt about it, there’s gotta be more patience. But every game is a little bit different based off the defense you’re seeing and then how your O-line is blocking and the schemes of the plays that are working or not working that game.”

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Tarik Cohen was Bears' best offensive player vs. Rams

Tarik Cohen was Bears' best offensive player vs. Rams

The Chicago Bears offense was uninspiring once again Sunday night in the team's 17-7 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. While they could've had another six points had kicker Eddy Pineiro connected on two early-game field goals, it still wouldn't have been enough to win the most important game of the season.

After 11 weeks (10 games), the Bears rank 28th in points per game with 16.9. To put their brutal season in perspective, the New York Jets, who've been atrocious this year, are averaging 16.4 points per game.

Essentially, Matt Nagy has coached Chicago's offense as effectively as Adam Gase has coached the Jets'. 

Still, it's worth acknowledging strong individual performances in the midst of an overall letdown, and in Week 11's loss to the Rams, it was running back Tarik Cohen who stood tallest among his Bears' offensive teammates.

Cohen posted Chicago's highest Pro Football Focus grade on offense with a 74.3. He logged 45 snaps, 10 more than David Montgomery, and was effective when he touched the ball. He totaled 74 yards and a touchdown on 14 touches en route to being the Bears' most effective running back against a tough Rams defensive front. Montgomery managed just 31 yards on 14 carries.

Cohen hasn't had the kind of season that was expected from his role as a do-it-all offensive weapon; he's way behind his normal pace of production as both a runner and receiver. Cohen had 99 carries for 444 yards and three touchdowns to go along with 71 catches for 725 yards and five scores in 2018. He's on pace for just 186 rushing yards and 402 receiving yards this season.

Still, Sunday night's effort was a step in the right direction for him and a sign that he may continue to get more touches as the season comes to a close.

Nagy took hard look at his duties as Bears offensive play-caller, opts to retain that role

Nagy took hard look at his duties as Bears offensive play-caller, opts to retain that role

During the Bears’ 17-7 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, quarterback Mitch Trubisky suffered a hip pointer, an injury that involved monitoring by the coaching and medical staffs from halftime on. Kicker Eddy Pineiro was missing field goals to the point of appearing to affect his coach’s decision-making. The offense was sputtering – again – and the defense, after some early takeaway success, appeared to be sagging emotionally. There were issues at tight end. Aaron Donald had to be accounted for and blocked.

All of which and more was on the head of Matt Nagy, now all of 27 games into being an NFL head coach, and who late in the game needed to stop and have a heart-to-heart, heads-together talk with his quarterback about how he was feeling.

The “and more” on Nagy’s head continues to include calling the individual plays for his bad-and-getting-worse offense.

So Nagy spent a chunk of his morning taking a hard look at whether defenses are on to him, presumably personally as well as schematically. And some of that hard look was whether he indeed should continue being the play-caller in the wake of the offense running 74 plays, netting 7 points and failing to gain 300 total yards for the ninth time in 10 games.

For now, after that look in the mirror, Nagy will remain in control of the play sheet.

“What I would say is this,” he said, acknowledging that if he felt he was the problem, “I’ll be the first to tell you, then we need to be better or if there’s a rhythm to something.

“I have zero ego and I have zero care of giving play-call duties to somebody else. I really do not care about that, and if that’s what we feel like from going through it that that’s what we need to do, then I would do that, I really would.

“But when you go through the tape and you look at things and you know schematically where we’re at and what we’re calling and when we’re calling it…. There’s without a doubt a few plays in that game that I would go back and say, ‘You know what, that’s our fault. We didn’t scheme it right,’ and that starts with me. And I need to be able to accept that and know how do I fix that. But we’ll do everything we can … we’re turning over every stone to get this thing right.”

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