Sunday is going to be a telling test for the Bears’ run defense – one that should affect Ryan Pace’s interest in free agent run-stuffing mountain Damon “Snacks” Harrison.
The Bears’ defense, through three games, has been just okay against the run. They’re allowing a shade under five yards per carry, 26th in the NFL, and 119 rushing yards per game, 17th.
More advanced stats aren’t kind to the Bears’ run defense, either. Half of the Lions, Giants and Falcons’ rushing attempts have gained “successful” yardage, per Sharp Football Stats, giving the Bears the league’s 15th most efficient run defense in the NFL. DVOA pegs the Bears as having the 20th-best run defense.
And the tape? It’s not bad, but it’s not great, either. Brian Hill’s 35-yard run in Atlanta was the kind of gash play this defense hasn’t allowed in recent years.
In fact, outside of two Mike Boone 40-plus-yard runs in the meaningless final game of 2019, Hill’s 35-yard run is the longest allowed by the Bears’ defense since the Nov. 26, 2017.
“We gotta be better, I gotta coach it better,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “We gotta play better. We’ve just given up too many big ones. So we gotta be better, I gotta be better.”
Eddie Goldman’s decision to opt out of the 2020 season looms large here, of course.
In 2018, the Bears allowed the fourth-fewest rushing yards per play and the fewest rushing yards per game. Last year, they were sixth in rushing yards per play and ninth in rushing yards per game. Advanced stats backed up this being a top-10 rush defense in consecutive years.
Now, without Goldman, they’ve lost some of that dominance, even with Akiem Hicks playing at an All-Pro level and solid contributions coming from Bilal Nichols, Brent Urban and Roy Robertson-Harris.
“You’d love to have him but we got more than capable guys in there,” Pagano said. “So it’s not that we don’t have guys that can’t play it, it’s just again, I gotta coach it better, we gotta be on the same page, you gotta communicate better. And you can’t – guys can’t break the line of scrimmage and not get a glove on a guy.
“I put them in some tough situations like I said, it always starts with me. We’ve got good players. I just gotta coach them better.”
But the reason why Sunday’s game is going to be such an important test for this defense is it’ll be somewhat of a preview of what the Bears will face in their own division.
The Colts are the sixth-most run-heavy team in the NFL, rushing on 48 percent of their plays. That’s fairly close to the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers (46 percent run for both).
But the Vikings and Packers have had much more success running the ball so far – and it’s still early – than the Colts, even behind that great offensive line build in Indianapolis. While the Colts are averaging just 3.8 yards per carry with a 42 percent success rate on runs, the Packers are at 5.5 yards per carry and a 61 percent success rate; the Vikings are at 6 yards per carry with a 52 percent success rate.
Yes, the Vikings are 0-3, and yes, the Packers have Aaron Rodgers playing like an MVP candidate. But the path through NFC North – and contending for the playoffs – starts with winning division games against run-heavy offenses.
The Colts may wind up with one of the NFL’s better run offenses as the season goes on – their offensive line is incredible, and Taylor and Nyheim Hines are a good combo, even without Marlon Mack.
"That offensive line that they have is dominant," coach Matt Nagy said. "They’re very physical, they’re nasty. They do a lot of good things in the run game. And so we understand that. We know that."
But if the Bears can’t slow them down, wouldn’t that have to heighten Pace’s interest in Harrison?
ESPN’s Josina Anderson reported Harrison won’t visit the Seattle Seahawks until next week. So if he does come to Halas Hall for a visit after – which is not a given – and then signs with the Bears, there’s no way he’d be available until Week 6 at the earliest.
But the Bears don’t play the Vikings until Week 10, so there’s still some time if Pace wants to go get Harrison. At the very least, he has a deputy on Twitter trying to get “Snacks” to Chicago, too:
“He said he was going to set up a visit, man, but that’s the last thing I heard,” Patterson said. “I might have to reach out to him today.
“... I’ve been playing against Snacks for a long time, so I see what he brings. It’s a no-brainer. For a player like him, it’s great. But at the end of the day, it’s a business. It always is.”
“I’m just doing my little part on Twitter, reaching out to any player I can to come help us win the championship. I’m just doing my part. But at the end of the day, it’s all going to go down to the business side."