For the Bears’ offense to be successful, it has to consistently and effectively run the ball. The Green Bay Packers, and every other team in the league knows that and (except, oddly, the Pittsburgh Steelers) schemed against that strength.
“It’s a copycat league,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “When they see you’re efficient in one area, they’re going to do things to take that away.”
So two in every three times Jordan Howard carried the ball last week at Lambeau Field, he did so facing eight or more Packers in the box, according to NFL’s Next Gen stats. Only two running backs have faced a higher percentage of loaded boxes in a game this year: Tennessee’s Derrick Henry (71.43 percent, Week 2) and Carolina’s Mike Tolbert (72.73 percent, Week 3).
Henry isn’t necessarily a pure short-yardage/goal line back, but at 247 pounds and splitting carries with DeMarco Murray, he’s built to grind out necessary yardage. And Tolbert, as a 5-foot-9, 243 pound bowling ball, has made a career out of snagging touchdowns from short-and-goal situations.
Neither player is a feature running back in the way Howard is. But as long as Mike Glennon was quarterback, the secret was out: Load the box, stop Howard and that’ll stop the Bears’ offense.
The good news for Howard: Mitchell Trubisky’s arm strength and mobility could alleviate some of that pressure at the line of scrimmage.
The Bears won’t put a lot on Trubisky, at least not yet, in terms of making run checks — an area of Glennon’s game that Loggains pointed out was a strength — but his own running ability will open up more for the offense.
“The threat of the other things—the zone-reads and the nakeds and the boots and the sprint-outs and all those other things definitely can help and affect the run game in a different way,” Loggains said.
Trubisky’s arm strength, too, could force defenses to back off stacking the box if he shows he can complete downfield throws to guys like Markus Wheaton or Deonte Thompson (it’s also incumbent on those receivers to catch the ball when given the opportunity). Opposing defensive backs will have to deal with the threat of having to cover receivers for longer if Trubisky is rolling out or making something happen on a broken down play, too. Specifically: Cohen's quickness could result in some big gains on broken plays.
"You have to always be available for him because you never know what he’s going to do," Cohen said. "He’s very mobile. Just keeping the play alive is something that’s he’s going to do and we’ve got to be ready for it."
Also helping for the run game: The Bears’ offensive line is in the midst of its first full week of practice together (Charles Leno, Josh Sitton, Cody Whitehair, Kyle Long, Bobby Massie) in 2017.
“It’s just great cohesion and stuff like that because the more games they play together, they better they work off each other,” Howard said.
The Minnesota Vikings have held opposing ball-carriers to 3.1 yards per rush, the third-lowest average in the NFL, and this defense ranks 8th in rushing DVOA. So while the thought is Howard and Cohen could help ease things for Trubisky, it can work the other way, with the first-time starter giving the running backs some breathing room against a top-tier run defense.