After the Bears’ 24-17 win over the Seahawks, a few visiting players offered an eyebrow-raising look into how Seattle approached Matt Nagy’s offense:
“Stopping the run was our focus, and Howard had only 35 yards,” defensive end Frank Clark said.
And from linebacker Austin Calitro: “So we did our job on that. That was our main focus was not letting (Howard) get going.”
If that strategy sounds familiar, it’s because it’s what opposing defenses frequently deployed against the Bears’ offense…in 2017. The Bears’ offense last year was among the worst in the league, with a conservative scheme and dearth of weapons for a rookie quarterback. So selling out to stop Howard — who still rushed for over 1,000 yards — was the best way to attack that group. And as a result, 43 percent of Howard’s runs came with eight or more defenders in the box.
NFL’s Next Gen stats — which spit out that in-the-box number in 2017 — don’t provide a percentage of Howard’s run with eight or more men in the box for Monday night’s game against the Seahawks. But more anecdotally, safety Bradley McDougald was frequently lined up in the box at the snap, and Howard’s run chart looked like this:
That’s three runs for negative yardage and a whole bunch up the middle that went between 1-3 yards. The lack of success can be pinned on a few things: The Seahawks’ goal of selling out to stop the run, the offensive line’s inconsistent push, Howard’s lack of missed tackles/yards after contact, and Matt Nagy sticking to runs between the tackles despite those plays not working.
“There wasn’t a time where we got into multiple runs and he was really feeling into the groove and into a rhythm,” Nagy said. “Like anything you want to be able to have those opportunities. In that game we just didn’t have it.”
Who helps who?
It’s not exactly a hot take to argue Trubisky will have a better chance to succeed when Howard is running the ball well (that’s every quarterback at every level of football).
But it may be a sort of double-edged sword here: For defenses to back off Howard, Trubisky needs to prove that he can beat them. And for Trubisky to have a better shot of beating defenses, he could use a productive Howard pushing the offense downfield on the ground.
Not every defense will play the Bears’ offense like the Seahawks did; even in 2017, the Baltimore Ravens backed off the line of scrimmage ostensibly to confuse Trubisky, but allowed Howard to gouge them for 167 yards the Bears’ overtime win. The Arizona Cardinals, despite allowing the third-most yards in the NFL through two games, are allowing 3.6 yards per carry, tied with the Bears (among others) for sixth-best in the NFL.
So while the Cardinals’ defense has been poor this year, Howard may have a somewhat difficult time getting going on Sunday, based on those rushing numbers.
Relating to Mitch
Consider all this about Howard as a ripple effect of the 2018 season being, primarily, about Trubisky in Chicago. A good way to get a defense to back off the line of scrimmage would’ve been for Trubisky to hit the two deep shots he missed on Monday night: First, he overthrew an open Taylor Gabriel; then, he was picked off when he underthrew Allen Robinson down the sideline.
Over two games, Trubisky on throws of 20 or more yards is two of eight for 64 yards (all of which came against Green Bay) with that interception, according to Pro Football Focus. Nagy won’t stop calling for those deep balls — especially, as he pointed out, because the Bears’ defense is good enough to cover for an interception — because, if Trubisky starts to hit them, that can do wonders for opening up the rest of the offense.
“You keep going with it,” Nagy said. “That’s gonna be our message. We’re not gonna stop doing that. It does help out when you have a defense we have — not that you want to make it harder on the defense — but we have a defense that right now is doing some pretty good things to say the least. And that’s comfortable knowing that.
“But you also has a play-caller and as a decision-maker, you’ve got to be smart with how you handle that. But when you start just dinking and dunking and going short throws or trying to run the ball too much, then it’s advantage defense. You’ve got to be able to make them use the whole field. And so we’re never gonna stop doing that.”
So while Trubisky has plenty on which to improve as he goes about his trial-by-fire learning process this year, perhaps more important than Howard’s success on the ground is his ability to connect on enough of those deep shots for an opposing defense to respect his ability to do so. Otherwise, what Seattle did on Monday night — and what teams did most of last year — will continue to pose problems for this entire offense.