Bears

Three questions for Bears RBs: How will Jordan Howard fit Matt Nagy’s offense?

Three questions for Bears RBs: How will Jordan Howard fit Matt Nagy’s offense?

 

Pre-camp depth chart

1. Jordan Howard
2. Tarik Cohen
3. Benny Cunningham
4. Michael Burton (FB)
5. Taquan Mizzell
6. Ryan Nall

1. Can Jordan Howard catch?

Howard’s rushing ability is hardly in question, and the only running back in Bears history with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons to begin his career will certainly have a place in Nagy’s spiced-up west coast offense. But how big a place will depend largely on how much progress he makes as a pass-catcher before Week 1.

“When you have a multitude of guys that can do those things, one of the things I believe in is trying to really hone in on what their weaknesses are or what we perceive their weaknesses to be,” Nagy said in May. “For each player then we try to really work on that right now in the offseason. We all know he can run the football and he fits well in this offense.”

All the extra coaching Howard received and will receive — pun sort of intended — makes it abundantly clear what he has to prove in July and August. The Bears don’t necessarily need him to be a dynamic dual threat running back, but they do need him to be more reliable catching the ball than his 14 drops in 78 career targets would suggest.

For Howard, there isn’t just a playing time incentive for improving his pass-catching skills; there’s a financial one too for a guy who only has two years left on his rookie contract. Even a mild reduction in snaps and, by virtue of that, production could hurt Howard’s chances of getting a second contract with the Bears, and could put him in a difficult position going into 2019.

But this is all a moot point if Howard proves he can catch, or has a season good enough on the ground that the Bears’ offense still operates well with him on the field. Howard isn’t in danger of losing his job anytime soon, but he’s also not the unquestioned No. 1 running back heading into training camp. And that’s because…

2. How much bigger will Tarik Cohen’s role be?

…Cohen established himself as an explosive playmaking threat in 2017, and should earn more opportunities to get on the field this year than he did in Dowell Loggains and John Fox’s offense. Cohen was on the field for only 36 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps last year, a percentage that’s sure to be higher in Nagy’s offense.

“He’s a good fit, lots of energy,” Nagy said. “You can put him in a lot of different places, that’s obvious. But you need to balance that. You need to make sure that you’re not doing too much to where you slow him down because he’s not thinking. He’s an athletic kid that does a lot of things well. We’ll have some fun with him.”

That Nagy talked about having to pull back on Cohen’s responsibilities is telling — he can do so much that the coaching staff will have to figure out what to focus on to make sure they don’t overload him. But Cohen is eager to take on a larger workload, whether it’s as a running back, the “Zebra” receiver or the “Z” receiver in Nagy’s offense, as well as still playing a role in the return game on special teams. And he’s shown the intelligence and work ethic to succeed in every area of the game in which he’s used.

Cohen may slice into Howard’s snap counts to some extent, but even if it’s minimal, expect the 5-foot-6 dynamo to be on the field plenty more this year — starting with wowing onlookers again in Bourbonnais.

3. Will Nagy’s offense benefit Howard?

Back to Howard for one final note. Only six running backs rushed against a higher percentage of stacked boxes (with eight or more defenders) than Howard did in 2017, and two of those guys — New England’s Mike Gillislee and Carolina’s Jonathan Stewart — are short-yardage power specialists. Among feature running backs, the 43.12 percent of Howard’s runs that came with eight or more men in the box ranked behind only the Jaguars’ Leonard Fournette (48.69 percent) and the Giants’ Orleans Darkwa (44.44 percent, although Darkwa’s “feature” status could be debatable).

Anyways, the point here is this: The dynamic nature of Nagy’s offense means Howard shouldn’t be facing nearly as many stacked boxes. If the Bears use two tight ends — say, Dion Sims and Trey Burton — opposing defenses can’t stack the box, because Burton could beat them down the seam. If the Bears have three receivers, a tight end and a running back on the field, defenses would have to go into nickel, and could allow Howard to pound the ball on the ground. The Bears didn’t have that flexibility last year with an uninspiring group of wide receivers and an underperforming tight end group (especially after Zach Miller’s horrific injury in Week 8).

So Howard’s production should benefit from the Bears’ offense not being predictable when he’s on the field. Only 23.53 percent of Kareem Hunt’s rushing attempts with Kansas City last year came with eight or more men in the box; he rushed for a league-leading 1,327 yards on 272 attempts (4.9 yards/attempt). Howard rushed for 1,122 yards on 276 attempts (4.1 yards/attempt), so even if his attempts were to go down to, say, 210, if he averaged 4.9 yards per carry he’d still eclipse 1,000 yards for the third consecutive year.

Recalling Chet Coppock – snapshots of a character, who also had character

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NBC Sports Chicago

Recalling Chet Coppock – snapshots of a character, who also had character

The news that came out Thursday, that Chet Coppock had died from injuries suffered in an automobile accident earlier this month in Florida, was sad on so many levels. That you didn’t have a chance to say “good-bye,” that you didn’t have a chance to say “thank you,” that you won’t have more of “those” kinds of Chet moments.

But one of my favorite movie moments is at the end of “The Last Samurai” when Tom Cruise, the wounded ex-U.S. soldier who’d fought with the Samurai, is asked by the young Japanese emperor about the death of Ken Watanabe’s Samurai character Katsumoto, “Tell me how he died.” To which Cruise says, “I will tell you, how he lived.”

Somehow that’s the feeling thinking about Chet – little fun snapshots of how he lived.

Snapshots like listening to Coppock on Sports, and appreciating that Chet deserves a spot in the pantheon of those who created a genre.

Like how we in the media laughed imitating Chet’s questions, which routinely went on long enough for you to run out for a sandwich and be back before he was finished. But the chuckle was how Chet wouldn’t directly ask a guest, “So why did you make THAT idiotic play?” No, Chester had this tack of, “So, what would you say to those who would say, ‘You’re an idiot?’” Of course, it would take a minimum of two minutes for him to wend his way through the question, but the results were always worth waiting for.

Like “Your dime, your dance floor.” 

Like grabbing lunches with Chet while I was working on the ’85 Bears book, but in particular while I was writing “100 Greatest Chicago Sports Arguments.” The specific in the latter told me a lot about Chet, far beyond just the information he was sharing.

The “argument” was over who was the greatest Chicago play-by-play broadcaster. Now, Chet of course suggested tongue-in-cheek that he belonged in the discussion; after all, as he pointed out, a high school kid at New Trier games, sitting by himself in the stands, doing play-by-play into a “microphone” that was one of those cardboard rollers from bathroom tissue, oughta be worth something.

Chet’s nomination for the actual No. 1 was Jack Brickhouse, the WGN legend who Chet noted had done play-by for every conceivable sport.

But the reason for Chet’s vote for Brickhouse wasn’t about any of that. It was, Chet said, because Brickhouse beginning back in the mid-‘50s, when the Cubs were integrating with Gene Baker and Ernie Banks, had very intentionally made it clear with his broadcasting and behavior that Baker and Banks were “Cubs,” not “black Cubs.” Brickhouse’s principles had left an impression on a then-young Chet.

I hadn’t known any of that. But Chet did, and that he had taken a lasting impression from what he’d heard growing up said something about Chet as well as Jack. That impressed me, and frankly has always been my favorite Chet story.

So losing an institution like Chet is sad; Chet did say that, no, he wasn’t an institution, but rather that he belonged IN one. But at least he came our way.

Behind Enemy Lines: Looking at where the Bears fall in their opponents’ schedules

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USA TODAY

Behind Enemy Lines: Looking at where the Bears fall in their opponents’ schedules

Week 1: Packers at Bears (TNF / NFL Season Opener)

It’s NFL Opening Night. Really not much else to say here. The Packers do host the Vikings in Week 2, so there’s that.

**10 days off**

Week 2: Bears at Broncos

No shortage of juice for the Broncos here. On top of Vic Fangio getting the opportunity to take down his former team, it’s the Broncos home opener. There’s also some ridiculous stat out there about the Broncos being something like 75-2 in Week 2 at home or something (*Not the actual stat, it’s buried in TweetDeck somewhere), so this one will be tough.

Week 3: Bears at Washington (MNF)

 

Washington’s schedule

Week 1 at Eagles

Week 2 vs Cowboys

Week 3 vs Bears MNF

Week 4 vs Giants

Week 5 vs Patriots

So Washington hosts the Bears in the midst of facing all three of their divisional opponents in the first four weeks of the season. I don’t know what it means, I just know I found it interesting. Worst case scenario for the Bears is that Washington is (more than likely) 0-2 and needs to throw the kitchen sink at the Bears to “save” their season on Monday Night Football. But then there’s this: Washington is 2-14 on Monday Night Football since November of 2008.

Week 4 Vikings vs Bears

 

Vikings Schedule

Week 3 vs Raiders

Week 4 at Bears

Week 5 at Giants

Week 6 vs Eagles

Divisional games aren’t typically let down or look ahead spots and that certainly holds true for both teams here. I’d watch out for that Giants game in New York sandwiched between the Bears and Eagles if I were a Vikings fan though.

Week 5 vs Raiders in London

 

Raiders Schedule

Week 2 vs Chiefs

Week 3 at Vikings

Week 4 at Colts

Week 5 vs Bears in London

Week 6 BYE

All bets are off for these London games. The Khalil Mack trade revenge game certainly should be a Bears win, and after facing a murderers row of the Chiefs, Vikings and Colts, the Raiders could be limping across the pond.

Week 6  BYE

Week 7  Saints vs Bears

 

Saints Schedule

Week 6 at Jaguars

Week 7 at Bears

Week 8 vs Cardinals

As JJ Stankevitz, Cam Ellis and I talked about on the Under Center podcast I actually think it’s a good thing the Bears are facing a likely Super Bowl contender coming out of the bye week. Last season, they faced the Dolphins and Giants coming out of the Bye, and the extended post-Thanksgiving break respectively and they lost against bad teams. No excuse for not getting up for this game. And as you can see, there’s nothing to distract the Saints from the defending NFC North champs.

Week 8   Chargers vs Bears

 

Chargers Schedule

Week 6 vs Steelers

Week 7 at Titans

Week 8 at Bears

Week 9 vs Packers

So the Chargers were 7-1 on the road last season, but I think their road success and their 12-4 record come back to earth in 2019. Last season was their first season winning 10+ games since 2009. And we saw the real Chargers (not) show up against the Patriots when it mattered most in the AFC Divisional Round. Give me a healthy dose of Philip Rivers throwing a temper tantrum after Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks combine for the Bears fourth sack of the day.

Week 9 at Eagles

 

Eagles Schedule

Week 7 at Cowboys (SNF)

Week 8  at Bills

Week 9 vs Bears

Week 10 BYE

Week 11 vs Patriots

The already tall task of avenging last season’s double doink playoff heartbreak gets even tougher with the way the schedule falls for Jordan Howard’s new team. Having the Patriots looming could have been advantageous for the Bears, but this being the Eagles’ last game before the bye nixes any chance Doug Pederson’s team will be looking past the Bears and ahead to a Super Bowl LII rematch. Big game at a big point of the season for both teams.

Week 10 vs Lions

 

Lions Schedule

Week 9 at Raiders

Week 10 at Bears

Week 11 vs Cowboys

Week 12 at Washington

Week 13 vs Bears  (Thanksgiving)

Nothing jumps out from the Lions perspective here. Should be a ‘get right game’ for the Bears coming off IMO their toughest stretch of the season. There is some letdown potential with the lowly Lions dropped into this otherwise murderer’s row 5 game stretch.

Week 11 at Rams (SNF)

 

Rams schedule

Week 10 at Steelers

Week 11 vs Bears  (SNF)

Week 12 vs Ravens (MNF)

Super Bowl hangover anyone?? The Bears laid the defensive blueprint for how to beat the Rams – and the thing I can’t still get over: it’s great that a mic’d up Sean McVay realized the Patriots were using the Bears scheme early in the Super Bowl. But how did he not have a counter for it at that point? A team beat you this exact way? The Bears finish what they started a season ago by sending the Rams into a tailspin while Mitch cements himself as a household name.

Week 12 vs Giants

 

Giants Schedule

Week 11  BYE

Week 12  at Bears

Week 13 vs Packers

We’re doing this again are we? Huge letdown spot for the Bears against what should be a really bad team coming off their bye week and the Bears have a short Thanksgiving week looming. I don’t like it. Not even a little bit.

Week 13 at Lions (Thanksgiving)

 

Lions Schedule

Week 12 at Washington

Week 13 vs Bears  (Thanksgiving)

Week 14 at Vikings

We saw the Bears handle a brutal 85-hour turnaround from Sunday Night Football to Thanksgiving last season – so they’ve been here. Last year’s Thanksgiving game did actually come down to Kyle Fuller making a game-saving INT in the end zone at the end of the game. Definitely edge Bears but anything can happen on Turkey day.

**update! I found the Broncos stat!  51-8-2 in weeks 1-2 at home.  Carry on.****

Week 14 vs Cowboys (TNF)

 

Cowboys schedule

Week 12 at Patriots

Week 13 vs Bills

Week 14 at Bears (TNF)

Week 15 vs Rams

Getting funky with back to back Thursdays. The Bears did do this in 2014, losing against the Lions and Cowboys in that order as the Trestman era was coming to its Real Football Coaches of Chicago (in)glorious ending. For my money, I have this as the most pivotal game of the season. With 10 days off afterward, a win could propel the Bears into their crucial home stretch (and the playoffs) in the driver’s seat.

**10 days off**

Week 15  at Packers

 

Packers Schedule

Week 13 at Giants

Week 14 vs Washington

Week 15 vs Bears

Week 16 at Vikings

Week 17 at Lions

Well here’s some fun with schedules. The Packers finish with three straight against the NFC North. And they get to warm up for it with back to back games against the NFC East’s least. Does the Matt Nagy era come full circle from Lambeau heartbreak in the 2018 opener to cementing his second straight divisional crown in enemy territory?

Week 16 vs Chiefs (SNF)

 

Chiefs Schedule

Week 14 at Patriots

Week 15 vs Broncos

Week 16 at Bears (SNF)

Week 17 vs Chargers

Definitely a roll of the dice by the schedule makers to have the Andy Reid – Matt Nagy, mentor vs pupil, reigning MVP vs reigning top defense this late in the season. This game very well could mean nothing to either or both teams. But for everyone’s sake, let’s hope we all get the primetime early Christmas present of watching Patrick Mahomes vs the Bears defense with everything on the line.

Week 17 at Vikings

 

Vikings Schedule

Week 14 vs Lions

Week 15 at Chargers (SNF)

Week 16 vs Packers (MNF)

Week 17 vs Bears

Another fun schedule wrinkle where another NFC North opponents close with a division heavy final stretch. Normally I would have a problem with the Vikings getting to end the season with all three of their NFC North home games in the final month. But we saw what the Vikings did at home with their season on the line against the Bears in the final week last season, so I have my doubts as to whether they’ll even still be alive at this point.

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