Bears

Bears push smash-mouth running model to new level in win over Colts

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Bears push smash-mouth running model to new level in win over Colts

INDIANAPOLIS – Whether it is a formula for winning football in 2015 remains to play out. But either by choice or by chance (injury), the Bears have to at this point of the preseason given every indication of a team that says it will run the football, and then does it.

Most important, it has the potential to produce an efficient, turnover-lite offense, something that was decidedly not the flavor of recent seasons.

The Bears have run 125 plays through their two preseason wins – 27-10 over the Miami Dolphins, 23-11 over the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday – and of those, 68 (54.4 percent) have been carries by running backs. They have zero lost fumbles and one interception, the latter on an apparent communication gaffe between the quarterback and tight end.

[MORE: Jeremy Langford flashes potential as Bears rally to beat Colts]

“That’s pretty much how we’re going to continue to play,” coach John Fox said, in a rare public declaration of both strategy and tactics.

Offensive coordinator Adam Gase has tasked line coach Dave Magazu to slowly turn a group of what were pass-protecting guard dogs under Marc Trestman into attack dogs for Fox. (If the Bears do want to be a running team, however, Magazu does have a penalty issue to address).

Gase now has had Jay Cutler for six preseason series and the NFL turnover leader of 2014 has been the very model (relatively speaking, of course) of ball control – zero INT’s through all but two training camp practices and two preseason games, and zero fumbles. Cutler will never be a classic game manager, but he is currently doing a functional job of impersonating one.

The run-pass template that was established last week with a 50-50 balance was pushed even further toward the run Saturday: 57 total plays, 35 carries by running backs.

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Why this becomes more than just statistically significant is that the Bears have established themselves running the football even when they were forced to and a defense knew it. By the end of Saturday’s first quarter, the offense was without three of its projected top four wide receivers – Alshon Jeffery out with a calf injury, Kevin White down indefinitely with his shin injury, and then Marquess Wilson leaves with a hamstring injury.

The result has been nothing like plodding football. The Bears have outscored two opponents by a combined 50-21.

“Running the ball like that says there is confidence in the offensive line,” said center Will Montgomery. “You have to be good in both pass and run blocking but every offensive lineman likes to come off the ball and hit somebody.”

Even without practicing, Allen Robinson is making a strong first impression with the Bears

Even without practicing, Allen Robinson is making a strong first impression with the Bears

Before Bears wide receivers coach Mike Furrey met with the media on Wednesday, Allen Robinson was curious what his position coach would say about him in public. 

“I just told him, I don’t know you,” Furrey quipped. “Who’s Allen Robinson?”

Furrey, of course, knows who Robinson is. But the point behind that joke is that Furrey, the Bears’ court wide receivers coach in four years, is still getting to know all of his receivers — let alone the one who hasn’t participated in a practice yet. For all the positivity that's easy to find around Halas Hall these days, the Bears' biggest offseason acquisition hasn't taken a rep yet. 

The good news for the Bears, of course, is that Robinson’s past play speaks for itself. He combined for 153 catches, 2,883 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2015 and 2016, and has been adamant he’ll return to that high level of play when he’s cleared to practice. The Bears were confident enough in Robinson’s medicals to guarantee him a little over $25 million in March, per Spotrac, about a month before they let Cameron Meredith sign with the New Orleans Saints largely over medical concerns (Meredith’s torn ACL was viewed as more serious than Robinson’s, in short). 

So the getting-to-know-you phase for Furrey and Robinson is largely taking place off the field in the meeting rooms of Halas Hall. 

“What a great young man,” Furrey said. “He’s come in here, obviously, rehabbing and doing all those things. But he’s alert, he comes to meetings, he’s ready to go. Really, really smart, you can tell that from the beginning and he’s a professional.”

What Furrey, in particular, likes about Robinson is that he’s an “alpha,” but is far more than all talk and no action. 

“And a lot of times that alpha talks a lot and they don’t really put it out there,” Furrey said. “He kind of has that alpha quietness to him. He understands what’s going on, you can look at him and you just kind of get that feel of he has a great understanding of how to approach this game at this level. Obviously he’s been highly successful for a couple years with some big numbers, but he doesn’t act like that. He’s still hungry, he wants to learn, and I think he’s got a chip on his shoulder, which is a good trait to have too. So we’re excited about that.”

The expectation all along has been for Robinson to be cleared to fully participate in training camp practices. So while coach Matt Nagy said last week Robinson is “ahead of the game,” that may not mean he takes part in the final round of OTAs next week or veteran minicamp the first week of June. 

But while Robinson can’t prove himself to his new coaches on the field yet, he’s doing the right things off the field to make a positive first impression. 

“He knows you gotta come in early, he knows you gotta be the last one to leave, he knows you gotta study,” Furrey said. “It doesn’t matter five years in, six years in, you gotta take notes. It doesn’t matter if you hear it 10 times, you just gotta keep taking notes. He’s been really good at that, and I’ve been really impressed with that. I’ve been able to get on the field with him a little bit, just kind of throwing some balls to him, and I didn’t know he was that big. But obviously we’re excited for it to happen out there.” 

Protection Issues: Bears O-line ranked 21st in NFL

Protection Issues: Bears O-line ranked 21st in NFL

Mitch Trubisky has been set up for a huge season in 2018 with all the firepower the Chicago Bears added on offense. Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller and Trey Burton will give the second-year quarterback a variety of explosive targets to generate points in bunches.

None of the headline-grabbing moves will matter, however, if the offensive line doesn't do its job. 

According to Numberfire.com, the Bears' starting five could be the offense's Achilles heel. They were ranked 21st in the NFL and described as poor in pass protection.

Last year, the Bears ranked 26th in Sack NEP per drop back and 23rd in sack rate. These issues were especially apparent after Trubisky took over. In the games that [Kyle] Long played, their sack rate was 8.2%. It was actually 7.2% in the games that he missed. They struggled even when Long was healthy.

The Bears added Iowa's James Daniels in the second round of April's draft and he's expected to start at guard alongside Long. Cody Whitehair will resume his role as the starting center, with Charles Leno, Jr. and Bobby Massie at offensive tackle.

If Long comes back healthy and Daniels lives up to his draft cost, they should be a good run-blocking team from the jump. But Long has played just 18 games the past two years and is entering his age-30 season, so that's far from a lock. On top of that, the pass blocking was suspect last year and remains a mystery entering 2018.

The biggest addition to the offensive line is Harry Hiestand, the accomplished position coach who returns to Chicago after once serving in the same role under Lovie Smith from 2005-2009. He most recently coached at Notre Dame and helped develop multiple first-round picks. He's going to have a huge impact.

The good news for the Bears is they weren't the lowest-ranked offensive line in the NFC North. The Vikings came in at No. 25. The Packers checked-in at No. 13, while the Lions were 16th.