Bears

Look for Bears return to two-back basics under Fox, Gase

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Look for Bears return to two-back basics under Fox, Gase

The 2012 Bears spent a lot of money securing the latest in a succession of understudies to running back Matt Forte. They gave Michael Bush $7 million guaranteed as part of a four-year, $14 million contract. Bush carried 112 times and scored five rushing touchdowns — as many as Forte — for the 10-6 Bears.

The following year Bush was marginalized, with 63 carries and just three touchdowns.

Last year, after cutting Bush, the Bears used a fourth-round draft choice on a running back, Ka’Deem Carey, and used him even less than Bush’s low point: 36 carries.

Meaning: After 100-carry seasons by backups like Bush, Marion Barber, Chester Taylor, Adrian Peterson, even Cedric Benson, No.-2 running backs carried a combined 99 times in two seasons under the Marc Trestman/Aaron Kromer offense.

[MORE: Bears GM Ryan Pace continues quest for experience in staff hires]

The Bears this year invested another fourth-round pick in a running back: Jeremy Langford from Michigan State. One surprise in the 2015 season will be if Langford is not handed the football more than Bush and Carey combined.

While the chief focus has been on defense and the Bears’ switch to a 3-4 under coach John Fox and coordinator Vic Fangio, Fox and GM Ryan Pace would not have identified running back as a need area unless there was a plan to make extensive use of the position, and involving more than just Matt Forte.

It is simply Fox’s way.

“We’ve always been believers in kind of a 1-2 punch and rolling guys through there whether it’s the d-line; a wave of those guys to stay fresh,” Fox said. “I’ve always had the approach the same thing with running backs.”

He has indeed. In each of his four Denver Broncos seasons, Fox had two backs with at least 100 carries, with Ronnie Hillman’s 106 last season the fewest. And Hillman got those while playing just eight games, followed by C.J. Anderson (179 carries) after Hillman was injured. Add to that more than 50 carries each by Montee Ball and Juwann Thompson. Not since the days of Jim Harbaugh (1993) have the Bears had more than three players with 50 or more rushing attempts.

[RELATED: John Fox, Vic Fangio not seeing 'disaster' in Bears defense]

Fox’s commitment to backfield diversity has been to such a degree that the Carolina Panthers used No. 1 picks on running backs twice in three years — DeAngelo Williams in 2006, Jonathan Stewart in 2008 — and this on top of having DeShaun Foster from the 2002 second round, a 200-carry back from 2005-07.

Under Fox, Stewart (221 rushes for 1,133 yards) and Williams (216-1,117) became just the sixth duo of running backs in NFL history to both gain 1,000 yards in the same season (2009).

The Forte Factor

Forte is entering the final year of his contract, coming off a year that included an NFL-record 102 pass receptions to go with 1,038 rushing yards, the fifth time in his seven seasons with 1,000 yards (and 900-plus the other two).

Forte’s excellence is a “problem:” Why give the ball to a second-tier back when you have one of the NFL elites standing there?

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“This is an unusual situation just because Matt has been in such great shape and has been so dynamic as far as staying on the field,” said offensive coordinator Adam Gase. “We’ve just got to see how it plays out.”

One reason the Broncos made such use of multiple backs lay in injuries to Ball and Hillman, which required turning to Anderson, who was voted to the Pro Bowl despite starting just the second half of the season and wearing down for the final two games after four straight 20-carry games.

“C.J. would hate me for saying this, but he got tired and was a little chubby sometimes,” Gase said. “I mean, he got worn down quick and then we had to rotate backs in last year. Matt’s an unusual situation in that position because he’s able to play every play, or has.”

Bears' Nick Kwiatkoski was a top-5 inside linebacker in 2017

Bears' Nick Kwiatkoski was a top-5 inside linebacker in 2017

The Chicago Bears selected inside linebacker Roquan Smith in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft with the expectation that he'll become an immediate starter and impact player on defense. But, was there a need at inside linebacker?

According to Pro Football Focus, Nick Kwiatkoski, who Chicago selected in the fourth round of 2016's draft, was a standout performer last season. He ranked third in the NFL among inside linebackers in run-stop percentage and was fourth-best in pass-rush productivity.

Kwiatkoski also wasn’t tagged for a missed tackle against the run all season. He still has to share time on the field with Danny Trevathan and newly-drafted Roquan Smith, but should be able to capitalize on a great sophomore year after being drafted in the fourth round from West Virginia in 2016. Overall, Kwiatoski was graded as the NFL’s 12th best inside linebacker, higher than both Spaight and Hitchens.

His 21.0 pass-rush productivity ranked fourth and came on the heels of his rookie season in which he ranked 10th in the same category in 2016.

Kwiatkoski didn't receive much fanfare last season but the analytics speak for themselves. He started six games (appeared in 11) and registered career highs in tackles (34) and sacks (two). He's an ascending player but his growth is likely to be stunted by Smith's presence. 

Chicago could view Kwiatkoski as the heir to Danny Trevathan's starting job. The Bears can move on from Trevathan with little consequence at season's end. His dead cap number drops to just $1.25 million in 2019. Kwiatkoski will be in the final year of his contract that season (2019), and if he hasn't earned a starting job by then, he's a near lock to sign elsewhere when his rookie contract expires. 

Kwiatkoski has proven he can produce when given a chance to play, something 31 other teams have certainly taken notice of.

Pro Football Focus: Bears rank near bottom-third of NFL in pass protection

Pro Football Focus: Bears rank near bottom-third of NFL in pass protection

If the Chicago Bears want to make a real run at the playoffs in 2018, the offensive line will have to do its part by keeping QB Mitch Trubisky upright. The offense is expected to be more pass-heavy under coach Matt Nagy and will depend on Trubisky having time in the pocket to go through his progressions and find the open target.

New offensive line coach Harry Hiestand should help that cause. He's universally praised as one of the best offensive line coaches in the sport and will be charged with getting a better effort from a unit that ended last season ranked in the bottom-third of pass protection, according to Pro Football Focus.

19. CHICAGO BEARS

2017 pass-blocking efficiency: 77.9

Best individual PBE: Josh Sitton, 97.4

Because of several crippling injuries, nine different players saw at least 100 pass-block snaps for the Bears in 2017. They gave up 152 pressures on 536 passing plays. The top performance came from left tackle Charles Leno Jr., who enjoyed the best season of his career and allowed just 24 pressures all season. Heading into the 2018 campaign, rookie guard James Daniels is penciled in to fill the shoes of the recently departed pass-blocking star Josh Sitton. Daniels performed well in pass protection during his final college season, allowing just 10 pressures on 371 pass-blocking snaps at Iowa.

The Bears will be without last season's top pass-protector, Josh Sitton, who was let go by GM Ryan Pace this offseason and signed with the Dolphins. 

Pass protection was once all about the play of the offensive tackles, but with the NFL's interior defensive linemen evolving into disruptive forces up the middle, guard play will be nearly as important. A healthy Kyle Long is critical. Chicago can't afford growing pains from James Daniels, either. Cody Whitehair returns to full-time center duties, a role he excelled at during his rookie season. 

Charles Leno should provide reliable play at left tackle. Bobby Massie remains a wildcard, but with little depth behind him, the Bears can do nothing more than hope his bad reps are limited in 2018.

With Hiestand in the fold and a healthy Long ready to compete at a high level again, the Bears' offensive line should be much improved this season.