Here are two valid statements about the 2018 Bears:
1. They’ve never been better at scoring points, averaging 29.9 per game — the franchise’s highest in the Super Bowl era.
2. Their running backs haven’t ran the ball with much, if any consistency.
Jordan Howard is the Bears’ leading rusher, with 137 carries generating 460 yards — good for 3.4 yards per carry. Only five times in the Super Bowl era (since 1966) has the Bears’ team leader in rushing attempts had an equal or lower yards-per-carry average than Howard’s 3.4:
Anthony Thomas (2002): 3.4 yards/carry
Ken Grandberry (1974): 3.3 yards/carry
Lewis Tillman (1994): 3.3 yards/carry
Neal Anderson (1993): 3.2 yards/carry
Curtis Enis (1999): 3.2 yards/carry
The difference in those five years: The Bears, in total, averaged 15.5 points per game in those five seasons — about half what they’re averaging in 2018. That doesn’t mean the Bears aren’t searching for a solution to their run game woes, though.
“You can’t go through this thing and be one-dimensional,” coach Matt Nagy said. “It’s just too easy for defenses.”
The Bears offense, of course, would be better if Howard and Tarik Cohen were more consistently effective — behind a more consistently effective offensive line and with more consistently effective playcalling. But re-watching the film from Sunday’s 34-22 win over the Detroit Lions, it’s not clear if there’s an easy fix — or a fix at all — to what’s ailed the Bears’ ground game.
There were some plays in Howard’s 11-carry, 21-yard afternoon on which the running back didn’t appear decisive enough. There were others where the blocking wasn’t there, be it from the offensive line or guys like fullback Michael Burton. On a few of them, the play design didn’t seem conducive to picking up yards. And then there were some where Detroit’s defensive line — led by solid run-stuffers in Damon “Snacks” Harrison and A’Shawn Robinson — would’ve beaten the best-blocked, best-executed or best-called running play.
“We’re not going to stop until we get it figured out,” Nagy said. “And for what we did yesterday, that’s not good enough. In my opinion, it’s up to us as coaches to lift every stone possible to figure out what do we need to do. Yeah, it is about players and it is about execution, but we need to do our job too and figure out, okay, what’s best for the Chicago Bears run game, what is it.
“In the passing game, we’re slowly starting to figure that out — we’re not there yet. But in the run game, we have a ways to go and we’re trying to get through that. Now as we get further on in the season here, we gotta get it fixed so we’re not one-dimensional.”
Nagy has to say and believe that last sentence, of course. And for the Bears’ offense to truly fulfill its potential, it’ll need a good running game, as evidenced by what Nagy’s former team, the Kansas City Chiefs, are able to do with Kareem Hunt averaging 4.7 yards per attempt in his standout year and a half in the NFL.
But the 2018 Bears can’t acquire a Hunt-like talent or different offensive line personnel at this point. Nagy can try to do some things differently to get the running game going, but perhaps he’s on a schematic tightrope: This a team that’s fifth in the NFL in points per game, after all, and has already scored more points (269) than it scored with Howard rushing for over 1,000 yards in 2017 (264).
Putting too much emphasis on trying to kick-start Howard’s season could have an overall negative effect, if it impacts the rhythm Trubisky and the passing game have found at times (and even when that rhythm isn’t there, this offense has managed to put up points, like the 31 it did against New England with Trubisky completing only 52 percent of his passes).
While the Bears’ run-pass ratio isn’t completely out of whack (55 percent pass, 45 percent run), perhaps better in-game balance could lead to more running success. The Bears have (including Trubisky scrambles) rushed 72 times against 64 passes in the first quarter, but only attempted 106 rushing plays compared to 166 passing plays in the second and third quarters. Those numbers revert in the fourth quarter, with the Bears having four multi-score wins to close out, to 71 rushing attempts against 59 passing attempts.
But Nagy also isn’t going to force it.
“When you run the ball and it’s first and 10 and you get second and nine, (or) it’s first and 10 and you get second and 12, that’s hard,” Nagy said. “So it’s — our guys all understand that. To me, this is a challenge. This is why I’m a coach, this is why we all coach, is to get these answers, figure it out. And we’ll do everything we can — we’re not going to stop trying until we get this thing right.”
Still, Howard’s two least-productive games by yards per carry came against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2.3) and Detroit Lions (1.9)…which stand as the Bears’ two best offensive games of the season.
Long term, the Bears will need to find a solution to their issues running the ball with running backs. But for the last seven games of 2018, Nagy may not need to find that solution to make the playoffs.