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Hoge's Film Study: How the running game helps Justin Fields

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Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley went viral Wednesday with one the best scheme-related explanations you’ll ever hear an NFL head coach give you.

The question at hand: What does the running game do for a quarterback?

The answer? I encourage you to watch the entire video below, but the gist is this:

“You don’t need a good running game to be a good play-action team, but what you need the running game for is the physical element of the game,” Staley said. “There’s a physical element of the game that is real. If you’re just a passing team, there’s a physical element to the game that the defense doesn’t have to respect, and that’s the truth.”

The former Bears’ outside linebackers coach has been on a meteoric rise through the coaching ranks, landing in Los Angeles last year as the Rams’ defensive coordinator before the Chargers hired him as head coach this year. He’s a former quarterback turned defensive guru under Vic Fangio, and you can understand why he’s having early success with a young quarterback like Justin Herbert and answers like this.

Staley went on to explain an obvious point that we all sometimes lose sight of: the running game forces the defense to play blocks and tackle on every play, while the passing game does not.

“So what the running game does is it really challenges your physicality,” Staley said. “And that’s why I think the run game is important to a quarterback, because it’s going to allow him literally to have more space to operate when you do throw the football. It’s not that you need the run game to throw it, it’s just what it gives the rest of your skill players.”

 

So what does this have to do with the Bears? Well, from my view, this is the fundamental difference between what the Bears failed to do with Justin Fields against the Cleveland Browns two weeks ago and what they successfully did against the Detroit Lions last week.

Against the Lions, the Bears used the running game — 34 carries from their running backs — to help Justin Fields complete five passes of at least 20-plus air yards on just 17 passing attempts. It was the most completions of 20-plus air yards in the Matt Nagy era since Mitch Trubisky accomplished the feat against the Packers in 2019, but on 53 passing attempts. 

And it didn’t take long Sunday to get the deep shots going. After running the ball on five of the first seven plays, Fields was able to hit wide receiver Darnell Mooney on a deep crosser for 21 yards. The throw wasn’t perfect (a more accurate pass would have led to an even bigger play) but Fields still gave Mooney an opportunity to make a play, and the receiver did with an acrobatic diving catch.

From “11” personnel with three wide receivers, the Bears kept tight end Cole Kmet in to block. That provided the time necessary for the play to develop. Meanwhile, the play-action kept the linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage, while two vertical routes took  four Lions defensive backs deep. Detroit certainly didn’t play this well, but the result was a wide open hole in the intermediate level for Mooney.

The theme of combining protection with play-action to create deep shots continued throughout the game. Later, using “21” personnel with J.P. Holtz lined up as a fullback, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor used a “dagger” concept to create an explosive throw to Allen Robinson. The dagger uses a vertical route to clear out space for a underneath receiver in the middle of the field.

Bunched to the right, Damiere Byrd occupied both Cover-2 safeties by running right at the near safety to the play-side. This created the space for Robinson to cut in underneath and Fields delivered an absolute strike (look at the ball placement below). Once again, the play-action held the linebackers underneath.

“(The run game) makes my job way easier, of course,” Fields said Wednesday. “When the defense sees that we’re in that kind of personnel, they’re most likely thinking run. So it definitely sets up the play-action well. It gets the passing game going a lot.”

There’s no reason to stop here, as Robinson’s outstanding catch on the Bears’ sideline also came off of play-action. And it was an absolute dime by Fields.

Once again, the play-action holds the underneath defender just enough to create the throwing window — and this window wasn’t nearly as big. But the Bears are also in a seven-man protection, which gives Fields the necessary time to let the routes develop. The heavy protection probably wasn’t necessary since the Lions only sent four rushers and dropped seven, but this play goes to show that you can still find a deep shot with only two receivers running against seven defenders when there’s time and space to work with. One of the reasons why Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan use tighter formations is because it gives receivers more room to operate outside the numbers.

 

Of course, you still need the quarterback to make the throws. And this is not an easy throw. But that’s exactly why Nagy ended the drama Wednesday and named Fields his starting quarterback going forward.

“(The deep threat) was big because that really helps the run game, and we weren’t real big on that when you look at the hit chart, right? The passing chart of where those were coming from, they weren’t happening much (before Sunday),” Nagy said. “Even if you don’t complete them … you’re helping your run game out. You’re helping your linemen out. So when you connect on them and you’re able to flip the field, huge.”

Fields simply gives Nagy’s offense a threat it has severely lacked, but it all works together in tandem with the run game. Staley has the same luxury right now in Los Angeles with Justin Hebert.

But that’s exactly why the Bears’ spread-it-out/static routes game plan in Cleveland continues to look maddening. Even against a much better defense than the Lions, it wasn’t necessary and didn’t put the rookie quarterback in the best position to succeed.

That changed against the Lions, and what’s particularly encouraging is that the throw to Robinson on the sideline was an example of “NFL open” that Fields appeared reluctant to the pull the trigger on in Cleveland. You could argue that even on that play he could have gotten rid of the ball a tick quicker, but it was still a huge improvement from the week before.

Going forward, it won’t be as easy as it was against the Lions — and losing David Montgomery in the running game doesn’t help — but if the Bears don’t abandon the run and stick with what worked last week, they will be putting Fields in position to make the explosive throws needed to win games in today’s NFL.

Staley clearly gets it. Can the Bears commit to it?

Grade Report

(As always, for more detail on the grading system, click here.

— With 17 games on the schedule, the schedule can no longer be divided into even quarters, but this is typically where we can start lending some credibility to the overall grades on the season. With that in mind, here are some key young players playing at a level the Bears hoped: linebacker Roquan Smith (4.50), wide receiver Darnell Mooney (3.50), cornerback Jaylon Johnson (3.50). All of them are at least in the longterm starter category, with Smith breaking the blue-chip barrier.

 

— Then you have players exceeding expectations, like Montgomery’s 7.00, Robert Quinn’s 4.00, and Angelo Blackson’s 3.00.

— Players who must improve as the season goes along: safety Eddie Jackson (0.75), tight end Cole Kmet (0.50) and right tackle Germain Ifedi (-0.50). Although, it should be noted that Ifedi played much better against the Lions.

— While the tight ends have been largely disappointing so far this season, all four (Kmet, Jimmy Graham, Jesse James and J.P. Holtz) graded out well as blockers against the Lions. You have to think their targets in the passing game will eventually increase.