Bears Ground Game Can Key Turnaround – Sports Illustrated

David Montgomery is one of the few players on the Bears roster to have formed an attachment with the last coaching staff.
It would be easy for Montgomery to see all of the negatives with the current rebuild all the critics see but he has quickly assumed the leadership role he has always held. It would have been easy to bury himself in the negatives.
"But once you get to (where) you see a lot more negatives than positives, it becomes harder but you also learn in those instances–OK, there could be a positive here," he said. "Let's flip it and change your mindset on things so it doesn't really drag you as much as it can. But I know this year won't be nearly as many negatives than be positives. I can guarantee you that."
It seems a rather bold statement, but Montgomery and the backs say they're on a mission. It's not to prove their skeptics wrong.
"We're really out there to prove ourselves right," Montgomery said. "Everybody on the offense. Because we believe in each other. We're going out to prove to ourselves that we believe in each other."
If they can run the ball, they have more than half the battle won because this is an offense geared around play-action passing.
"It takes all 11 for the run game but that being said, once we do impose our will in the run game on the ground, that opens things up," tight end Ryan Griffin said. "Some (defensive) guys in the back end get antsy, try to come down a little close in the box and we can run by them, run around them. The boot scheme is going to be good for us too."
Here are the reasons their running game may have been undersold.
"We've got a damn good running back room," Montgomery said.
Montgomery might be stretching it a bit by calling them a "damn good running back room," but even Pro Football Focus agreed this is a respectable group of backs.
In fact, it's the only position group they rated in the top half of the league when they assessed each position group on each team. They barely maded it at No. 16, but Montgomery, Khalil Herbert, Trestan Ebner, Darrynton Evans, Khari Blasingame and De'Montre Tuggle are in the top half.
"Khalil being shifty, fast, got all the traits," Montgomery said. "Trestan being very fast, he can get up out of there and he's shifty, too. Darrynton, change of pace, can do a lot of everything, too. Very good in pass protection but also can make you miss. KB being a bruiser, big strong guy, can lift you up. I'm telling you, can move you. Tug, he's small but got a lot of heart and he can move, too. Very shifty as well. Who am I missing?"
"I'm just me. I just go out there and be me, for real," Montgomery said.
In Herbert, they now have a backup with starting experience from the period when Montgomery was injured. Ebner could be the back who surprises much the way Herbert did last year.
"He's quick," Montgomery said. "Super shifty quick. Like super quick, super shifty. and he's hilarious too. But game-wise, he's smart, he's picking things up fast. But like I said, he's quick and shifty. He's going to help us a lot."
Montgomery managed to finish fifth in the league in a 2020 offense where the running game was thought of as something to do in between passes. Last year his numbers took a hit because of a knee injury. He had started the year strong and all the speed work he did in the offseason was obvious in the runs he was popping of 8 yards or longer. But then in the fourth game came the injury and he wasn't the same back afterward.
Pro Football Focus considers him a back "to fade," in fantasy football because they say he has been below average in yards after contact (-0.2) and explosive play rate (-1.5). What this doesn't take into account is the poor nature of his past offensive lines when it comes to run blocking. In isolated instances, Montgomery is a load to tackle and not below average. But when you're hit by multiple defenders after being hit early in a running play, even Jim Brown is going to the turf.
Montgomery was third in the league in broken tackles (29) in 2020 when he ranked 45th in the number of yards he gained before contact according to official NFL stat partner Sportradar. It takes a real back to gain big yardage when they're being hit after only 1.9 yards on average and then to finish third speaks volumes. A fluke? The previous year he was seventh in the league in broken tackles and was being hit after 2.0 yards, 26th in the league.
Last year everything fell apart on the Bears offense and Montgomery's injury combined with it to produce the numbers PFF used in calling him a back to fade.
The Bears made poor use of Justin Fields' running ability last year. By the time they finally figured out how he might be used properly, it was too late. He gained twice as many yards in his last five starts as in his first seven appearances and five starts.
Getsy has designed an offense with Fields' mobility in mind. He's not the pocket passer Matt Nagy tried to make him, and his athletic ability can be a triggering point to open up the running game.
"Just the threat of him pulling it, the D-end and the linebackers gotta account for him pulling that ball and running around them too, so just having them have to account for that, and pause for a split second here or there, that's all we need," Herbert said. "So just having that little pause helps us a lot, because they pause for a split second, we're able to crease, and off and running."
On a few occasions when they had Fields pull it and dash on RPO or just a planned run, ends in camp have had trouble coping with that speed. A few games of seeing Fields use that speed can open up running lanes for backs.
When the whole offense is in place and being run, and the Bears are not just practicing situational football as they have in camp for the most part, it could look much different.
"Just how it's designed, how coach put everything together, you know with the guys we've got in our (running backs) room, I feel like we're going to excel in this system especially," Herbert said. "The whole thing and how we operate and you know with Justin in the backfield with us too is just … I'm excited. I'm excited to see how we're able to run the ball."
Can design matter for the run game? The Eagles revamped their offense to make better use of Jalen Hurts' running and they led the NFL in rushing with Miles Sanders as their best back.
This is the key and for most people the troubling aspect of the offense.
What's being done in this camp, unlike in any the previous staff had, is they're looking at every possible combination of blocker they have. They're trying to maximize what they do have rather than worry about what they don't have. Barely has a day gone by since the offseason work began and now running into the first week of camp when they were not looking at different line combinations.
The latest is Riley Reiff at right tackle and Braxton Jones at left tackle, with Doug Kramer at center and Michael Schofield at right guard. When Lucas Patrick returns, the center spot will be more stable. The obvious line in terms of experience is Reiff at left tackle, Cody Whitehair at left guard, Schofield at right guard and Larry Borom at right tackle but they might see something in Jones that lets them believe he can develop quickly at left tackle, and Reiff has more experience than Borom. Either way, they're going to know the extent of their depth before this camp is done.
The general skill/experience level isn't there for a dominant line, but combined with scheme and the right mix they could have a chance to focus on opening the run. Then, with that will come the play-action game.
The Cincinnati Bengals were 23rd, 24th and 25th in rushing the last three years and had an offensive line that allowed 70 sacks of Joe Burrow through the end of their season
Yet, they were in the Super Bowl.
So doing it with lesser talent is possible.
Run the ball better and it's possible to pass it better, to possess the ball and score more and take pressure off the defense. This results in a positive flow rather than the negative spiral the Bears found themselves in from 2019-2021.
Twitter: BearDigest@BearsOnMaven publisher Gene Chamberlain has covered the Bears full time for various publications, news services and websites over 30 years, including several years collaborating on weekly NFL/Bears columns with Mike Ditka and Walter Payton for the Copley Newspaper Chain.


Leave a Comment