Behind Bears' Lagging Running Game Is Lack Of Trust

"I know we need to run the ball more," Matt Nagy says. "I'm not an idiot."

Chris Emma
October 21, 2019 - 4:26 pm
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. (670 The Score) -- Fresh off the bye week and eager to bounce back from a loss, the Bears lined up for their first play from scrimmage at Soldier Field on Sunday with coach Matt Nagy expecting his team to come out firing.

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Nagy felt the pulse of his Bears, and it was beating fast. It's why he lined the offense up with quarterback Mitchell Trubisky under center behind an embattled offensive line and put speed threat Tarik Cohen in the backfield. It was a run play, with Cohen missing openings off tackle on the left and right side and running one yard into Saints defenders.

"You spend a week-and-a-half working on a concept," Nagy said Monday after watching the film. "And the first play of the game, you give a little bit of juice to your guys, 'Let’s go get this done,' and the first play that happened."

That was one of a franchise-low seven rushes for 17 yards by the Bears in their discouraging 36-25 loss to the Saints. The plans Nagy had set during the bye week of self-scouting were quickly dashed as his confidence in the running game diminished. 

Nagy didn't intend for Trubisky to throw the ball 54 times, but his faith in rushing efficiency has been lost.

When the disappointment of the game had settled, Cohen was the leading rusher with three carries for 10 yards, telling reporters postgame he's "not particularly a running back." Rookie David Montgomery, for whom the Bears traded up to select in the third round, carried twice for six yards and fumbled once. Veteran Mike Davis, signed to a two-year, $6-million deal, didn't see a single snap on offense. Even the mobile threat Trubisky didn't carry once.

Nagy didn't have answers for the lack of a running game in the immediate aftermath. After watching the tape Monday, he was more candid about the issue.

"It’s about productive plays," Nagy said. "Productive plays. Right now, we’re not having productive plays in the run game any way you look at it. 

"I want positive plays."

Related: Emma: Bears-Saints observations

The Bears are averaging 4.4 yards per play, which ranks 30th in the NFL and sits just barely ahead of the Dolphins and Jets. The offense is averaging 3.4 yards per rush, which includes Montgomery carrying 71 times for 231 yards, a 3.3 yards-per-carry average.

Meanwhile, Trubisky is averaging just 5.2 yards per passing attempt as his own struggles destroy hopes of a balance offense and compound problems for the running game. Opposing defenses can stack the box and dare Trubisky to beat them deep. Outside of garbage time -- which Nagy said Monday meant nothing to him -- Trubisky had only three plays for more than 10 yards in the loss to the Saints.

The notion that Nagy is averse to the running game is a bit misleading. He was the coordinator of a Chiefs offense in 2017 that featured the NFL's leading rusher in Kareem Hunt. In the five regular-season games that Nagy called plays in 2017, Hunt averaged 5.0 yards per carry. That included three straight games in which he rushed 25, 24 and 29 times.

Part of Nagy's work in preparing the game plan for Sunday was reassessing plays that have worked in the past. On a second-and-6 play with 5:29 left in the first quarter, Nagy called for an end-around play with receiver Anthony Miller coming from the left side outside the right tackle. Montgomery and tight end Trey Burton were among the lead blockers.

The Bears ran this same play against the Bills last Nov. 4, with Miller gaining nine yards thanks to Jordan Howard helping seal a block. On the play this past Sunday, the rookie Montgomery and Burton joined tackle Bobby Massie for an inexplicable three-man block of Saints defensive end Marcus Davenport. Meanwhile, safety Vonn Bell read the pre-snap motion and went unblocked as he forced Miller to fumble.

How did three Bears end up blocking one defender while another ran free to force a fumble? Nagy had no answers, only frustration. 

The Saints took a 19-10 lead with a methodical touchdown drive to open the second half. The Bears then took over on first-and-10 from their own 25 with 11:55 in the third quarter looking to establish the run after some halftime adjustments. Montgomery took a carry in a single-back formation and ran to an opening on the left side.

There wasn't daylight for long, as Davenport blew up a Burton block and stripped the football from Montgomery. After that, the Bears rushed only once more -- on an end-around to receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. They played the final 26:47 of the game without a running back rushing the football. Trubisky threw the ball 30 times in that span as the contest became out of reach.

How do the Bears get back to running the football effectively? It's a matter of trust from Nagy and execution by his players.

"I know we need to run the ball more," Nagy said. "I'm not an idiot."

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.