Emma: Numbers Suggest Bears' Running Game Will Stay Grounded

November 28, 2018 - 4:30 pm

LAKE FOREST, Ill. (670 The Score) -- Once relied upon to carry the Bears offense and lead their chances to victory, running back Jordan Howard is now just along for the ride. He's a piece to coach Matt Nagy's puzzle as opposed to the centerpiece from before.

The third-year back Howard's carries are down this season, as he's averaging 14.7 rushes per game. His yardage per carry (3.3) and game (48.7) are also well below that of his first two NFL seasons, in which he averaged 4.6 yards per carry and 78.5 rushing yards per game. But the Bears' win total is up, with the team sporting an 8-3 record and leading the NFC North.

"Winning offsets everything," Howard said when asked of his personal production amid team success. "It definitely offsets (a reduced workload). I'm cool as long as we're winning."

Howard appeared to be frustrated after the Bears' 48-10 win over the Buccaneers on Sept. 30, the team's fourth game of the season. Since then, he has embraced every touchdown celebration with teammates, even as he has been in the end zone only five times himself. Howard has been a team player.

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After being the workhorse for Bears teams that won three and five games, respectively, his first two NFL seasons, Howard is a part of a running game that has taken a back seat to quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, an arsenal of targets and Nagy's innovative offense that has the Bears clicking. 

Nagy is well aware of what the Bears have in their running game as a whole -- not just in Howard and Tarik Cohen but the offensive line, too. He has spoken honestly about it all season with hopes of getting it fixed.

"It hasn't been a strength of ours," Nagy said Wednesday.

But behind that candid response from Nagy seemed to be the truth, an acknowledgement of the Bears' realities in their running game. 

Howard has averaged 2.9 yards per carry on the 51 rushes that he's had since three-time Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long suffered a severe injury to his right foot on Oct. 28. The Bears' running backs have averaged 2.8 yards per game without Long.

Veteran backups Eric Kush and Bryan Witzmann have attempted to fill the void, but the running production hasn't been there.

"Whether there's a coincidence there or not, I can't quite answer it," Nagy said. "But I feel like it's definitely not because of one person."

The Bears' four true running backs active -- Howard, Cohen, Benny Cunningham and Taquan Mizzell -- have collectively averaged 3.6 yards per carry this season. Meanwhile, the Bears' two quarterbacks who have played -- Trubisky and backup Chase Daniel -- have averaged 7.5 passing yards per attempt. 

An analytically conscious coach, Nagy has taken the numbers to his side in being aggressive in attempting two-point conversions against conventional wisdom, so you better believe he's considering the 3.9-yard difference between passing and running the football.

Nagy has trusted his own diverse playbook and the layers of options to get the most out of this offense, which is still a work in progress while ranking 19th at 5.6 yards per play. Having the quarterback spread the football around has been the Bears' best avenue for efficiency.

"That's what's so special about this offense," said receiver Allen Robinson, considered the top target in this offense. "It's a bit of a position-less offense. Everybody has a chance to make plays. Everybody has a chance to be lined up at different positions and stuff like that. For us, we all try to feed off each other. We just try to all go out there and make plays whenever our number's called."

Nagy predicted it would take some time for the Bears to gain comfort on offense. Part of that thinking was because plenty of development loomed for Trubisky in his first year in a new system, and part of it was because Nagy knew he had to learn how to use his personnel properly.

Consistency has been lacking for the Bears on offense, and losing Trubisky to a right shoulder injury hasn't helped. But Nagy didn't turn to the running game in Daniel's start at Detroit last Thursday, choosing to trust the 10-year NFL veteran who knows his system rather than test a tough Lions defensive line on the ground.

Praised for his communication skills, Nagy has maintained a dialogue with Howard about his usage moving forward. They can see his production increasing, perhaps now as the calendar turns to December. The Bears practiced Wednesday afternoon in the bitter cold in Lake Forest, with snow surrounding their practice field and knowing the conditions could soon dictate their plans on offense.

Howard has proved he can dash through the snow and make defenders freeze in the frigid cold. The question is whether the Bears will be forced to rely on him more in the elements.

"I still feel like I'm the same player," Howard said. "I just haven't had the same success for whatever reasons this year. But I still feel like I'm the same player."

Each of Howard's dozen 100-yard rushing game have come on 15 carries or more. He has appeared to be a player who thrives on volume, something offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich noted earlier this season.

Howard posted his season-high in rushing yards in the opener at Green Bay, carrying 15 times for 82 yards. Cohen has been used nearly as often as a target in the passing game (63) as he has as a rusher (66 carries), with Nagy attempting to keep the 5-foot-6, 181-pound weapon healthy and fresh.

The Bears could ultimately get off the bus running once again, as they did before Nagy's arrival to the team, but it seems they're more than comfortable with the current production of a pass-happy offense.

While the running game remains an issue, it's hard to argue against first place. Howard has bought in with whatever the Bears need.

"Winning definitely helps," Howard said. "As long as we're winning, there's nothing really to complain about. Winning keeps me happy."

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