Concerns in Chicago

The game had come to this.

The Chicago Bears – playing without their franchise quarterback Mitchell Trubisky – were clinging to a 23-16 lead.  There was one minute left in the game.

The Bears faced a third-and-9 on their own 21, with Detroit holding one final time out.  A stop here, a quick time out, and a punt would give Detroit about 50 seconds and relatively good field position for one last shot.

After Bears’ running back Tarik Cohen started up the middle, he broke sharply to his right and (with the help of a sealing block by tight end Ben Braunecker) turned the corner on Detroit. Also downfield blocking on the play was left guard James Daniels.  He was trying to clear defensive back Darius Slay out of the way.  His block wasn’t so successful.  (This, by the way, had been a recurring theme during the game).

As Cohen approached the 27-yard line, he cut sharply inside, avoiding Slay, but running straight into his blocker Daniels.  Still 3 yards short of the first down, the running back pushed his offensive lineman backwards.  For his part, Daniels wrapped his arms around Cohen and half shielded/half drug Cohen to the first down marker, and just a yard beyond.  First down, Chicago.  And that was the game (gamebook) (box score).

That run – officially marked as 10 yards – was also Chicago’s only running play of the afternoon to reach double digits.

As the season started and the Chicago Bears began their rise from obscurity, one of the most impressive aspects of the team was its balance.  Trubisky, in just his second year, was growing up rapidly and was blessed with an impressive running attack in a game plan that emphasized balance.

Culminating with their Week Eight victory over the Jets (in which they ran for 179 yards) Chicago was averaging 137.6 rushing yards per game.  At that point, they were the NFL’s third-ranked rushing offense, averaging 4.67 yards per running attempt.

Abruptly, though, the Chicago running game regressed.

It began innocuously enough in their next game against Buffalo.  The Bears won in blowout fashion, 41-9, and Chicago was up 28-0 at the half.  The game featured two touchdowns contributed by the Bear defense and 292 total yards in accepted penalties.  The Bears were flagged 14 times for 129 yards.  The Bills only drew 10 penalties, but for 163 yards.

So, very little about that game resembled a normal contest.  At the end of the day, when Chicago’s 25 running plays had only accounted for 64 yards, it was easy to shrug off.  With the big early lead, both teams knew that Chicago would spend most of the rest of the game running the ball and working the clock.

The next week against Detroit, however, things didn’t get appreciably better.  As with the Thanksgiving Day game, the Lions had answers for everything that Chicago tried to do on the ground.  The Bears finished with just 54 yards to show for their 22 running plays.  They managed no run longer than 9 yards in that one, so Cohen’s game-sealing run – at a modest ten yards – was the longest running play the Bears managed in two games against Detroit.  Chicago still won that game 34-22 on the arm of Trubisky, who threw for 355 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Concerns about the running game seemed to evaporate the next week.  Chicago outlasted Minnesota 25-20 in a game that saw them run for 148 yards.  This set up the re-match last Thursday in Detroit – this time without Trubisky.

So, if you’re like me, you’re thinking that with a backup quarterback – Chase Daniel – on a short week where he hasn’t had opportunity to work with any of the receivers – and with a running game that is getting back on track – you would think that the run game would be an important part of the game plan.  Especially against a defense ranked twenty-fourth against the run, allowing 125 rushing yards a game and 4.8 yards a rush.

So the first surprise here is that Chicago never even tried to run the ball against the Lions.  In 11 of their first 12 plays, they put the ball in Daniel’s hands.  Early in the third quarter, Cohen and Jordan Howard carried the ball on consecutive plays.  Thirty plays into the game, and this was the first time Chicago would call consecutive running plays.  Then 17 of the next 18 were passes.  It wasn’t until they got the ball back with 1:07 left in the game that they ran on consecutive downs again. Cohen’s icing run came on the third straight running play.

Not counting Chase’s final kneel down, Chicago called passes on 43 of 56 plays.

That was surprise number one.

Surprise number two was that when they did try to run the ball, they did so poorly.  Taking away the final kneel-down and one 2-yard scramble, Chicago’s 13 called run plays generated 37 yards – less than three per rush.

On Chicago’s very first running play, Detroit lineman Romeo Okwara drove Bears’ left tackle Charles Leno right back into the running back’s lap.  During Chicago’s attempt to run out that last minute, Leno had an opportunity to push open a cutback lane for Howard, but couldn’t get any movement on A’Shawn Robinson.  The very next run showed some promise, but needed Leno to get quickly off his double-team block and pick up the linebacker.  He couldn’t, and Quandre Diggs zipped through the middle to stop the play for no gain.

Leno wasn’t alone.  Even though the Bears ran only 13 times, it provided ample opportunity for all of the offensive linemen to come up short.  Left guard Daniels – who was holding onto Cohen at the end of the game – was beaten back by Ezekiel Ansah during one failed second-quarter run.  Two plays later, he was supposed to lead Cohen on a sweep around right end.  Linebacker Devon Kennard met him at the edge and stopped him dead, stripping the sweep of all of the blocking and resulting in a 3-yard loss.

On one late second quarter run, right guard Bryan Witzmann was supposed to trap Robinson and right tackle Bobby Massie was supposed to pop off his double-team to get the linebacker.  Neither block happened as another running play was muffled for just a yard.

The evening’s futility extended especially to tight end Trey Burton.  With 9:03 left in the second quarter, Burton came peeling back toward the left of the formation to kick out Ansah and give Howard the corner.  He missed completely.  Less than three minutes later, Burton was unable to put any kind of block on cornerback DeShawn Shead.  That contributed materially to the 3-yard loss by Cohen spoken of earlier.  With 5:17 left in the third, Chase Daniel ran a well-executed read-option run toward the left end.  Burton just needed to get a block on Diggs.  Not only did he miss the block, Trey even was flagged for holding.

It was that kind of day all around.

This is now three times in the last four games that Chicago has been held under 70 rushing yards.  When you remember that a large portion of their success running the football was the direct result of the improvised scrambles of Trubisky, you start to wonder if this offensive line is truly good enough to measure up to the defensive lines they will see once the playoffs start.

Most of the concern in Chicago these days is over the health of their quarterback – who is listed as doubtful for today’s game.  Perhaps there should be some concern over the state of the running game.

On the other side of the coin is Detroit.  While their opponents in Chicago are looking forward to the playoffs, the Lions, with the loss, fall to 4-7.  Detroit limps into December with little to play for in what has been a disappointing first season under Matt Patricia.  The former defensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, Patricia has been unable to establish much defensive traction with the Lions so far.  Thanksgiving was the ninth time in eleven games that a Lions opponent has scored at least 21 points, and they currently rank twenty-fourth in points allowed with 286.  Their struggles begin with stopping the run.

They allowed at least 169 rushing yards in three of their first four games, and allowed 107 or more six times in their first eight games.  At that point, Detroit ranked thirtieth among thirty-two teams in stopping the run.  They were allowing 142.5 rushing yards per game, and 5.14 per rushing attempt – the second highest total in the league.

In what may be one of the first encouraging signs of the Matt Patricia era, the Lions might be starting to turn things around – at least in regards to stopping the run.  Last Thursday was the third straight game that Detroit has allowed less than 60 yards on the ground.  In fact, their total for the last three games (148) is only slightly higher than their average for the first 8.

Granted, two of those games were against a Chicago team that has been searching for its running game lately.  But in between those two efforts was a 20-19 conquest of the Carolina Panthers – currently the third most prolific running attack in football.  In that game, the Panthers staggered to just 56 rushing yards – again with no carry greater than 10 yards.  It has, in fact, been since Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook popped a 70-yard run against them with 4:45 left in the second quarter of their Week Nine game that anyone has broken off a run of more than ten yards against the Detroit run defense – 67 rushing attempts ago.

Standing out as much as anyone can when the opposition only runs the ball 13 times was linebacker Christian Jones, who made the primary tackle on 4 of those 13 plays.  Cut by the team in early September, Jones has been playing with increasing confidence and better anticipation.  Playing more on the inside than earlier this year, Jones was too quick for the linemen trying to pick him up off their double-teams, and largely un-blockable – especially by Cody Whitehair, the Bears’ center.

On a couple of Chicago’s unsuccessful runs, their blocking scheme didn’t even seem to include Jones.  Making the play is much easier when you are unblocked.

It is only three games, and the Lions do have other things to fix.  The pass defense – for example – rarely pressured Daniel, who, in just his third career start, racked up a very efficient 106.8 passer rating against Patricia’s pass defense.  There is still work to do in Detroit.

But if the Lions have found a way to stop – or at least slow – the bleeding against opposing running games, that will be a significant first step.

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