After compiling more than 300 rushing yards against the Washington Redskins and Green Bay Packers combined, the run game of the Chicago Bears stalled last week against the Detroit Lions. The Bears ran the ball 20 times for a total of 38 yards, the team's lowest rushing output of the season.
"We didn't execute the way we wanted to," said left tackle Jermon Bushrod. "We ended the day with 30-something yards. That's not what you go into a game [trying to accomplish]. Your mindset is to have success running the ball. Unfortunately we didn't. We need to pick it back up."
Chicago is averaging 111 rushing yards per contest this year, which is 15th in the league. Yet in yards per attempt, the Bears are eighth in the league, which helped them stay consistent on the ground through the first eight games. The lackluster performance against the Lions continually put the offense in 2nd-and-long and 3rd-and-long situations. It forced the offense to become one dimensional, ultimately leading to the home loss.
"In the running game there's a fine line between big plays and no gain, and in that game we had more no gains than we had big plays," coordinator Aaron Kromer said this week. "When you watch it on tape and you're watching on the sideline, we knew what was going on and we worked to correct it on the sideline and it didn't happen in the game. We kind of gave up on it after that, and rightfully so, because we weren't getting the production we needed."
That same type of performance this week against the Baltimore Ravens, who rank higher than the Lions in every major defensive category, could be a recipe for the club's second straight defeat at Soldier Field.
"We were third-down-and-long four times last week, third-and-11-plus four times last week, which really hurt us overall," coach Marc Trestman said. "Percentage-wise, it's difficult when you're behind the eight ball, third and long, and we don't want to be that this week against this Ravens team which is highly diverse as you get into third-and-longs. They've got three or four different packages, a four-down, three-down, multiple blitzes from everywhere. You don't want to mess around on third-and-long with the Ravens. We are going to do everything we can to be manageable there on the offensive side of the ball."
The Ravens run a 3-4 scheme that relies on space eaters up front and fast, powerful linebackers that can fill gaps explosively. It's a defensive front against which the Bears have historically struggled to run the ball. Baltimore presents the third 3-4 system Chicago has faced this season. The rushing attack gained 107 yards as a team against the Steelers in Week 3, then exploded for 171 against the Packers two weeks ago. So it's not impossible to have success against a 3-4, it's just more challenging.
"Their tradition is to have big, strong, powerful men inside, so it's tough to run in there," said Kromer. "But there are certain plays that you can take advantage of what you have on offense and we'll try to get those called."
"It's a typical 3-4 front," Bushrod said. "You've got the three big huge guys in the middle with good two-gap technique and you've got the power rushers outside. All of the 3-4 teams are kind of the same. It's just different personnel, different guys in there with different moves and different skill sets."
That personnel includes outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, who have 17.5 sacks between them. But it also includes one of the toughest nose tackles in the game in Haloti Ngata. A huge human being (6-4, 340), Ngata can occupy blockers like few other linemen in the league. If he wreaks havoc inside and forces the Bears to double team him on every run play, Chicago will again struggle to move the ball on the ground.
The Bears' defense lost another Pro Bowler this week when Charles Tillman landed on injured reserve with a triceps injury. That makes it even less likely the 26th-ranked defense in the league is going to be able to stop any opposing offenses going forward, including that of the Ravens. Which means Chicago's offense must carry the team on its shoulders if the club has any shot at making the playoffs. That will start this week by establishing the ground game against a Baltimore defense that ranks 10th in the NFL against the run.
"We've got to shake off [last week's performance]," said Bushrod. "We can't get discouraged because we've had some success in the run game. Our running backs have hit the holes and we've blocked them. We've got to play together. This is not an individual game. It's a team game. We all have to be on the same page."
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.