Bears rushing attack poised for a rebound

Using unique statistical analysis from Football Outsiders, we analyze the immense potential of the Chicago Bears’ rushing attack in 2015.

Under the former regime, the Chicago Bears deployed a pass-first offense each and every week during the regular season.

In 2013, the Bears had 351 carries by running backs, which was 20th in the NFL. Last season, running backs carried just 302 times, which was 30th in the NFL.

This was not a club that “got off the bus running”, as former head coach Lovie Smith was fond of saying. Instead, this was an offense that looked to pass in nearly every situation, often attempting to use bubble screens to wide receivers as a substitute for pounding the rock.

There is much trepidation amongst Bears fans about the direction the new coaching staff, and in particular offensive coordinator Adam Gase, will take Chicago’s run game this year.

For the past two seasons, Gase led an offense in which Peyton Manning was under center. Not surprisingly, the Broncos were a passing juggernaut, finishing 1st and 4th in passing offense the past two years respectively.

Yet Gase never ignored his run game in the same way as former Bears head coach Marc Trestman. In fact, the Broncos finished in the top half of the league in rushing (15th overall) in each of the past two seasons.

In 2014, Gase handed the ball off to his running backs 401 times, which was seventh most in the NFL. In 2013, Broncos running backs carried 423 times, which was fourth most in the league.

Gase has been referred to as a “cutting-edge” offensive coordinator who builds his systems around the passing game. While that may be true, he’s never flat out dismissed the run game.

So what does that mean for the Bears?

To answer that question, let’s clear up the Kyle Long situation.

Long is a two-time Pro Bowl right guard who worked at both left and right tackle during OTAs and mandatory minicamp this off-season. Yet that was because of injuries to both of the club’s starting tackles: Jermon Bushrod and Jordan Mills. Both Long and head coach John Fox said the move outside was temporary and that, once Bushrod and Mills are healthy, Long will move back to guard.

So for our purposes, let’s assume the starting offensive line in 2015 will be as follows:

LT Jermon Bushrod, LG Matt Slauson, C Will Montgomery, RG Kyle Long, RT Jordan Mills.

Of this group, only Montgomery is a new starter. The other four have been Chicago’s Week 1 starters the past two years, so analyzing statistics from 2013 and 2014 still has value.

With that in mind, let’s discuss Adjusted Line Yards (ALY) from Football Outsiders (FO), which assigns a percentage value to each RB carry based on the direction of the run, as well as numerous other factors.

For a full explanation of ALY, click here.

ALY accounts for runs off the left end, left tackle, up the middle, right tackle and right end.

Here are the Bears’ ranks for each direction in 2014:

Left end: 20th Left tackle: 27th Up the middle: 8th Right tackle: 17th Right end: 9th

Here are the Bears’ ALY ranks for 2013:

Left end: 9th Left tackle: 13th Up the middle: 26th Right tackle: 31st Right end: 1st

So what can glean from these statistics?

First, stretch runs have been very effective in Chicago’s zone blocking system. The offensive line has been built with athletic players who can pull quickly out in front of sweeps. The mobility of this front five is a plus.

The success of stretch runs is also due to the blocking of the club's wide receivers. Alshon Jeffery is a quality blocker in space, as is first rounder Kevin White, who dominated as a run blocker in college.

Second, the tackles are not strong run blockers at the point of attack. The highest ALY grade for off-tackle runs was 13th at left tackle in 2013. Otherwise, the team has ranked 17th, 27th and 31st on off-tackle runs the past two years.

Third, running behind Kyle Long up the middle is a good thing. The Bears ranked 8th in the NFL on gut runs last season, despite the fact Garza and Slauson both missed time due to injury. The one constant was Long, who is fundamentally sound and has immense strength at the point of attack.

With Montgomery stationed at center, those up-the-middle runs should be even more effective. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Montgomery has consistently been one of the top run-blocking centers in the league. In 2013, he graded 9th best at his position and in 2014 he graded 5th best.

Also, don’t discount the return of Slauson, who missed 11 games last season. Per PFF, Slauson graded as the 11th best run-blocking guard in 2013.

Additionally, Gase has developed blocking schemes that have been very effective for gut runs. Last year, the Broncos ranked 4th in the NFL in ALY on runs between the guards, which says as much about Montgomery as it does Gase.

Fourth, the Bears improved substantially in short-yardage situations last season. FO uses a metric called Power Success, defined as follows:

Percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer.

In 2013, the Bears ranked 30th in the NFL in Power Success, yet jumped all the way to 10th in 2014. Again, the addition of Montgomery should only bolster the team’s success in short-yardage situations.

Finally, Chicago’s backfield has plenty of talent. Matt Forte looked outstanding during off-season programs and, even at age 29, is poised for another outstanding campaign.

The club also added Jacquizz Rodgers, a shifty, change-of-pace back with a knack for moving the pile forward, as well as fourth-round rookie Jeremy Langford, the fastest running back at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine (4.42 40-yard dash). And don’t sleep on Ka’Deem Carey, last year’s fourth rounder, who has plenty of value between the tackles.

With all of these pieces in place, it wouldn’t make sense to ignore a rushing attack that has Top-10 potential this year. If the offense is built on a strong run game and play-action, passing lanes will open up down the field for the club’s deep receiving corps.

Bottom line: The Bears have the talent to be one of the league leaders in rushing in 2015, which will greatly benefit the passing attack as well as the scoreboard.


Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.

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