The Chicago Bears defense has allowed just one 100-yard rusher all season: Seattle's Thomas Rawls in Week 3.
No running back has produced a top-tier individual effort against the Bears yet the team currently ranks 25th in the NFL in rushing defense (124.8 yards per game) and yards per attempt (4.5). In Week 6, the Lions posted 155 rushing yards as a team, despite no single player rushing for more than 48 yards, while the Chiefs tallied 117 yards on the ground despite losing Jamaal Charles midway through the game. In fact, the Bears have given up more than 100 yards on the ground in all but one contest this season - 70 yards in Week 4 against the Raiders.
The woes of the run defense coincide with injuries to crucial players, but things aren't going to get much better. Ego Ferguson is on IR and the team just cut Jeremiah Ratliff, which leaves the club very thin along the defensive line. while linebacker Shea McClellin is still out with a knee injury.
"When Shea went out, our operations struggled during the game," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said two weeks ago. "There were some plays were everybody was not on the same page and it was because of that. That's one of the things that Shea has brought to us and that's good quarterbacking of the defense. When he went out, we struggled with that."
Despite his spott history with the Bears, McClellin has developed in his role as the club's top inside linebacker, so getting him healthy will be a necessity for the run defense going forward.
"Shea McClellin, obviously, getting him back in there at some point, as well as Antrel [Rolle], from a leadership standpoint, getting guys lined up and understanding how to execute our defense is key," head coach John Fox said on Monday. "We’ve got some guys that we’re leaning on right now that will just get better with time until those guys can get back in the lineup."
With McClellin out, Christian Jones has stepped into the main role at inside linebacker. Jones has upside but right now, he's more of a sidekick than a primary inside thumper. LaRoy Reynolds and Jonathan Anderson rotated alongisde Jones against the Lions, with Reynolds on the field in run situations and Anderson in on passing downs. Reynolds plays a downhill brand of football, which is valuable, but he lacks ideal awareness and change-of-direction ability.
The upside for the run defense is the play of defensive ends Pernell McPhee and Sam Acho, who have been stout in setting the edge.
The improvement must happen up the middle, a unit that has been gutted by the loss of Ratliff and Ferguson. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman has been very productive filling gaps and making plays in the backfield, but he's been inconsistent. As has Jarvis Jenkins, who made a few splash plays against the run earlier in the year but has disappeared the past two weeks. Mitch Unrein has shown promise and his reps will surely increase, as will those of Will Sutton, although he's done very little this year. The Bears also believe newcomer Ziggy Hood has value on first and second down.
That's a relatively young group of interior defenders who will see in uptick in snaps going forward. How they progress in filling their gap assignments will be crucial to the success of Chicago's run defense, which will face the Vikings' 6th-ranked rushing offense, led by a resurgent Adrian Peterson, this Sunday.
On the flipside, the rushing attack on offense is also trending downward. The Bears opened the season with 189 yards on the ground against the Green Bay Packers, averaging 5.7 yards per carry, but the team hasn't averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry in any single game since. The Bears had the NFL's fourth-ranked rushing attack following Week 1 but have dropped to 16th in yards per game (112.0) and 24th in yards per attempt (3.9).
The first step in reversing this trend might be to lighten Matt Forte's workload. Despite sitting out last week because of the bye, Forte still has the second most rushing attempts (126) and total touches (147) in the league. For a player who turns 30 in December that's not a realistic 16-game workload, as he's on pace for career highs in carries and touches.
The Bears recognize the problem of Forte's touch count, which is why fourth-round rookie Jeremy Langford saw 16 snaps in Week 6, his single-game high this season. Langford was the primary back for two full series in Detroit, something we haven't seen with a healthy Forte standing on the sidelines in seven years. Expect Langford's role in the offense to grow as the season progresses, which will keep Forte's wheels from falling off and add a speedy, dynamic element to the backfield.
Yet like the defense, the problems for Chicago's run game lie in the trenches. LG Matt Slauson has been a rock in pass protection but he's regressed as a run blocker, while RG Vladimir Ducasse has looked out of sync and un-athletic, and his frequent mental lapses have been drive killers.
There are reasons for hope though. LT Charles Leno has struggled as a run blocker but he'll likely return to his backup role with Jermon Bushrod expected to return this week. And don't sleep on rookie center Hroniss Grasu. He lacks ideal strength but he has shown improvement in his technique and functional development, while his athleticism at the second level and on zone runs has a lot of value. In addition, RT Kyle Long should continue to improve as he grows into his new positioin.
The Bears are works in progress on the sides of the line of scrimmage and have substantial hurdles yet to clear. Whether or not those two units develop the requisite chemistry and production will have the biggest impact on the team's success the rest of the season.