Running Game Struggles Cause for Concern?

Like the World Champion Pittsburgh Steelers, the Bears have an identity as a tough football team that focuses on suffocating defense and a strong running game. Everyone knew the passing attack would be a work in progress, but very quietly, the Bears haven't run the ball very well at all. Is there cause for concern on the ground?

Just a year ago, the Bears were one of the top running teams in the NFL, averaging 4.3 yards per carry on over 30 attempts per game. Starter Thomas Jones had the best season of his career with 1,335 yards on the ground, and both Cedric Benson and Adrian Peterson performed very well when their numbers were called. Along with arguably the best defense in the league, the running game was supposed to be a team strength again in 2006.

However, thus far in the preseason, the statistics paint a different picture. In two games, the Bears have totaled just 127 yards on the ground and are only averaging 3.0 yards per carry as a team. Naturally, somewhat of a dropoff was expected with Jones and Benson both out of action nursing injuries, but with the wealth of experience along this offensive line, creating open lanes for ball-carriers was supposed to be the least of head coach Lovie Smith's concerns.

Peterson is known as perhaps the best third-string running back in the league, but given a chance to start the first two preseason games, he certainly looks like a backup so far. He has only 21 yards on 11 carries and hasn't gained more than four yards on any one of those attempts. Granted, he hasn't had very many holes to run through, but a great tailback shows the ability to make something out of nothing every now and then.

Undrafted rookie P.J. Pope has drawn the second-string assignment, and although he has predominantly been lining up against the opposing second-stringers, he hasn't fared much better. He has 74 yards on 22 carries, which equates to an awfully pedestrian 3.4 yards per carry. Fellow rookie Andre Hall has been relegated to mop-duty, but even he has only gained 30 yards on eight rushes.

Jones unexpectedly returned to practice last Wednesday for the final session of training camp in Bourbonnais, so he could very well see his first live action of the preseason this Friday night against the Cardinals. Benson has also been moving fairly well and might be back on the practice field some time this week. The running back debate that was supposed to headline training camp never had a chance to materialize with the two protagonists watching from the sideline.

It's possible that the ground attack will instantly be better once the two former first-rounders make their way into the huddle again, but then again, Jones and Benson might be in for a rude awakening if they are getting blasted in the backfield as often as Peterson has been the first two games. Everyone just assumed the running game would be peachy clean and all the work that needed to be done on offense was through the air, but right now, the stat page tells a different story. If it turns out that the Bears need to open up the passing attack in order to make it easier on the running game, that would be one of the more ironic twists to come out of the preseason in recent memory.

And considering we're not exactly talking about the reincarnation of Air Coryell here, it would be understandable if Bears fans were little bit nervous.


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