Chicago Bears Position Review: Running Backs
Breaking down film from the 2019 season to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of each Chicago Bears running back.
As the NFL has continued trending toward air raid offenses over the past couple of decades, the pendulum has now started to swing back toward old-school football again. More defenses are using nickel and dime packages to cover three- and four-receiver packages. The middle linebacker position has trended towards lighter, faster players that can cover a larger zone of the field, which has now given teams like the Tennessee Titans the opportunity to smash their way into the AFC Championship.
We all saw the graphic on Wild Card weekend: the top four passing teams all missed the playoffs while the top four rushing teams made it. Defense and a running game have always been something you can take on the road and into the playoffs. Don’t get me wrong, this is a passing league, but having a balanced attack is more prevalent than ever. In 2019, the Chicago Bears ranked 27th in rushing, averaging 91.1 yards per game. This was due to multiple factors, but I found that the running backs actually played better than the numbers show.
While Cohen received a ton of criticism this year, I felt like he was misused. The clips below showcase some things Cohen could improve upon followed by what he excels at.
0:00 – This was the first play of the season and a personification of the offense all year long. Everyone took turns making mistakes. Whether it was in the passing game or the running game, when opportunities arose, they weren’t being taken advantage of. Obviously if Cohen is able to handle the pitch, there is a ton of room to run. Although this isn’t a pass, Cohen needs to work on his hands. He had nine dropped passes in 2019, the fourth-most of any player in the NFL.
0:11 – Obviously this isn’t on Cohen, but I had to include the clip. I don’t understand how Nagy can justify this play call. I assume he thought he would catch the defense off guard, but at the end of the day, you don’t use your scat back in a single-back set on the goal line. This isn’t playing to his strengths. This is why fans like to call Nagy’s playcalling ‘cute.’ Luckily, Cohen was able to keep the ball secure, allowing Montgomery to punch it in on the next play. Sometimes you have to line up in something a little more predictable with the assumption that your guys will beat their guys in order to get you the one yard.
0:17 – This is why a lot of fans would get upset with Cohen. He tends to take things to the sidelines too quickly. While you’ll see in later clips he doesn’t always avoid contact, he also isn’t built to take huge hits 20 times a game. As he takes the screen pass, it looks like he has pre-determined bouncing the ball outside. In the freeze fame, you’ll see the orange arrow shows both Cody Whitehair and Charles Leno Jr. having inside leverage and driving their players toward the sideline. James Daniels is free to pick up the safety, so if Cohen cuts the play inside and follows his blockers, he has a chance to break a nice gain.
0:25 – In this play, Cohen has to do a lot of work to get a minimal gain. The hole is big enough for a semi truck, and the linebacker is playing eight yards off the ball. Don’t get me wrong, the linebacker could cover that ground very quickly, but Cohen also has the ability to make a guy miss. I hate using a double-edge sward argument because Cohen sets up defenders by hiding behind lineman all the time, but this time it would have been more beneficial if he just took what was given to him.
0:00 – One thing I have always appreciated about Cohen is his ability to understand his protection assignments and pick up stunts. Whether it’s a safety or standing up Dante Fowler, he always puts his body in front of someone.
0:05 – People like to say that Cohen can’t take an inside handoff, but that isn’t true. When he gets a hole, he puts his foot in the ground and gets vertical in a hurry. Don’t get me wrong, he isn’t the type of back that should line up in the I-formation and get you a hard-earned four yards. Cohen is excellent at running inside zone out of the shotgun.
0:14 – This is a contrast to the double-edge sward argument. Cohen sets up the linebacker, gets lost behind his o-line, and leaks out for a great gain. He pushes the pile to finish a strong run between the tackles.
Chicago fans were a little more split on David Montgomery. While some people still wished the Bears had Jordan Howard as their lead back, others think Montgomery has a bright future ahead of him. Again, I’ll start with the areas of improvement followed by his strengths.
0:00 – Sometimes Montgomery’s vision isn’t the greatest. You’ll see in the freeze frame that the hole is clearly open, but he cuts back into traffic. There is a DB closing in on the hole and it isn’t a walk in touchdown, but he definitely has a better chance at crossing the goal line by trucking that DB rather than busting through all those lineman.
0:12 – This one is a little bit nit-picky. Montgomery needs to become more consistent in his footwork. We have seen his ability to put his foot in the ground and push up field, so he is more than capable. This is his first NFL game and he did improve throughout the season, but he did get a little jumpy throughout the season. If he stays tight to James Daniel’s hip, he could have turned a good gain into a game-changing play.
0:00 – Montgomery is extremely skilled at making something out of nothing. There is a big opening between Whitehair and Leno, but the linebacker is there to fill it immediately. Montgomery makes a nice cut to the outside and evades the defensive end to bounce outside for a good gain. Side note: Leno blocks two players on this play.
0:07 – Montgomery does a great job of setting up the DT in this play. He presses the line of scrimmage and forces him to the left side of the formation before cutting back into the hole. He makes his way into the second level and pushes the pile, something he does regularly.
0:17 – This is Montgomery running iso in the I-formation. He didn’t typically do this in college, so it’s surprising that he looked so comfortable in it throughout the season. Every fan, analyst, and former player wanted to see power sets, but Nagy always found himself going back to his typical offense. In this play, you’re able to see Montgomery’s patience and anticipation as a runner. When he presses the line of scrimmage, nothing is open, but he trusts his blockers and squeaks through hole as it opens. Then he absolutely trucks the incoming DB, spins, and finishes pushing the pile forward for a few more.
0:26 – Again, when Montgomery is decisive and anticipates the hole, he is at his best. He helps James Daniels by setting up the ILB and cuts back to where the hole will open up after Daniels makes contact. This is when he is at his best. He finishes the run strong, and you rarely see him get stood up or fall backwards.
0:34 – This was one of the best plays of the season. He keeps his feet clean and patiently finds his way through the hole. After he breaks an arm tackle, he gets into the pile and drives it with his offensive line to reach the end zone.
It’s only one play, but it had to be included. If you get this guy into open space… See YA!
Patterson, an All-Decade special teams player, was a great addition in the 2019 offseason. He’s known to step into any role his team needs. His 6.1 yards per carry ranked highest amongst Bears running backs. In 2020, the Bears have to find a way to get him the ball more because he is an explosive player. He only rushed 17 times and had 17 targets in the passing game.
As a lead back, David Montgomery possesses plenty of potential. He is a tough, physical, elusive running back. If his coaches can settle his feet down and keep his vision and anticipation heading in the right direction, he can be something special. He has a special jump cut and always falls forward to get those couple extra yards. As Water Payton would say, “Never die easy.” David Montgomery hates to go down. Looking ahead to next season, the Bears should add an absolute bruiser. If they bring in one more solid running back, they will go into the 2020 season with a top-tier running back room.