From one of the more ironic wins for the Chicago Bears of recent memory, you could have picked any number of quality performances. Chicago put together it’s most complete game of the season against the Minnesota Vikings by far. The Bears offered a glimpse of what the 2016 season could have been without injuries to impactful players on either side of the ball.
The Bears hung 400 plus yards of offense on the league’s best defense, to a complete manhandling of the Vikings offensive line to the tune of five sacks and relentless quarterback pressure, the Bears fired on all cylinders in primetime.
But the man that most stuck out, was the now reigning NFC Offensive Player of the Week, in Jordan Howard.
Howard, who has 505 yards on 99 carries this year and is averaging a sterling five yards a carry, has proven to be every bit the diamond in the rough for Chicago. Coming out of the draft in the fifth round, many had assumed he would eventually take over the number one role in the Bears’ backfield, but no one could have reasonably assumed his star would turn this soon.
He saved his best performance of his inaugural campaign yet in primetime for the Vikings.
A season high in rushing with 153 yards on 26 carries, in tandem with four receptions for 49 yards, had Howard enjoy his first 200-plus yard day from scrimmage.
That it came against Minnesota’s new “purple reign” defense made it all the more eye-opening.
Two plays in particular stuck out in both the passing and ground game.
Let’s break down the first, a 69-yard run on the Bears’ second offensive play of the game. This burst through the Vikings defense set the tone for Howard and the Bears.
The start of the play has the Bears lining up both tight ends in Zach Miller and Logan Paulsen to the left side of the line next to tackle Charles Leno in a classic unbalanced look.
The Bears do this by wanting to create leverage immediately for Howard, who will press the hole however it develops within the confines of the run. Overload one side and account for every defender.
When Howard gets the ball, the Bears do a great job of immediately creating space with down blocks as Paulsen at minimum, stalemates his man. Howard can now easily pick and choose his cut. But one man, All-Pro level safety Harrison Smith, has a chance to make the play and prevent the gash.
Of course, Howard with all of the time in the world, leaves and cuts by Smith in space and presses through Minnesota’s second level. The Bears initial blocks successfully allowed Howard to patiently use his vision and do this in their zone blocking scheme. It’s his decision and he chooses the right door.
Now, with Howard past his initial threat, it’s just a track meet down the field.
Ultimately, while Howard does reach a top speed of approximately 20 miles per hour on this run, the only thing that prevents him from scoring, is that he regrettably runs out of gas.
That gives Vikings corner Xavier Rhodes enough time to take a proper angle on the tackle and prevent more damage.
Whatever the ending, the Bears and Howard perfectly executed a staple zone blocking play to allow Howard to explode in a signifier of how the entire night would go. The play was also a perfect demonstrator of Howard’s instinct and downhill running. Nothing fancy or freakishly athletic. Just a patient workhorse.
Now, fast forward to the start of the second quarter. The Bears are around midfield and on third and long, needing a play to extend the drive. Minnesota throws the kitchen sink at Chicago’s offensive front, knowing it needs to make a stop.
It didn’t work out that way.
On an improvisation, Howard makes himself available, and catches a 34-yard shovel pass from quarterback Jay Cutler to sprint through the Minnesota secondary all the way into the red zone. There’s a lot to unpack in how this happened.
Minnesota lines up seven men on the line of scrimmage to try and confuse the Bears offensive line’s assignments. Linebackers cover the A gaps to try and scramble center Cody Whitehair’s “Mike” call, which sets the pass protection.
But, only five guys actually rush the passer, as both linebackers back off.
The Bears offensive linemen each gets a man, and Howard, who was set to pick one of the bailing linebackers up, is instead left with free reign in the middle of the field.
That leads to Smith, being again unaccounted for coming on the safety blitz on the left side.
Cutler though, recognizes the pressure immediately and the Bears interior line allows him to step up into a clean pocket. While this happens, Howard recognizes that Cutler’s in trouble and tries to open up for his quarterback.
With all receivers covered downfield and not enough time otherwise while under pressure, Cutler shovels it off to his tailback in space.
Now, with nothing but green grass in front of him again, it’s just about making guys miss for Howard.
The thing about big plays after the catch is teammates picking up blocks downfield. Every tailback and receiver is skilled enough to make one or multiple guys whiff.
But all available assistance from others is what turns 15-yard runs into 30-yard gashes. Joshua Bellamy shows great awareness and does exactly that for Howard when he notices the play break down.
This time, instead of being caught by Rhodes, Howard jukes by him behind Bellamy’s block on Captain Munnerlyn.
And now, it’s another sprint to the end line for Howard.
Of course, Minnesota did have a man back again, and with Howard not exactly having that final gear as a power back and churner, he wouldn’t score, as if that mattered.
The Vikings other safety Anthony Harris slowed down Howard just enough on a cut that would allow linebacker Eric Kendricks to eventually cut down the star rookie from behind. But, the damage was already done.
The Bears came out with a field goal from Connor Barth on the drive thanks to Howard and Cutler’s thinking on the fly. The play also showed how comfortable Howard is getting while plays break down, an integral piece that separates NFL players.
Howard would return on Chicago’s next possession to punch in his second rushing touchdown of the year. Then, as Minnesota loaded the line of scrimmage with nine men late in the game, Howard ran through them to close the game as if they weren’t even there.
With a performance like this, the league is now officially on notice as to what Howard can do. Howard’s night against Minnesota was the first 100-yard rushing game they’ve allowed all year, and his 202 yards from scrimmage equaled almost that of Minnesota’s entire offensive output at 258.
If Howard can do this against the Vikings vaunted defense, there isn’t a unit that can stop him from imposing his will in any facet once he has it going. Whatever other missteps this organization takes, it’s uncanny how they continually find stars in their backfield no matter the circumstances.
Make no mistake about it, Howard is that new star, another fine young building block on this team unearthed by Ryan Pace. Provided he continues to get the lion’s share of touches, there’s no reason we won’t see him maximize his opportunities and break through arm tackle after arm tackle.
Above all, Howard gives Chicago hope and flash on offense not only through the second half of the 2016 season, but in the years to come.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.