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Is the Bears running game back?

The Bears haven’t become a running team in the last three weeks, it just seems that way because the running game is finally working again.

Detroit Lions v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It may seem like the Chicago Bears have been playing with more balance the last three weeks since Mitchell Trubisky was reinserted as the starting quarterback, but they’re still throwing it at a higher rate than last year.

Matt Nagy’s Bears, like most NFL teams these days, think pass first.

Through 13 weeks this season, only three teams run more than they pass, and 25 teams have better than a 55/45 pass/run ratio, with 14 teams passing more than 60% of the time.

In 2019 the Bears threw the ball 61.3% of the time (11th highest percentage in the NFL), and this year that number is at 65.6% (2nd highest). The last three weeks they’ve passed it 63.4% of the time, so it’s not that big of difference, but while the ratio is similar, the effectiveness is much higher.

It seems like there’s more balance in the offense because the running game is actually working again.

The last three weeks the Bears have averaged 143.3 rushing yards per game, which is their best three game stretch since the 2018 season. That year did see a balanced offense, as the Bears only threw it 54.8% of the time (27th). Jordan Howard was the lead back that year and he averaged 3.7 yards per carry, and this year their number one tailback is David Montgomery, who’s averaging 4.5 yards per carry. But in his last three games Montgomery is averaging a remarkable 7.4 yards every rushing attempt.

The Bears have rolled out the same offensive line since the bye week and that continuity has helped the running game the most.

Injuries to starters James Daniels (week 5) and Bobby Massie (week 8), an injury then a Reserve/COVID-19 stint for Cody Whitehair (week 7), and injuries and COVID issues to reserves Jason Spriggs and Sam Mustipher, have all led to several starting fives for the Bears this year.

It’s no coincidence that the offense has looked the best when the o-line has had some consistency, even if most of the current five would be considered below average at their respective positions.

But together, Charles Leno Jr. (LT), Cody Whitehair (LG), Sam Mustipher (C), Alex Bars (RG), and Germain Ifedi, are worth more than the sum of their parts.

“That consistency when you have an offensive line and you don’t have guys hurt, you don’t have dominoes on that front line, right now we’re seeing that,” head coach Matt Nagy said earlier this week. “That’s a part of the identity that we’ve been talking about, is you have guys that communicate.”

The Bears have struggled the better part of the last two seasons in trying to establish an offensive identity. They had one during their 12 win, 2018 season, but last year the train kept coming off the track as they tried to force feed version 2.0 of the offense.

This year the offense flashed in spurts during the early part of the schedule as the team battled its way to a 5-1 record, but then the injuries to the offensive line threw things into disarray.

The improvement in the running game also coincided with Nagy handing play calling over to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, in the teams commitment to rookie tight end Cole Kmet, and in going back to Trubisky.

Lazor has the offense playing at a faster pace, he’s moving the pocket more, and working in more play action and RPOs. He’s calling more of a 2018 style of offense, and so far Trubisky is making the most of his second chance.

Kmet won’t be confused for George Kittle as a blocker, but he’s proven to be the best inline option at tight end for the Bears, and while he hasn’t had any pancake moments on defensive ends, he’s doing just enough to keep his defender away from the running backs.

I still find it amazing that Montgomery has looked so good the last three weeks, yet he’s only averaged 13 attempts during that time. Chicago’s number two tailback, Cordarrelle Patterson, has also benefitted from the new o-line, as he’s averaging 5.2 yards a carry the last three games on 6 attempts per week.

The Bears’ top two options in the backfield are averaging less than 20 attempts a game, but this new identity is more about the quality of the run plays, not about the quantity.

The offensive line is allowing Lazor to get into a rhythm as a play caller, and that’s leading to more sustained drives. So far this season, the Bears only average 20 first downs per game, which is 25th in the league. But that number has steadily been increasing, as the last three games the Bears are tied for 6th with 25 first downs per game.

More successful runs are leading to less third and longs, which gives an offense more options on the money down. Opposing defenses can’t sell out to stop the pass, which leads to less sacks allowed from Chicago’s pass protection.

These Bears will never be a run first, old-school power football team, but if the offense can maintain its synergy and the offensive line can stay healthy, then it doesn’t have to be.