Bears' Dirty Little Secret: They Can't Run Up the Middle

The Chicago Bears might have a reputation for running the ball and being tough but can't run up the middle where it's really tough sledding and they haven't been able to do it for decades
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The Bears have a dirty little secret.

They can't run the ball up the middle.

Their built-up persona, this narrative about Chicago being a tough blue-collar town that loves defense and running the ball is a total myth. It's a fabrication. 

The defensive part isn't a myth. The running game part is, and it has been dating back to the end of the Mike Ditka era.

They are not a tough offense.

Overcoming this problem is part of the task facing new offensive line coach Juan Castillo, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and coach Matt Nagy as they try to find a way to get the running game going.

"When you look at the last couple years with where we’ve been, we reflect and we understand that we need to be better in the run game," Nagy said last week during a WSCR appearance on McNeil and Parkins. “When your run game isn't quite as good as you want it to be, at that time, it's hard to call runs. At the same time, we need to do whatever's best for our team. We need to adjust and adapt as coaches to who our players are.

'Now that we've had a couple years as a staff to see figure out players' strengths are and what their weaknesses are, now we are able to work together with them and put together a product on the field that we think is a lot better. If that means running the ball a lot more, shoot, we are going to do it. Whatever we need to do, we'll do it."

Age-Old Problem

It's not a new situation.

The Bears have been a top-10 rushing team only three times since the late Michael McCaskey fired Ditka in 1992, and they haven't been higher than seventh in the league since then.

The persona about being a tough, running football team? It's a lot of blather concocted by national television networks just to give viewers something to focus on when there wasn't a quarterback worth watching.

Does a team need to lead the league in rushing to be a good offense? Of course not. 

But if you're going to have the caliber of quarterbacks the Bears have had over the years since they ran Jim McMahon out of town, then they'd better be good at running the ball so they can at least have some way to move it.

What is the Goal?

The good running teams run when they want and where they want, not necessarily for the most yardage in the league. 

A key point of emphasis has to be getting better at running the ball in the middle of the field. If you're going to run inside zone blocking schemes like the Bears do most in their RPO attack, you have to gain yardage running in the middle.

Yet, this is where the Bears' running reputation is most fake. They haven't just been bad at running inside for tough yardage, they've been completely and utterly anemic.

According to NFL statistics at NFLGSIS.com, the Bears haven't been better than 22nd in the league at average yards running the ball up the middle since they started tracking this in 1999.

It gets far worse. The Bears' inability to run the ball for the tough inside yardage is historically bad.

In the 21 years they've tracked it, the Bears have been in the bottom three in the league at 30th or worse 15 times. They've been last in the league or next to last 12 times.

Even when they went to the Super Bowl in 2006 they were last in the NFL in gaining yards up the middle and were 31st when they last made the NFC championship game in 2010.

The only year they approached middle of the road was when Lovie Smith was in his last season. The 2012 season was their high point, ranked 22nd.

Not all teams who gain the inside yardage are the best at running overall, but it's  extremely valuable to have this as a fallback when they need tough, inside yardage on short down and distance.

The Who and What

Center/guard Cody Whitehair has been in a Pro Bowl and has generally been lauded for his play by Bears coaches, both in the John Fox coaching regime and Nagy's.

James Daniels seemed to fail at center last year, or at least the Bears saw a reason to move him. They said it was because they needed more experience next to Coward after he tried to replace Kyle Long. Yet, Pro Football Focus grades say Daniels did a better job of blocking than anyone else on the offensive line in 2020.

And the Bears finished 27th in rushing yards per carry. So this is all the fault of Coward or Long? Hardly.

According to Sportradar, official statistical partner of the NFL, David Montgomery broke a tackle every 8.6 carries last year and only six backs in the league rated better at it than he did: Alvin Kamara, Damien Williams, Aaron Jones, Ronald Jones, Devin Singletary and Philip Lindsay.

He also finished sixth in total broken tackles with 28.

Yet, Montgomery gained only 3.7 yards a carry and he was 44th in yards gained after contact at 1.6 yards. 

This is possible because he was swarmed by the time he did break tackles. There is no second-level blocking going on, and with many runs there was no push at the point of attack.

The Bears' offensive line wasn't physical enough blocking the run last year but this should be no surprise since they haven't been since the Ditka era.

The work Castillo has to overturn is an age-old problem for the Bears, running back long before Nagy, John Fox or even Marc Trestman.

The Bears have to tear it all down and start over, whether it means benching several offensive line starters or drastically changing their blocking techniques because what they've done for over three decades on the ground isn't acceptable.

And without an offseason to work on coordinating the offensive line's timing, it's going to be all the more difficult for Castillo, Nagy and Lazor.

Twitter: BearDigest@BearsOnMaven

Where Bears Ranked Running Up the Middle

1999 31st 

2000 31st

2001 31st

2002 32nd

2003 31st

2004 29th

2005 32nd

2006 32nd

2007 30th

2008 29th

2009 32nd

2010 31st

2011 32nd

2012 22nd

2013 28th

2014 30th

2015 23rd

2016 32nd

2017 32nd

2018 29th

2019 30th