Poor production with the Chicago Bears running game in 2019 left David Montgomery's rookie season looking essentially like Jordan Howard's final season with the Bears.
Howard carried 250 times in his final Bears season. Montgomery carried 242 times. Each averaged 3.7 yards a carry.
The failure of the offensive line to create consistent push in the running game doomed their running attack in each season because 3.7 yards an attempt is not getting it done.
Montgomery's first season included only three runs of 20 yards or more, tying him for 37th in the league. The line couldn't spring him.
They've already brought in new offensive line coach Juan Castillo and added Germain Ifedi to the line. No doubt they'll bring in another lineman in the draft.
Montgomery usually made the most of it when he had an opening. His 55-yard run against the Chargers was one example. The 14-yard touchdown run he made against Minnesota in the season finale is another, the one when he carried half the Vikings defense into the end zone in a scrum which also included three Bears offensive linemen.
They can make better use of Montgomery and here's how.
1. Varying Touches
Montgomery's 242 attempts probably were 30 or 40 more than coaches first envisioned for him. The running game was originally expected to be back by committee. He was 16th in rushing attempts at 15.1 per game. They could stand to let him run it a little less but increase his touches.
What the Bears need to do is get the ball in Montgomery's hands in as many different ways as possible. The whole idea should be to make their offense less predictable.
They traded Howard because they said they needed a back who could also be a receiver and then threw Montgomery the ball 35 times for 25 receptions, which was 10 more attempts and five more catches than Howard had the previous season.
It's not exactly making use of a player who supposedly has better receiving skills.
Mitchell Trubisky's experience throwing to backs is pretty much limited to tossing it to Tarik Cohen, who usually lines up at wide receiver or in the slot anyway.
Nick Foles, on the other hand, could change all of this. His history is finding the back coming out of the backfield or throwing to the tight end. He's more likely to hit Montgomery in time to let him run with the ball in the open field.
2. Varying Formations and Schemes
Almost every running back who carries in a zone blocking scheme is better when they can carry from the I-formation or at least very deep in the formation. It lets them better see where the holes develop.
Montgomery is no different and it was apparent when coach Matt Nagy went to more I-formation plays in several games, starting with the 17-16 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
Nagy was reported to have said he didn't come to the Bears to run the I-formation.
It's true enough, but it shouldn't mean they need to ignore the formation.
Being able to load up and run out of the I can be a huge asset late in games anyway, and mixing in occasional I-formation plays can keep opponents guessing. More than anything, they need to be multiple and being multiple doesn't mean excluding the I.
There's more to this than using the I on occasion. They need to let the line block more outside zone plays, even use stretch plays like they used often with Howard.
The emphasis on this attack is the run-pass option, the RPO. It uses inside zone blocking because this allows the quarterback to stand and assess momentarily whether to get the ball in the back's stomach or keep it and throw. So naturally the run has to come between tackles in an inside zone scheme.
Just throwing in a few I formations and mixing in the bootleg with those can cause headaches for defenses. It gives opponents more cause for concern. Montgomery isn't always coming at the inside of the formation and they can't simply bring a safety up in the box to the same place all the time to stop the play from developing.
The Rams, the Packers and other teams using outside zone and bootleg passes have shown teams can benefit this way, especially if they have a mobile quarterback.
3. Better Play Calling
This isn't to suggest Nagy can't call plays.
However, after one season defenses have a pretty good idea what they're seeing and it caught up with the Bears last year. They got into situations when defenses knew what Montgomery was doing and were ready to stop it.
New offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and Dave Ragone in a different role as passing game coordinator can help Nagy become less predictable.
Nagy used multiple players in strange formations last year less than in 2018 partly because they couldn't get a lead and keep teams off balance and their line couldn't block basic plays let alone something exotic.
If they can improve the blocking and keep plays fresh, even basic runs by Montgomery out of standard spread formation can be done more effectively.
Ultimately, Montgomery will look more like the weapon they envisioned on draft day in 2019.