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Khalil Herbert's Impressive First Start

Bears running back Khalil Herbert looked like he had been carrying the ball in the NFL for years when he made his first start Sunday against Green Bay.

What Khalil Herbert achieved for the Bears in Sunday's 24-14 loss to Green Bay won't go down as a team record.

It was still a rarity for a rookie.

Herbert ran for 97 yards on 19 carries in his first career start.

"I really liked the way that he ran the football," Bears coach Matt Nagy said. "It was just like last week (vs. Las Vegas)—when he makes the one cut and stocks that left or right foot in the ground, he gets vertical, makes some good plays."

The Bears only had two other rookie running backs, dating back to when the NFL and AFL merged, who gained more yards rushing in their first starts: Matt Forte with 123 yards in 2008 and Jordan Howard with 111 yards in 2016.

It's no simple matter for backs to gain big yardage in their first start.  Walter Payton didn't gain a yard in his first game in 1975.

The franchise high for any running back in his first NFL start is by undrafted James Allen in 1998, when he rushed for 163 yards on 23 carries. 

However, Allen was in his second year by then and no longer a rookie. For his efforts, coach Dave Wannstedt called Allen by the wrong name in the postgame press conference, referring to him as Tremayne Allen, who was a reserve fullback with the team. Wannstedt also famously cautioned: "Let's not put him in the Hall of Fame just yet." 

Herbert's effort was lauded by teammates and coaches alike as he picked right up where starter David Montgomery left off before his knee injury and backup Damien Williams before he went on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

"When we watched his (college) film, you saw a guy that was a natural ball carrier, a guy that had a natural vision and just had a knack to break tackles," Bears running backs coach Michael Pitre said. "I think that's the same thing you're seeing from him right now. I think a lot of it is the other 10 guys on the football field that are doing their job, that allow him to do his job.

"Again, if those guys aren't doing their job then he's not able to do his. I think it's just a collaborative effort from all 11 guys on the football field."

Herbert kept everything the same in his approach as in his first extensive playing time while he was filling in as backup against Las Vegas and gained 75 yards.

"I prepare the same way, like I'm the starter or not," Herbert said. "The guys did a great job of helping me get ready these last two weeks. I come in with the same mindset every day."

Herbert thinks he's been able to adjust quickly because he already had become used to the speed of NFL play.

"I think it's just play speed, getting in there, getting the feel of the game, especially getting time on special teams, just seeing how different it is," Herbert said. "Being able to get the play speed is helping me slow things down."

A sixth-round pick from Virginia Tech, Herbert only played there one season after transferring from Kansas. He hadn't been used as much in Kansas as at Virginia Tech.

So his overall inexperience made pass blocking a real question mark for the Bears. He seems to have done enough here to get by.

"I think, especially for a young back, I think he's done a good job," Pitre said. "I think the biggest thing is just on third downs, again, in this league you get a lot of different looks and he's a smart young man and so he takes a lot of pride in understanding the different looks, the rules and all those different things that we have as an offense. 

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"And so I think he's done a good job and shown some physicality, so we'll continue to work at it. So far, like I said he's doing a good job of doing his one-11th of being a pass blocker.

After gaining 172 yards in successive games while seeing his first extensive action, it seems logical Herbert must now figure into the lineup somehow after Williams and Montgomery return.  

"I think we're gonna continue to do whatever's best for the football team to put ourselves in a position to win," Pitre said. "Talking about hypotheticals is not the best thing to do. I think you worry about right now, which for us right now is figuring out how to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and what we're gonna be able to do there.

"When that opportunity presents itself, when those guys are back and we're presented with having some really good players, then we'll, as a staff, I know we’ll talk about it and make those decisions based on what's gonna help us continue to be 1-0 each week."

Bears Top Efforts in First Starts

Rookie Running Backs

(1970-2021)

1. Matt Forte 20-123, Sept. 7, 2008

2. Jordan Howard 23-111 Oct. 2, 2016

3. Khalil Herbert, 19-97 Oct. 17, 2021

4. Curtis Enis 18-76, Nov. 8, 1998

5. Ken Grandberry 19-76, Sept. 29, 1974

6. Jeremy Langford 20-73, Nov. 15, 2015

7. Brock Forsey 19-56, Oct. 26, 2003

8. Cedric Benson 12-50 Nov. 13, 2005

9. Rashaan Salaam 16-40 Sept. 24, 1995

10. Darnell Autry 19-39 Nov. 16 1997

-Pro Football Reference

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