Running game's troubles center on struggling Bears line
The Bears have set about their bye week of self-scouting by coaches, an examination of their own tactics and personnel.
It's a normal part of the bye week even if you're 5-0, but the Bears' self-scouting should be a simple enough process.
The greatest problems haven't necessarily revolved entirely around the offensive line but more specifically from run blocking in general. Part of this – the bigger part – involves offensive linemen. Tight ends are involved, as well.
The Bears are ranked 26th in rushing and average only 4.9 yards per first-down play, which also ranks 26th.
"We need to be better – I mean, our run game needs to get better," coach Matt Nagy said after the loss to Oakland.
The only big change on the line this season is one potential target for blame. That's the switch of James Daniels from left guard to center and left guard Cody Whitehair to center.
On the day after the loss to Oakland, coach Matt Nagy strongly suggested there would be no flipping of Daniels back to left guard and Whitehair back to center.
They changed spots when this offseason began, and it would be difficult to say this move hasn't had time to take root and to say it's gone flawlessly. The Bears are 26th in rushing and average only 4.95 yards on first downs, also 26th in the league.
Nagy continued to call the transition smooth between the two, but focused attention instead on the line overall.
"This is the first year that they've done it together with these guys at specific positions," Nagy said. "You know, so there's a communication process that goes on. They may have all done it by themselves at one point but this is the first year that the five of them in these exact positions have done it together."
The analytics website Pro Football Focus grades players and often comes up with eyebrow-raising results. PFF gave Kyle Long low grades in two of the last three games, grades lower than what a rookie might be expected to have.
It wasn't the only criticism Long received. Former Bears center Olin Kreutz also questioned what he was seeing from Long.
Long has been suffering from a vague hip injury and was on the injury report in three different weeks, missing one game. Perhaps the bye week allows Long to heal whatever the situation is. Perhaps not.
Regardless, the Bears are in no situation to pull Long out of the lineup.
Backup Ted Larsen is suffering from a knee injury that kept him from making the trip to London. The other backup is a tackle, Rashaad Coward, who's never started an NFL game and played in only four.
Chicago Tribune writer Brad Biggs reported practice squad guard Alex Bars might figure greatly into Bears future plans at guard, especially after he turned down New England's bid to sign him to its 53-man roster in order to stay on the Bears' practice squad for a slight pay raise.
Still, Bars had a torn ACL last year and if the Bears were sold on the fact he has healed entirely and on his ability to step in and play then they probably would have already had him on the 53-man roster.
So at the moment Long appears the only and best option. A healthy Long would be ideal since when he was healthy last year they averaged 4.6 yards per rush and when he was out of the lineup they averaged 3.6 yards a rush.
Finally, the other offensive line problem is left tackle Charles Leno Jr., although most of his problems have come in the passing game and not the run game.
He has no doubt been victimized by the emphasis on holding and illegal use of hands by officials, but he'll have to adjust because this isn't changing to benefit his game. Leno has a league-high eight penalties, including four holds and two illegal use of hands. He has twice as many penalties as the next most-penalized Bear.
It appears a case of sloppiness with technique, and it reached a boiling point in the Raiders game when Leno held, and then on the very next play embarrassed himself by getting beat for a sack.
Toss in shaky play at tight end and the blocking overall has been poor at providing David Montgomery with room to run.
Nagy had said before the last game he had a suspicion what the problem was in the running game, but needed more study to confirm it. If the last game didn't indicate what it was, it would seem they'd never have the answer.
"You think you know what the whys are, and then you've got to figure out -- you've got to confirm it," Nagy said. "So there will be a lot of confirmation going on here, I know, by me this next week.
"And I'm going to have a lot more answers for myself. ... That's why sometimes those byes, everyone says, 'oh, you don't want it early.' Just so happens ours was early. The other thing is our guys, they'll recover. We have a bunch of strong people now in that locker room, so they're pissed off right now. They're not happy."