Interior Crocodile Alligators – Chicago Bears Run Game

This week, my in-depth glance at something in the NFC takes me to the Chicago Bears’ “interior crocodile alligators”. With apologies to ten-year-old memes, I mean the offensive linemen, especially the two guards and center, and the running back. 

You may remember that before this season, I had tipped the Chicago Bears as a team to sneakily surprise a few people, to show progression and look like they’ve turned a corner as a team. Oh well, lesson learned, you might say. Provided that lesson is “never predict anything, ever”, at least. But wait, because amidst the maelstrom of Chicago’s 1-4 start (and they look every inch a 1-4 team), we do have some signs of spring’s first bloom! And where should that be? Well, look no further than the big bruisers in the interior of the offensive line, and the not-so-big still-bruiser behind them at running back. That’s right, this week I’m going to be talking Josh Sitton, Cody Whitehair, Kyle Long and Jordan Howard.

Chicago Bears Last Year

Yeah, this team was pretty bad last year. A team of middling talent at best, they also suffered a few injuries, and the eventual 6-10 record surprised no-one. The offensive line was ok, and it helped Matt Forte go for 898 yards at 4.1 yards/carry, and his replacement Jeremy Langford to 537 yards at 3.6 yards/carry. Forte’s figures are ok, Langford’s a bit poor (#3 running back Ka’Deem Carey also only managed 3.7 yards/carry). As far as the O-linemen themselves actually went, the run-blocking was pretty good! It’s just that the runners – at least Langford and Carey – weren’t. Let’s look at what that O-Line was, by mid-season:

  • LT: Charles Leno, Jr
  • LG: Matt Slauson
  • C: Hroniss Grasu
  • RG: Vladimir Ducasse
  • RT: Kyle Long

It’s always nice to have consistency in an offensive line, you know. It reduces the chance people get confused about blocking assignments, and they know a lot about who’s next to them, and what to expect. Alas, the only position with the same starter this year than last was left tackle, and let’s be honest, Leno looked like a project in 2015. Everyone else? Well, Slauson – who’d performed well enough – was released when the Bears decided he wasn’t athletic enough. Grasu looked like being the starting center until an August ACL tear ruled him out for the season. Ducasse had only been on a one-year contract, and well, didn’t really play well enough to earn another deal. Kyle Long went back to guard, ostensibly a positive development.

Beyond that, veteran running back Matt Forte finally saw his Chicago career come to and end, and the Bears’ coaching staff made a show of expressing confidence in Langford and Carey despite their previous mediocre play.

State Of Play This Year

So it didn’t bode well. On the eve of the season, Pro Football Focus had the Bears possessing the 30th best O-Line…so, third-worst. And that was – unbelievably – despite having signed the Packers’ mysteriously cast-out Pro Bowl left guard, Josh Sitton. Sitton’s release still seems bizarre, and though the Packers O-Line probably hasn’t suffered much, they certainly handed their divisional rivals a key piece. The other pieces added? Cody Whitehair, their second-round pick at guard, came in to play center. Bobby Massie – a hitherto unspectacular right tackle at Arizona – came in to allow Long to slide inside. So what are we left with?

  • LT: Leno
  • LG: Sitton
  • C: Whitehair
  • RG: Long
  • RT: Massie

A couple of fairly big names at guard there, but two guards does not an offense make.

Sure enough, the run game didn’t start, er, running early. Against Philly in Week 2, as lead back Langford managed 11 carries for 26 yards – not much good. Then in week 3, Langford went down with a serious ankle sprain. With Carey already sidelined with a hamstring injury, that basically left it to fifth-round rookie Jordan Howard to do anything.

Which brings us to why we’re here. Week 4, and it’s a 17-14 win over the Lions. Howard rushes 23 times for 111 yards, that’s 4.8 yards/carry. Week 5, and though the Bears lose 29-23 to the Colts, Howard rushes 16 times for 118 yards – a whopping 7.4 yards/carry. We’re here to look at what happened, and how and why. So let’s take two good plays from each week, and see what Chicago are doing right.

Week 4, 11:04 Q1, J.Howard left tackle to CHI 45 for 12 yards

The ability to find the holes to get first down runs is vital for establishing the run as a threat. On this play, the left shifts left and Howard along with it. He’s running where the left tackle was, but because of that he’s actually between center Whitehair and right guard Long. The three blocking left side linemen hold off the Detroit run defense just enough, while the play moves fast enough that the blockers coming from the Chicago right side don’t have chance to get near. Thus, a gap is created, as pictured, and Jordan Howard scampers through it for a 12 yard game.

howard-12yd-q1-11

Week 4, 2:15 Q2, J.Howard right guard to CHI 47 for 17 yards

Operating out of the shotgun this time, with Howard lined up to Brian Hoyer’s left, this is a phenomenally well-run play by the Chicago offense. It helps that the defense doesn’t fully commit to it being a run play, but still. Left guard Sitton and center Whitehair are able to double-team the lineman, as linebacker Tahir Whitehead floats well behind the line. Meanwhile, Long does a fantastic job forcing his lineman to go deep and miss the play. The gap created by Long forcing the defender deep is huge, and is helped by tight end Zach Miller getting a solid block on his man. Howard charges through it, and heads wide where a stiff-arm on safety Rafael Bush at the 40 helps him gain an extra seven yards and a first down.

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Week 5, 6:08 Q2, J.Howard right end to IND 18 for 57 yards

This was the big play that made a lot of people sit up and take notice of Jordan Howard. Lining up behind Hoyer in the shotgun, as good as the blocking is here Howard deserves a lot of credit. The play actually takes a second more to develop, which puts pressure on the blocking and makes it likely Howard has a smaller than ideal hole to head through. It doesn’t start amazingly. Bobby Massie is forced by back by Kendall Langford, and Whitehair at center only just maintains his position. Howard is going to charge right past where Kyle Long is doing a number on D’Qwell Jackson. Jordan jinks inside Long to fool run-defending cornerback Patrick Robinson, narrowly avoids Whitehair, and is on his way. He shows enough speed and tenacity to keep Mike Adams off his tail for a good twenty yards, and suddenly Chicago is in the red zone.

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Week 5, 7:12 Q4, B.Hoyer pass short middle to J.Howard for 21 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

If Howard’s to develop into an elite running back, he’s more than likely going to need to be a good receiver out of the backfield. This is a decent start. The pass blocking here gives Hoyer time to scan his first couple of options, as Leno executes a lovely block at left tackle, whereas at left guard Sitton’s is more attritional, but no less effective. Hoyer scans his first couple of options before finding Howard as a checkdown option over the middle. Howard’s still got work to do though, look at how he has Antonio Morrison right on his tail, and completely out of Howard’s field of vision. But Howard’s seen him, and knows he’s there, and as he secures the ball he makes an incredibly tight cut to his left, straight towards the end zone, leaving Morrison flat-footed. Easy peasy.

howard-21ydtdctch-q4-7

What does this mean?

What you’ll notice from this is that everyone on that line is playing a part. Well, Bobby Massie sort of is. But Long’s blocking especially is fantastic. Whitehair is a bit raw but he’s getting his man, often with help from the excellent Josh Sitton cutting across. Leno looks perfectly serviceable at left tackle, with his pass blocking decent, and without being over-exposed in the run game. But I feel like it’s that running back Howard and those three interior lineman who are the menaces here.

So, Jordan Howard then. He was a fifth-round pick out of Indiana, where he transferred to after UAB (temporarily) closed its football programme. He had huge college production, but the fear was that this left a lot of ‘tread on the tires’, as it were. Running backs are used so much more, and so much more viciously in college football, it can often leave them slightly worn out once they get into the NFL. Just look at Bishop Sankey and Montee Ball. And that’s still going to be a fear in future for Chicago, because sometimes you just can’t tell how a player’s body is going to develop. But look at Howard right now – his vision is damn fine, and he’s making the most of the blocks he’s getting. He’s also getting a decent amount of yards after contact, something Langford struggled with. Of course he has big-play potential, but also as we’ve seen the ability to get those demoralising 10-20 yard running plays that just keep the offense ticking forward. He’s got speed, power, vision, fight, and if those receiving skills keep coming, he is a legitimate three-down back, which’ll be invaluable to Chicago’s offense.

Whitehair is coming along fantastically, and it really helps having Sitton alongside him, not just to provide occasional double-teams, but as a steadying, veteran presence. On Howard’s 12-yard run he’s exposed as the pulling lineman closest to where the runner’s going, but he gets leverage on his opponent and keeps him at arm’s length comfortably long enough for Howard to find the hole and be gone.

Sitton is of course excellent, but I particularly enjoyed how much he battled on Howard’s receiving touchdown. On a couple of occasions it looks as if the rusher’s beaten him, but he’s able to adjust his feet and body to keep control of all the defender’s wriggling, and keep him comfortably away from Hoyer without even the remotest danger of holding. Sitton’s playing to a high standard consistently, and now this offensive line has been together five weeks and are – excuse the pun – all pulling together, the benefits are starting to show.

Last year, Kyle Long made the Pro Bowl as a tackle, as far as I can tell because casual fans had actually heard of him. He was fine, but certainly didn’t deserve to go on the basis of his play. This season he’s back at guard then, and as we’ve seen back to looking every inch the Pro Bowler. He’s reliably effective – whereas Sitton is able to be used to help Whitehair out on double-teams, Long is generally left to fend for himself, with excellent results. He gets excellent push on guards, and on Howard’s 57-yard run he sends D’Qwell Jackson utterly sprawling backwards. It’s marvellous to watch.

So Where Are We At?

Okay, the Lions and Colts defenses aren’t fantastic. Indianapolis looked old against Chicago, and Detroit has always had the ability to flake out. But you can only beat what’s in front of you, and these last two weeks the run game has done just that. Chicago has a myriad of other issues that’s probably going to keep them having to come from behind often in games, which will mean you won’t see a huge amount of Jordan Howard. But maybe that’s a good thing! If you’re worried about tread on the tires, not being able to utilise him too much might actually help in the long-term. Right now, however, the Bears have the core of an offense, and if the leap being made by those blockers – especially in the interior – and that running back can have knock-on effects across the team, maybe there’s hope in Illinois yet this year.

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