LAKE FORES, Illinois. There’s a saying in Chicago that goes around abusive conference rooms.
Since the defense wants to push the opponent back, the offense wants to “push him forward”. It’s a mindset the Bears carried through hard-fought wins over San Francisco and Houston en route to a 2-1 start. Embracing an old-school identity of rough running and blocking, Chicago had its biggest single-game tally in 38 years, 281 yards. – During a 23-20 victory over the Houston Texans.
The last time the Bears rushed for at least 281 yards, Walter Payton led on September 30, 1984 against Dallas. Khalil Herbert came on Sunday midway through the first quarter to replace an injured David Montgomery, who suffered knee and ankle injuries while defending a pass. Herbert gave the advance a new meaning, totaling 157 yards and two touchdowns.
“I feel like he took it literally to his heart,” said Bears right guard Theven Jenkins. “Now he is more determined than before. He runs more downhill, more physically. I love seeing it from him.”
In their first three games, the Bears finished second in yards (560), third in first downs (27), and second in first-contact yards (225) in the NFL. Chicago conceived the idea of creating a running game that could keep up this level of production, constantly shared between his stables, when he set up a new off-season scheme.
What the Bears didn’t expect was that their fast-paced offense was forced to strike out of necessity due to early-season problems in passing play. According to Sportzshala Stats and Information, Justin Fields made 45 assists in three weeks, the fewest of any team since 1982. The 23.0 QBR second-year quarterback ranks 31st out of 32 qualified QBs this season. Missed shots, mistimed interceptions and lack of consistency are just some of the problems the Bears hope to solve with their young quarterback.
Chicago’s anemic offense forced offensive coordinator Luke Getsy to adjust his game plan to lean more on the ground game, which found its rhythm.
The Bears did not train with Montgomery on Wednesday and classify his status as casual. The 2022 season is a contract year for the fourth-year running back, so the situation should be closely monitored as he recovers from two separate injuries, including a right knee that was damaged last year and cost him four games.
Herbert averaged 7.9 yards per rush and had six explosive runs (10 or more yards) against Houston, as evidenced by a 52-yard run in the third quarter that secured his second touchdown.
After scoring the goal, Herbert and his teammates ran to the touchline to watch his big run on their tablets. The hole created by the entire line of attack pulling to the right was unlike anything Herbert had ever seen.
“We could take the bus there,” Herbert laughed.
This is evidence of a 5’9″ backrunner who doesn’t see his height as a hindrance to the workload he can take on. As a rookie last season, Herbert averaged 97 rushing yards and 22 touches per week for four games when Montgomery was on the sidelines.
Herbert averaged 5.2 yards to contact in his 20 rushes against Houston. While he dealt with the soreness of that workload on Monday, he’s ready to deal with the same if Montgomery can’t play for the New York Giants (1 p.m. ET Sunday, Fox).
Herbert was already in the rotation before Montgomery dropped (13 carries for 83 yards and a touchdown in week one or two) and expects to keep a similar role no matter when his fast-paced colleague returns.
That’s the difference between this year’s attack and the one he was involved in in 2021. Herbert was carrying the #1 load when Montgomery was injured in weeks 5-8 of last season. When Montgomery returned, Herbert became second on offense and did not beat more than four rushes in weeks 9-17.
That stretch of time when his performance skyrocketed is something that the Bears think can be replicated in the future, drawing on history to help get through this crime in Montgomery’s absence.
“Look at what he did last year – he led the NFC four games in a row,” said coach Matt Eberflus. “He did it. He is a good player. I think it’s interesting to watch him.”