BOURBONNAIS — Jeremy Langford can feel it: his linemen chasing him down the field, clearing out defenders from around him when he lands on the ground, and helping him up to his feet.
“It’s starting all over and getting that mindset — we have to run the ball and we have to be physical,” he said. “That’s the kind of conference and division we’re in.”
For the first time since the Lovie Smith era, the Bears are living it — and planning a physical running attack.
An offseason strategy session has landed two fullbacks in training camp, with one becoming ever-likely to make the team. A wave of four running backs are ready to run behind a line molded to fit new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains’ zone run scheme: powerful yet nimble enough to hit linebackers and safeties before they get to the ball.
“Our offensive line, are goons,” running back Ka’Deem Carey said as a compliment.
Finding room for the four main rushers — Jacquizz Rodgers, rookie Jordan Howard, Carey and Langford — hasn’t been a problem in camp, running backs coach Stan Drayton said.
The key will be finding exactly how to play to their strengths. And when.
“We have to be real creative,” Drayton said. “As we go and we continue to practice, we find out those answers.”
They’ll have their opportunities. Only five teams ran more than the Bears’ 469 attempts last year, and the team could rank even higher this year.
“From a philosophy standpoint, (coach John Fox) loves to run the football, our offensive line has gotten better, we’re developing in spots,” Drayton said. “So maybe better production, but not much difference schematically.”
There will be tweaks, though, to both scheme and personnel. There should be; the Bears averaged 3.8 yards per attempt last year, 20th in the NFL.
Loggains’ offense reminds new Bears fullback Darrel Young of Kyle Shanahan’s Redskins zone run attack, where linemen block an area in unison, and backs make one read and cut. Loggains coached under Shanahan two years ago in Cleveland.
The coordinator credited Fox’s history of rotating running backs with easing the transition to a four-headed attack, saying he “understands from the top down what it’s supposed to be like” to manage personnel.
Since letting Matt Forte walk without even making him a contract offer, the Bears have been clear that their bell-cow days are over. Still, only two of the Bears’ five running backs, Rodgers and Langford, touched the ball in Week 1 last year. They ran behind a line that figures to have only holdover starter at the same position as last year’s opener, left tackle Charles Leno.
“The benefit of having a committee of backs like this is they can withstand the distance of the season,” Drayton said. “They can stay healthy. They can kinda balance off of each other a little bit.”
In his second year, Langford is starting to understand linebacker and safety fits more, Drayton said, and has a better indication of where free tacklers are approaching. After leading all NFL running backs in drops, Langford is working on looking the ball into his hands.
Carey’s savvy is starting to catch up with his run-hard reputation. He was fortunate to sit behind Forte and learn, Drayton said, and has “he’s challenged himself mentally” thus far this season.
Rodgers, who has more experience than everyone in the running back room combined, is their leader. He’s never run so much outside zone, but thinks it fits him.
Howard, the rookie from Indiana, might be the most intriguing of the group. His ability to shift in short spaces has been remarkable for a 230-pounder.
“I didn’t realize that he was that quick, I’m going to honest,” Drayton said.
There’s a lot more to learn in the next month.
“Whatever may be one guy’s weakness,” Drayton said, “may be another guy’s strength.”