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Running out of time? Bears can save season with ground-game renaissance

Matt Nagy loves to throw, but it looks increasingly likely that running gives the Bears the best chance at fixing their offense. The I-formation should figure prominently for them Sunday in Philadelphia.

David Montgomery ran for a career-high 135 yards against the Chargers and averaged 7.2 per carry out of the I-formation.
AP

There’s a very good chance this is the last thing Matt Nagy wanted.

He has insisted he loves the ground game just as much as the forward pass ever since he became the first coach in Bears history to run only seven times in a game, but it comes off as an oversell.

Who could blame him, by the way?

Like any former quarterback, he’d love to let it rip. His coaching career took off in the golden age of passing, and he was on a Chiefs staff that swooned for Patrick Mahomes.

But amid the fallout of Mitch Trubisky throwing 54 times in a blowout loss, Nagy veered sharply in the other direction and found a new way forward for the offense.

Actually, there was nothing new about it. The man known for exotic schemes turned to one of the most basic, archaic formations in the game: the Power I.

“Simple, but it’s just a way that offensive linemen and running backs can hit their hole, get off the ball and just be physical — and that’s what we were doing,” left tackle Charles Leno Jr. said. “Not a lot of [run-pass option] stuff, just going straight at defenders.

“That’s what we like to do. We like to go straight downhill.”

It’s as big, bad and burly as it sounds.

The Bears send in offensive tackle Cornelius Lucas III (their heaviest player at 327 pounds) as a blocking tight end to give them nearly one ton of brawn up front. And as if that wouldn’t be enough blocking for David Montgomery, Nagy has 255-pound tight end J.P. Holtz plowing for him at fullback.

There’s nothing artful about it, and it’s understandable that Nagy might not love it.

But artistry takes a back seat to production, and after the Bears averaged 5.8 yards per carry on eight rushes — the Chargers were missing two starting defensive tackles — and hit on a 31-yard pass off play-action out of the I, Nagy needs to squeeze everything he can out of it Sunday at Philadelphia.

“The I-formation has always been there,” he said. “It’s kind of phased itself out in this offense, but in times like this when you feel like you’re having success, maybe you bring it back and test it out.”

Times like this, indeed.

The best course for the offense, as Nagy tries to keep the season from capsizing, is to morph into a run-centric operation. It’s not what he planned and it’s dull TV, but it’s their best chance.

Run plays allow the Bears to employ some of their most dangerous players without depending on Trubisky, who ranks 27th in passer rating. Nagy can’t keep throwing 63 percent of the time with that level of quarterback play.

Speaking of Trubisky, the Bears are well past the point where they should’ve turned him loose as a runner. Nagy is bent on making him a pocket passer, but if there’s one thing that’s special about Trubisky, it’s his athleticism. He averaged 30 yards per game as a runner last season. He has 31 total this season.

He has averaged 5.9 yards per carry for his career. He’s producing 5.6 per pass attempt this season.

Trubisky reminded everyone of his athletic ability with an 11-yard scramble late against the Chargers. He felt the pocket crumbling after his first two reads and just took off.

“I’m going to continue to do that, but we’re not forcing it,” Trubisky said. “I’m not thinking about it. . . . But when things break down, part of my job is extending and making plays and using my ability to use my feet.”

It’s all about feet from here. If Nagy can vault the running game from one of the NFL’s worst to one of its best, it’ll transform the offense and reignite hope that this season can still be worthwhile. He’ll have to go against his nature, but it’s worth it.