For the Bears to power through a brutal three-game stretch and sneak into the playoffs, they’ll need to do one of their least favorite things: run the ball.
They’ve rarely gotten that rolling. They average the third-fewest yards per carry (3.5) in the NFL this year and have topped 90 yards in a game just three times.
But as unproductive as their running has been, their next three opponents are beatable on the ground. That starts Sunday with the Packers, who rank 25th in run defense and got burned for 174 yards by the Redskins last week. The Chiefs are 28th against the run, and the Vikings are a respectable-but-hardly-intimidating 11th.
Can Bears coach Matt Nagy go against his wiring and pound the run?
“The [ex-quarterback] mentality is that you want to have the ball in your hands when it’s time to make a play, but you also understand . . . to throw all the time, that’s hard,” Nagy said. “You’ve got to be able to give your linemen breathers. You’ve got to be able to run the ball.”
Nagy says his personal inclination to throw — he played quarterback in college and the arena league before specializing in the position as a coach — doesn’t skew his game plans or play-calls.
However, he set the Bears’ modern-era record for fewest rushing attempts in a game this season with seven against the Saints. The Bears are on pace for their fifth-fewest rushing attempts and third-lowest rushing total in a 16-game season. They have run the ball on 38.9 percent of their plays, down from 46.2 percent last season.
Some of that has been by necessity. It’s harder to claw back into a game on the ground, and the Bears rank 19th in time playing with the lead, according to Football Outsiders. They’ve also had issues on the offensive line and at running back.
Those problems nudge a coach to throw more, which is what most of them with a quarterbacking background feel more comfortable doing in the first place.
“In general, that’s probably a fair assessment,” offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said. “Most guys like to throw it more, but you’ve got to be balanced — or at least present the illusion of balance.”
But there’s a limit to how much a coach can railroad himself into running. Nagy said the Bears never go into a game intending to do more of one than the other, instead preferring to feel out which approach is more effective. That’s an important point, given the expected conditions at Lambeau Field, where the forecast Sunday calls for a high of 16 degrees and the grounds crew has struggled to keep the turf in shape. That might steer Nagy into a more run-heavy attack anyway.
“The skill positions, the guys that are breaking and cutting, running deep — DBs, wide receivers — is probably where you see it the most,” Nagy said. “Sometimes you can see it with edge rushers as they go to cut the corner. You can see some slipping and falling. So we want to be smart.”