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Bears have to run before offense can walk

Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor faces a daunting challenge in his first game calling plays for Matt Nagy. He must breathe life into a running game without David Montgomery and with a makeshift offensive line.

Bears running back David Montgomery (32) rushed for 30 yards on 14 carries (2.1 avg.) against the Titans on Sunday, with a fumble that was returned for a touchdown in the third quarter. He also suffered a concussion that puts his status in doubt for Monday night’s game against the Vikings.
Bears starting running back David Montgomery (32) will miss Monday night’s game against the Vikings because of a concussion. Montgomery leads the Bears in rushing with 472 yards on 131 carries (3.6), but is averaging just 46.6 yards and 3.2 yards per carry in the Bears’ last seven games.
Wesley Hitt/Getty

Bears coach Matt Nagy smiled when he was reminded the Chiefs’ running game took a big step forward after he took over play-calling duties from coach Andy Reid in 2017.

It’s true. The Chiefs averaged 132.8 rushing yards and 4.9 yards per carry and scored six rushing touchdowns in five regular-season games after Nagy took over calling plays. In the previous six games, the Chiefs had averaged 76.3 rushing yards and 3.5 yards per carry and had no rushing touchdowns.

Kareem Hunt, in fact, passed Le’Veon Bell to lead the NFL in rushing in 2017 with Nagy calling the plays. During one three-game stretch, Hunt, who had averaged 14.5 carries in the previous six games with Reid calling plays, averaged 26 carries with Nagy calling plays.

‘‘It’s like different pitchers — when one guy comes in and has a certain pace to his throw and then another guy comes in and it’s a little different,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘I don’t think there’s a right or wrong. Sometimes it can just be the time that it feels like, hey, it’s a change-up of predictability at one point in time, and it’s just a little bit of a spice-up to the calls.

‘‘I don’t know why [there was an increase]. It’s just something that in that situation tended to work at that time for us.’’

Three years later, the roles are reversed. The Bears are looking for a boost in their running game with Nagy giving up play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor for the game Monday against the Vikings.

This change, however, is coming under much more difficult circumstances. The Bears not only don’t have Hunt, but they don’t even have David Montgomery, who is out with a concussion. Their offensive line is in disarray, with starting left guard James Daniels (torn pec) out for the season, starting right tackle Bobby Massie (knee) on injured reserve and starting center Cody Whitehair still on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Backup tackle Jason Springs (knee) is questionable. Backup center Sam Mustipher (knee) is doubtful. And backup guard/tackle Rashaad Coward is regressing almost weekly.

The Bears signed center/guard Eric Kush — a starter-quality backup who started four games for them in 2016 and seven in 2018 — to their practice squad. He hasn’t played since last season with the Browns, but he’s a dependable, workmanlike player who could be plugged in at center against the Vikings.

Either way, the Bears again will have a patchwork line against the Vikings. It might be Charles Leno, Alex Bars, Whitehair/Kush, Germain Ifedi and Spriggs from left to right. If Lazor can make something of that, he’ll be the most popular coach in town.

And therein lies the challenge for Lazor in his first game calling plays for the Bears. While the focus on quarterback Nick Foles is well-deserved, any rejuvenation of this offense is dependent on an improved running game. The Bears averaged 138 rushing yards and 4.9 yards per carry in their first three games under new offensive line coach Juan Castillo. Since then, however, they’ve averaged only 54.5 rushing yards and 2.8 yards per carry in six games to drop from 11th to last in the NFL in rushing.

Can a play-caller make a difference in the running game? The Steelers, 49ers and Chiefs can throw Ryan Nall, Artavis Pierce or a patched-up Lamar Miller into their backfield and not miss a step. The Bears? Not so much. Their best hope — with a backup running behind a makeshift line — is that change is good.