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Bears could be running into trouble vs. Bucs

The Bears are averaging 117.8 rushing yards in their last three games — fourth in the NFL in that span. But the Bucs lead the NFL in rushing defense (54.8 yards per game) and are second in yards per carry (3.4). Something’s gotta give Sunday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

Bears rookie running back Khalil Herbert (24) had 19 carries for 97 yards and one-yard touchdown in the Bears’ 24-14 loss to the Packers last week at Soldier Field.
Bears rookie running back Khalil Herbert (24) had 19 carries for 97 yards and one-yard touchdown in the Bears’ 24-14 loss to the Packers last week at Soldier Field.
Jeffrey Phelps/AP Photos

After an offensive implosion against the Browns in Week 3, the Bears took a rudimentary approach to their latest offensive re-build under Matt Nagy — an all-hands-on-deck emphasis on their running game.

With offensive coordinator Bill Lazor taking over play-calling duties, the Bears have fortified their offensive line with multiple tight ends, wide receivers and even offensive lineman Alex Bars as a tight end/extra tackle to facilitate a run game as a foundation for an NFL-caliber offense.

And so far, that strategy has worked. Even with running back David Montgomery suffering a knee injury and Damien Williams going on the COIVD-19/reserve list, the Bears have consistently run the ball against the Lions (39 carries, 188 yards, three touchdowns), Raiders (37-143, one touchdown) and Packers (26-140, one touchdown. In that span, their 117.8 yards per game ranks fourth in the NFL. Their 4.6 yards per carry ranks 11th. Their five touchdowns is tied for third.

But that was against the 28th-ranked Lions run defense, the 24th-ranked Raiders and 13th-ranked Packers. Now the Bears will face a truer test against a Buccaneers defense that ranks first in the NFL in rushing defense (54.8 yards per game) and second in rushing average (3.4 yards per carry). The Bears were stymied on the ground last year against the Buccaneers — 14 carries for 35 yards (2.5 avg.) and one touchdown in a 20-19 victory.

“That will be a true test for us,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said. “You saw what they did last year when we faced them. They’re a stout run defense. They’ve got a lot of great players on that front line, the second level with their linebackers. And the amount of respect I have for Todd Bowles as a defensive coordinator and what he does is real.”

It could be a quandary for Nagy and the Bears. The offense has yet to parlay its productive ground game into success in the passing game. The Bears are averaging 151.7 net passing yards in their last three games — 44 yards less than what the Patriots are averaging in the first half this season (195.7). Now they might have to generate a passing attack without a running game.

For what it’s worth, the Buccaneers are 27th in pass defense this season (280.0 yards per game) — though 14th in yards per pass play. The Bears are 32nd and last in the NFL in net passing (117.2 yards per game) and nets yards per play (4.1).

“They’re stout and their big,” tight end Cole Kmet said when asked about the Buccaneers’ run defense. “Their nose [Vita Vea] is really good and obviously JPP (Jason Pierre-Paul) has been in the league for awhile. They’re long, athletic, but they’re also stout up the middle, and they’ve got linebackers that flow really fast. It’s their ability to do that and then be able to react off of that into the pass game is pretty special.”

With Montgomery on injured reserve and Williams on the COVID-19/reserve list, Herbert could have to carry most of the load Sunday. The rookie from Virginia Tech had 19 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown against the Packers. In 37 carries against the Raiders and Packers, Herbert does not have a negative rush. The Buccaneers’ defense has 10 tackles-for-loss in 95 rushing attempts against them this season.

Nagy pointed to Herbert’s “low contact balance” as a key facet against a defense like the Buccaneers. “You’re not going to get arm tackles on him, I don’t think — he’s proven that,” Nagy said. “He’s really quick decision-maker, so when he makes decisions and sticks a foot in the ground, hits it with that low contact balance and he’s hard to bring down.”

The onus will not only be on Herbert but also Lazor and Nagy to establish a run game. The Buccaneers have allowed an average of just 15.7 rushing yards on 7.3 attempts in the first half this season (2.1 yards per carry). The Bears are averaging 84 yards on 17.7 attempts in the first half in their last three games.

So it’ll be an interesting chess match.

“No matter who you play, you always gotta start off with the run. It makes everything so much easier,” Nagy said. “We’ll have our ways of doing what we want to do. And they’re gonna have their ways of trying to stop what we want to do. And then it’s about adjustments and matchups throughout the game. We’ll … try to prep as much as we can for anything we think is coming our way.”