Bears need to hit the ground running

With David Montgomery getting only one carry and the starting offensive line playing only 21 snaps, the run game didn’t show much in the preseason. But coach Matt Nagy is confident it will click when the bell rings.

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Bears running back David Montgomery (32) had three 100-yard games last season, including a career-best 146 yards with two touchdown on 32 carries against the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium on Dec. 20, 2020.

David Berding/AP Photos

David Montgomery took a handoff on the Bears’ first offensive snap of the preseason against the Dolphins on Aug. 14 at Soldier Field, struggled for a three-yard gain, got up gingerly and limped off the field.

And that was pretty much it for the running game in the preseason. If coach Matt Nagy intended to establish a key component of the 2021 offensive renaissance from the start, Montgomery’s injury — apparently minor — seemed to put him in a much more conservative mode.

Montgomery never saw the field again in the preseason. Damien Williams, expected to complement Montgomery in the backfield, gained 23 yards on 12 carries (1.9 average). Backups carried the rest of the load — Artavis Pierce (17-89, 51-yard run), rookie Khalil Herbert (14-63, one touchdown) and Ryan Nall (4-45, 39-yard run). Rookie quarterback Justin Fields, in fact, was the Bears’ leading rusher in the preseason with 11 carries for 92 yards and a touchdown.

So now what? Though much of the focus has been on the quarterbacks in the offseason, the Bears’ running game still is a huge key to any offensive leap in 2021. Last year, the Bears averaged 144.2 rushing yards in their final six games (fourth in the NFL in that span) after re-establishing their offensive line, with Charles Leno, Cody Whitehair, Sam Mustipher, Alex Bars and Germain Ifedi starting each game.

But much of that success came against poor run-defense teams — the Lions (28th), Texans (32nd), Vikings (27th) and Jaguars (30th) in particular. Now, after an inconclusive-at-best showing in the preseason, the Bears will be facing a Rams defense that ranked No. 1 in the NFL in total defense and third against the run last season.

Are the Bears ready for that?

“We feel good with where we’re at there,” Nagy said. “And now we’ve just got to go out and do it.”

Nagy is taking a leap of faith that his offense will click once the regular season begins. The projected offensive starters played more snaps in 2021 (245 total) than in 2019 (28), when the Bears coasted into the regular season and scored three points against the Packers in the opener.

But even though Andy Dalton played 33 snaps and the starting linemen played 21 or more, the entire unit did not play one snap together. Starting offensive tackles Jason Peters and Ifedi and right guard James Daniels played for the first time in the preseason against the Titans last week.

A lot has to come together quickly just for the offensive line, if not the entire offense.

“I wouldn’t say leap of faith,” Nagy said, “but I would say it’s going to be very important that the next couple of weeks here — as we start getting into scheme and what we want do to — that they understand where we’re at. I feel good about that part.”

Peters and Ifedi in particular showed signs of rust in their preseason debuts against the Titans. Ifedi allowed a sack on the first series, and both allowed pressure on the play where Fields scrambled and threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jesper Horsted.

And conditioning is a factor for both players. Peters didn’t get to training camp until Aug. 19 and was fishing in Texas when he got the call from the Bears. Ifedi’s first practice was Aug. 23 after suffering a hip flexor injury during the pre-camp conditioning test.

“The other part is with Ifedi and Jason Peters on the edges — them working the calls and the signals with the guards,” Nagy said. “And then conditioning-wise where they are. JP [Peters] said he felt good. Ifedi — I know he was upset about getting beat on the edge. The first thing he said to me on the plane [after the game] is he’s gonna fix that.

“Those guys care. It’s a good nucleus of guys. We’ve got depth behind them. [And] we gotta have a good two weeks here before we get going.”

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