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Bears appear to have their run game ‘clicking’ at the right time

The Bears’ first two plays from scrimmage against the Vikings were a statement. They wanted to overpower one of the most powerful defenses in the NFL, and they succeeded behind their underrated offensive line and resurgent running back Jordan Howard.

“He had 50 yards in the first two runs of the game,” coach Matt Nagy said Wednesday. “That immediately is going to bring confidence.”

Of all the reasons to be optimistic about the Bears’ chances in the postseason — they open Sunday against the Eagles at Soldier Field — one of the most encouraging is the recent production of the running game.

No player benefits more from a strong ground game than quarterback Mitch Trubisky, whose ability to handle playoff intensity already is being questioned.

Bears running back Jordan Howard run for two touchdowns against the Vikings in Week 17. | Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Bears running back Jordan Howard ran for two touchdowns against the Vikings in Week 17. | Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Trubisky needs the help, and that starts with Howard and Tarik Cohen. The Eagles have the NFL’s seventh-best run defense and have allowed only 165 rushing yards over their last three games.

“It’s crucial,” Trubisky said. “You want to have that run game going.”

In the Bears’ most playoff-like games during the regular season — a 15-6 victory against the Rams at Soldier Field and their 24-10 win in Week 17 against the Vikings in Minneapolis — Nagy leaned on the running game, and Howard and Cohen delivered. They combined for 170 rushing yards against the Rams and 133 yards and three touchdowns against the Vikings.

“You can see the [offensive] line’s getting a lot more comfortable in the things they do,” said Cohen, who had 23- and 32-yard runs against the Rams. “And we’re starting to trust them a little more in the backfield. Everything is clicking right now.”

Earlier in the season, Trubisky’s success on designed runs and wild scrambles made for a respectable ranking in total rushing yards. But it covered up one of the Bears’ offensive deficiencies: consistently gaining yards with their running backs.

“Believe it or not, I really have had confidence [in the running game],” Nagy said. “It’s just been trying to stay positive with our coaches and with the players and saying, ‘Hey, just trust it. It’ll take a little bit of time.’

“With the identity of who we are as a run team, you’re starting to see that now. We’re starting to feel confident in certain schemes, and when you have that now, you can get rid of all the stuff that you don’t feel good about [that] you were using before.”

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The Bears opened the game against the Vikings with reserve lineman Bradley Sowell at fullback. It sent a message: The Bears can and will play power football, even though Nagy’s thick playbook always will contain zone schemes, options, screens, trickery and more.

Howard ran for 109 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries against the Vikings. It was his best game this season and the second time during the Bears’ four-game winning streak that he averaged more than five yards per carry. The first time came against the Rams.

In the last five weeks, Howard has run for 399 yards and averaged 4.5 yards per carry. After the first 11 games, he had 536 yards and averaged 3.3 yards per carry, which, at the time, ranked 48th in the league.

Howard is getting going at the right time.

“It really opens up everything else for our offense,” Trubisky said. “[It] opens up the pass game, the play-action and keeps them off-balance with the quick game, as well. So the more everything goes through our run game, once we can get that started, everything else starts to open up, so I think it just gives us more confidence as an offense.”