The Bears got the ball back with a five-point lead and 7:37 remaining in the game against the 49ers on Sunday.
Had receiver Allen Robinson not fumbled after gaining a first down on the first play after the two-minute warning, the Bears would have run out the clock.
That’s no small feat. Neither was the scoring drive on their second touchdown earlier in the game, when the Bears chewed up a season-high 7:43.
Success in such a slog is a credit to quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who efficiently dinked and dunked his passes against an unfamiliar defense. The 49ers played man coverage “99.9-point-whatever” percent of the time before Sunday but sat back in a soft zone against the Bears, offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said.
That offensive versatility was also a testament to running back Jordan Howard, who is playing his best football after a season of struggle.
In the first 11 games, Howard averaged 3.3 yards per carry. In the last four, he has averaged 4.3. In the first 11 games, he averaged more than four yards per carry in only two games. In the last four, he has done it three times.
In December, he has averaged 4.3 yards; in November, he averaged 2.9.
“I feel like we’re just getting a better grasp of the running game, the concepts that we’re running,” Howard said Thursday. “The linemen have been getting great push lately. So I feel like it’s been working for us.”
Kyle Long’s return to right guard — he could come back from injured reserve against the Vikings — would help.
As the season has progressed, the Bears’ inconsistent running game has been a target of criticism. Coach Matt Nagy doesn’t much care about run-pass balance, either, citing screens as an extension of the ground game. If Lovie Smith got off the bus running, Nagy is behind the wheel, passing in the fast lane.
No one is declaring the Bears’ running troubles fixed. But the Bears must take comfort in the fact that Howard is a weapon they can deploy in the playoffs. Teams with time to prepare for the Bears will throw new looks at them, and the Bears have to adjust.
The Bears’ running game has been near the league average this month, and that’s an upgrade. Among running backs with 50 or more carries in December, Howard ranks 14th with 4.3 yards per carry.
“I feel like a month ago we were really still trying to figure out exactly who we were with our identity,” Nagy said. “I do believe we’re starting to get closer to it. We’re still not there yet.”
Nagy said the Bears’ identity isn’t beholden to a specific scheme. But with a defense as dominant as the Bears’, getting the ground game going is crucial.
“Our defense, they can shut any offense down,” Howard said. “Sometimes, it’s just good to have ball control and stuff like that. Kill the clock.
“And when it gets cold outside, a lot of people don’t really want to tackle.”
One upshot of the Bears’ pass-happy ways: Howard’s body feels as good as it ever has this late in the season. He has 229 carries this season; heading into Week 17 last season, he had 267.
The Bears are still waiting for Howard’s best game, though.
“There are a bunch of plays out there, still,” Helfrich said. “We’re greedy. If a play is blocked for eight [yards], we don’t want eight. We want more.
“We believe in [Howard] 100 percent, and he has done a good job. He has done a really good job protection-wise. We’re still squeezing every inch out of him that we can. He has improved. He has improved a lot.”