Bears’ shifty backs find success behind Josh Sitton in road win

By Nick Shook
NFL.com
Read full post on NFL.com

In the midst of a season that could very well produce a coaching change, the Chicago Bears pulled off a surprise, blowout win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 14. A quick look at the box score tells the story of how they did it: By grinding the Bengals into submission with a multi-back ground attack.

Jordan Howard rushed for 147 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries, and Tarik Cohen added 80 yards on 12 carries (and could have had his own touchdown, had he not stepped out of bounds when cutting up field toward paydirt).

How they did it wasn’t all that complicated. Surprisingly, Chicago’s offensive line is starting to put it together — or did against Cincinnati. Credit also is due to Bears offensive coordiantor Dowell Loggains, who repeatedly adjusted on the fly to keep the Bears moving when the Bengals started to catch onto their game plan.

Likely knowing what they showed on film, Chicago took to bootlegs off zone-action fakes early, which worked as planned when Cincinnati was eager to shut down the play to the run-fake side. These run-action fakes forced the Bengals to play honestly, which created opportunities for Cohen and Howard.

As a result, simple zone runs worked right off the bat. Cohen took his first carry on a zone play around the left end and was half a foot from that aforementioned missed touchdown.

Chicago’s heavy use of zone in both the running and passing game had Cincinnati anticipating more of the same, which played directly into the hands of the Bears when they called for a long trap. Thanks in part to some overzealous slanting toward the center — which went right with the designed down blocks — the play ended with Howard in the end zone.

The same type of run action worked in Chicago’s favor later, when the entire line sprinted laterally to the left to mimic a zone stretch. The flow drew six Cincinnati defenders away from the actual play, which was running left to right. The result was a big gain for the Bears.

Chicago’s offensive line also happens to be blocking for a good runner. Howard is equally shifty and powerful as he is fast, as seen on this run that’s forced outside by a penetrating Carlos Dunlap. Howard hits the edge while running laterally, but is agile enough to cut upfield and run right through the arm tackle of William Jackson for a gain of 16 on a play that should have been a gain of 1 or 2 at the most.

Howard has made a living off runs like this. Later, he broke a tackle attempt by Michael Johnson, who shed a block to get into position to make the tackle, but Howard merely stumbled before gaining an additional 10 yards.

And then there’s Cohen, the more diminutive but explosive runner in Chicago’s backfield. Cohen gets a massive lane on this well-blocked zone stretch play and bursts through it past defenders for a gain of 19.

Bears guard Josh Sitton was recently ranked as the 10th best offensive lineman in the NFL in 2017 by Pro Football Focus, mainly due to his excellent pass protection, but also for his improving run blocking. The above play shows how Sitton uses his opponent’s leverage to his advantage, engaging and riding him right out of the play.

Sitton does it again later in the third quarter, adjusting his inside course with a quick hips swivel and arm extension to keep an away-slanting Andrew Billings from blowing the play up. Howard runs right off his turned hip, breaks yet another tackle and picks up 10. A play later, Mitchell Trubisky was in the end zone.

Much of Chicago’s rushing attack was like this: Either it was filled with gains of 10-plus yards per carry with some impressive blocking to match, or it was carries for little gain or negative yardage when Cincinnati correctly anticipated the play. But more often than not, the Bears were a step ahead. The Bengals would shoot the gaps of a zone play, then find themselves surrendering big yardage on a power play, a counter trey or a play-action pass. Every time Cincinnati thought it had Chicago’s offense figured out, the Bears switched things up.

This season might not have gone as desired for the Bears, but they’ve proven lately that they have some pieces that can be put together as part of an effective offense in the future. Chicago needs to address its right tackle position — Bobby Massie struggled mightily against Dunlap, who causes problems for a good amount of opposing linemen — but it has a really good one in Sitton, and two impressive backs in Howard and Cohen that should have funs excited for the future.

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