Hoge: Forget The Quarterback Situation, Bears’ Season Hinges On Fixing Non-Existent Running Game

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LONDON, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 06: Head Coach, Matt Nagy of the Chicago Bears reacts during the match between the Chicago Bears and Oakland Raiders at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on October 06, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Jack Thomas/Getty Images)

LONDON — First, Harry Hiestand threw the hat. Then he kicked it.

It was the second quarter of the Bears’ 24-21 loss to the Raiders Sunday and the frustration was reaching a peak for the Bears’ offensive line coach. 

After watching another three-and-out — including a one-yard loss on first down and a sack of quarterback Chase Daniel on third down — Hiestand spiked his hat into the synthetic turf at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and delivered a kick so impressive it would have made Cody Parkey envious.

Of all the issues plaguing the Bears’ offense right now, the poor play of the offensive line is most surprising, and perhaps, most concerning. All five starters are back from last year, two of them are recent second round picks, and four of them have received sizable contract extensions with the organization. 

Sunday, the unit was obliterated at the line of scrimmage in the first half. And, for what it’s worth, it wasn’t much better on the defensive line either. The biggest reason why the Bears lost the game is because they got consistently got beat by the Raiders up front in the first half.

“We haven’t been real successful with running the football. It’s been an issue this year,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy said after the game. “So we need to figure out why.”

That will undoubtedly be a major priority for Nagy and Hiestand during the upcoming bye week. The Bears came into Sunday’s game with the league’s 25th-ranked rushing offense, averaging just 90.3 yards per game. They managed 40 on the ground against the Raiders.

So what kind of options do the Bears have to improve their offensive line during the bye week?

“Our options are to play better. I mean, it’s as simple as that,” Nagy said, before pausing and choosing his words carefully. “We need to be better — I mean, we’re, our run game needs to get better.”

The options do seem limited. Should they switch Cody Whitehair back to center? He hasn’t really been the problem. Should they take a harder look at Rashaad Coward at right guard? Maybe. They kept him on the active roster for all of the 2018 season even though he didn’t play a single down. That means they liked him enough to develop him while he took up a valuable roster spot. And Coward looked pretty decent when he finally got on the field last week and played at right guard.

Of course, that would mean benching Kyle Long. Long is 30. Coward is 24.

Something needs to happen. Frankly, the running game hasn’t been very successful since Nagy arrived in Chicago. And it was the No. 1 concern during offseason, with the Bears using their first draft pick to trade up for running back David Montgomery in the third round. So far, he has looked good, even though his numbers don’t. And his teammates don’t seem to think the running backs are the problem. 

“I think that we have a very good backfield, so for me it is frustrating when you don’t see those guys get yards,” wide receiver Allen Robinson said. “Because, I mean, they are more than talented. When you see David Montgomery get a hole and you see Tarik Cohen get a hole, those guys are going to make plays.”

So is it the scheme or the offensive line? These were the same questions we were asking last year. By bringing all five offensive linemen back in 2019 and extending right tackle Bobby Massie, the Bears’ actions appeared to show they didn’t think the offensive line was to blame.

The tape so far this season says otherwise.

But it’s also fair to wonder about the scheme — especially when you witness the Raiders gashing the Bears’ outstanding defense with stretch runs to the edges, sometimes right at Khalil Mack. Jon Gruden did a great job with a gap scheme that concentrated on chipping and doubling Mack. But that’s not really the Bears’ offense. They don’t have a fullback like Alec Ingold to cut Mack, like he did on Josh Jacobs’ first touchdown run. 

If there is any scheme adjustment Nagy can pull off, the bye week is the time to do it. But chances are, the Bears’ best hopes for improvement come from within. That’s how left tackle Charles Leno Jr. sees it.

“Whatever type of run it is, the offensive line are the guys up there blocking, so we just got to do our job better. I keep on saying it, that’s got to start with me,” Leno said. “I’m going to go into this bye week and do some real deep searching and see how I can get better. Because all I want to do is help the team win and if I’m not doing my job well, à la holding calls — some bullshit in my opinion —  but at then of the day, if I’m not doing my job, I’m hurting the offense and we can’t get going.”

In Leno’s defense, he has had at least two penalties called on him this season that were simply bad calls, but he’s clearly doing something to cause the holding penalties to pile up.

“I don’t know. I don’t know what they’re looking at, man. So whatever. It is what it is. I got to get better,” Leno said. 

The entire line needs to get better. It’s not just Leno. There are other offensive problems too — the quarterback and tight end play needs to improve too — but being able to run the football would help all of it. The Bears can’t be one-dimensional when they’re down to their backup quarterback or if they are starting a young quarterback who is still developing.

When asked after the game what changed offensively when the Bears put up 21 points in the third quarter, Nagy simply said: “Um, we threw the ball a little bit.”

The short and cold response seemed to be another indictment of the running game.

The Bears have a lot to figure out during the bye week. They had a 3-2 record last year too (3-3, in fact) and managed to win 12 games. But the schedule is much tougher the rest of the way and it seems hard to believe they’ll be able to win 12 games again with their current quarterback situation and a non-existent running game. They can’t expect the defense to be perfect every week — that’s just unrealistic when there’s so much talent in the NFL (the Raiders’ offensive line is by far the best the Bears have seen this year). 

“I believe wholeheartedly in our guys, but we need to — every coach, every player — it’s time to start looking at themselves in the mirror and figuring out why you’re out there,” Nagy said. 

That’s quite a message to take into the bye week.

Adam Hoge covers the Chicago Bears for WGN Radio and WGNRadio.com. He also hosts “The Hoge & Jahns Podcast.” Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.

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