One of the toughest things to watch in the Seattle Seahawks’ 27-24 defeat to the Denver Broncos in Week 1 was their inability to stop the run. Allowing 146 yards on the ground at 4.6 yards per carry, even when they were expecting the run, the Seahawks often couldn’t get the stops they needed.
They had a large issue with a simple ghost motion end around, with linebackers and the force defender slowing dramatically in their keys and reactions. Worse, the weakside linebacker spot was slow filling run fits all game and often went the wrong way, be it Shaquem Griffin or Austin Calitro.
Then on Saturday, news came out via Seattle’s injury report that the defense was in the early stages of a total shambles situation:
Seahawks declare KJ Wright, Bobby Wagner and Doug Baldwin all out for Monday night at Chicago. Flowers, Hill and Fluker are doubtful. Shaquill Griffin questionable.— Bob Condotta (@bcondotta) September 15, 2018
Yes, that’s right. This isn’t a nightmare that ends as soon as you wake up. Late addition Mychal Kendricks and his baggage is really going to play with a combination of Shaquem Griffin and Calitro. The two primary run-fillers have gone from being Seattle’s greatest strength to the grossest of weaknesses.
And the truth is, the Bears run game was terrifying before this news. The appointment of Matt Nagy has been revitalizing from an offensive standpoint. Gone with John Fox are the days of running on first and second down into heavy boxes. Instead a fantastic blend of run concepts and smart blocking principles is utilizing the diverse personnel of the Bears.
In Week 1, Chicago ran for 139 yards against the Packers, averaging 5.1 yards per rush attempt. Green Bay’s run defense is no easy matchup. It’s not just me who believes that. In the offseason, Pro Football Focus ranked them as the #1 run defense heading into 2018. Last year, Green Bay allowed only 3.9 yards per carry, placing 8th in the NFL. Their defense also ranked 8th in DVOA.
The Bears are going to be more complex than that simple ghost fly motion the Broncos troubled the Seahawks with. But they do of course use ghost jet motion as a disguise for running the football. The following video shows two inside power examples, but they also ran inside zone with it tagged on.
It lets them run the ball physically inside the tackles while halting the linebackers momentarily and keeping the force defender on the jet. Giving Jordan Howard a head start on the slower-coming-downhill second level is unfair. Howard is barreling and fast. That makes the 6’, 224 lb back challenging to tackle.
The motion also provides Nagy with a log on whether and to what degree the defense shifts with or follows the jet motion. This is information he can exploit later in the game in a variety of ways, including for handoffs to the jet (Taylor Gabriel is daunting here) and play-action.
Howard is predominantly an inside runner in this scheme. He also isn’t that patient in his forward surge style. Against the Packers, he ran 5 inside powers, 7 inside zones and 3 mid-zones.
But don’t be mistaken. the mid-zone is very important for Nagy. What’s nice about it for Howard is it keeps him inside and going more north-south than an outside zone. Like the more east-west outside zone, the mid-zone sets up play-action bootlegs: simple hi-lo reads and throws which maximize Mitchell Trubisky’s mobility at the same time as moving the defense laterally.
The Bears’ offensive line is so effective at getting to the second level; they get to the inside linebackers near-immediately. Their interior is one of the best at run blocking, and they have methods to help their tackles—such as using a tight end.
Their 11 personnel sees them face nickel personnel and a two-high safety look, resulting in a six-man box for their six blockers. The result on the first play is that Howard has a one-on-one versus the safety. He gets 6 yards.
This demonstrates the vision of quarterback and running back. First, Trubisky observes the defense aligning heavily for a run to the left, so he flips the run at the line of scrimmage. Secondly, Howard reads the over-pursuit of the linebacker and the huge cutback lane, so he hits it for a massive 11-yard gain on a 2nd and 13 looking to run the clock out.
The NFL is massively averse to running the quarterback, driven by an understandable fear of injuring the most valuable position in football.
While Nagy is going to be nowhere near college levels of quarterback rushes, he showed an inventive way of running the zone read.
Earlier on the opening drive Nagy had also lined up tight end Dion Sims at left tackle and left tackle Charles Leno outside at receiver. This got his offense favorable blocking angles in the box. It’s a real ‘pick your poison’ scenario for the defense.
Given the 3v2 on the perimeter, including a tackle out there, it’s surprising Chicago didn’t throw the bubble. The oddness of the offensive look certainly catches the defense by surprise though. Trey Burton at wingback does well to avoid the intentionally unblocked ‘read’ edge and to go on to clear out the space for Trubisky to cut his run up into the end zone.
Nagy also demonstrated real testicular fortitude on a massive 3rd and 3 call, coming with 8.11 left in the 4th and only a 3 point lead. He directly ran Trubisky on a quarterback power that gave him a kick-out block, a crackback block, a pulling guard and a lead blocker.
It was beautiful how Nagy shifted Allen Robinson II across the formation. This was unfollowed by the zone defense, immediately giving Chicago 3v3 blocks on the outside even before the puller and lead got involved. Trubisky picks up the first down.
(Note the pulling left guard is aligned further back the other guard. This is something they do occasionally: a potential tell for defenses)
Most of the Bears’ runs show it’s clear they’re running RPOs. That’s unsurprising given Nagy’s 2017 year of playcalling the Kansas City Chiefs’ attack. He adds bubble screens to both the frontside and backside to halt defensive pursuit and put force or contain players in conflict.
Dion Sims’ route into the flat delays the backside edge here, while the bubble occupies the attention of three defensive backs. They manage to get 12 personnel on the field and yet only six in the box. Howard bundles forward on the inside zone play, aided by a nice double team.
(It’s incredible how many double teams the Bears managed to get. It’s a consistent aim of there’s. The way they frequently leave the backside helps)
It would not be difficult to throw the bubble screen if there were a leverage or numbers advantage. Indeed, the Bears did this in the 3rd quarter after seeing a 3v2 numbers advantage to the perimeter, and it took Jaire Alexander making a remarkable play to stop an enormous gain.
This proves how the bubble affects the defensive backs. The play is from 11 personnel this time, but it’s the same inside zone run and defensive look. The middle is tight so Howard presses it, sets up the force player and then bounces outside.
The defensive backs have to move at a weird angle, from far outside and the bubble to inside. They over compensate, coming too far inside, and bumping into each other. Howard gains the sideline alley and somehow manages to pick up a first down plus more. It’s remarkable given the Bears lead by 3 with only 3.12 left in the game; the Green Bay defense is thinking run.
Cheat code Cohen
Tarik Cohen has slippery hyperspeed. He’s a cheat code player full of excitement, burst and wiggle: the sort you’d want to play with in Madden and keep twiddling the right stick—if Madden was any good that is.
Personnel wise, in this new offense it’s tricky for a defense to know whether to treat Cohen as a wide receiver or a running back when Cohen is split out wide. Green Bay’s defensive coverage largely viewed him as a wide receiver when not in the backfield.
Given Seattle’s high proportion of zone, they’ll likely treat him as a back, lining up a corner over him if he is split out wide. If he moves into the slot, they’ll put their nickel Justin Coleman on him—or face the clear mismatch consequences of having a linebacker deal with the second-year star.
That’s the issue with trying to defend this Bears team. There is a lot of stress on the defense. As a runner, Cohen is a perimeter player. While Howard gets most of the carries, thundering inside, Cohen gets the outside stuff where he best operates. He ran 1 outside power, 1 wildcat zone read keeper and 3 outside sweeps against the Packers.
In the first cut-up, the Bears motion him into the backfield and then run him on the outside sweep. The defense gets too narrow, then the offense gets a nasty tight end and tackle double team at the point of attack, sealing the edge. Cohen zooms up the sideline for the first down on 3rd and 2. He’s one of the best setting up blocks and defenders in the open field.
Notice the backside tackle pass-setting, and the three in-breaking routes at the bottom of the screen. It appears that Trubisky is reading the backside box defender’s leverage on the RPO play.
The other cut-up is Trey Burton in the backfield alongside Cohen. Burton represents another tricky question for the defense because he’s a h-back. Do they treat him as a tight end or as a fullback? Is it 20 personnel or 11 personnel? His versatility is problematic. The option of faking the lead block and releasing him down the seam from the backfield off play-action is going to be used at some point by Nagy. When better than to trick the Seahawks’ inexperienced linebackers with it?
Cohen makes an inspired cutback on this sweep, picking up another first down on another 3rd and 2. He is one of the best at setting up blocks and guys up in the open field. This could have gone to the house but for the ankle tackle.
(Nagy’s consciousness of personnel extends to fun stuff like coming out in empty with 21 personnel which included out-and-out fullback Michael Burton)
Pancakes and Syrup
Where the Bears’ run game gets particularly scary is considering how well Howard and Cohen complement each other. The combination is utterly delicious: the football version of pancakes and syrup.
It will be unsurprising when the NFL world is trying to force a cringey nickname for the running duet at the end of the season. The harmony they bring applies to the change-up factor of running Cohen after a heavy dosage of Howard, but also to when the two are on the field at the same time.
Howard flashed skills we haven’t seen much of before. Receiving wise he tracked the ball fantastically, then secured the catch and transitioned from receiver to runner quickly. His blocking ability being tested was the biggest surprise.
Nagy’s tribute to George Halas may seem overly cute given the manner of the Bears’ loss. But the Wing-T exhibited his willingness to be different and try the unexpected. Howard acted as a lead blocker for Cohen on the toss.
It was successful too: Cohen gained 7 yards on the Bears’ first offensive play of the game. It was a no brainer of a play-call against six defensive backs.
In addition to Cohen keeping the ball on a wildcat read-option keeper, the pair of him and Howard can add effective, simple passes when in a split-backfield formation together.
The last play of this article shows this. The line run-block the inside power and the handoff is faked to Howard. The defensive front is entirely focused on Howard, giving so much space outside for the catch-and-run. Cohen’s dynamism and slipperiness turns it into an easy pick-up of 8 yards.
As shown, the couple are a stark contrast to the similar types of Denver’s Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman—both of whom are best running inside the tackles.
Given the dire injury situation, the Bears may not need to lean on their run game as heavily. When the pressure ramped up on Trubisky, he was shyer than a high school student asking their crush to prom. The quarterback right now is a player who you can win with, but he’s far closer to being one you win in spite of than being one you win because of.
Like with how Sean McVay creates opportunities for Jared Goff; an effective, strong run game is important for taking anxiety away from Trubisky and setting up a bunch of plays for him in the passing game—even with how bad Seattle will be defensively.
Employing the run to stay ahead of the chains in manageable, less pressurized down and distances is another reason for Nagy factoring it heavily into his gameplan.
The juxtaposed talent of Howard and Cohen; the creativity of Nagy; and the double-teaming, second-level reaching o-line makes Monday Night Football feel deeply unpleasant. Uh-oh.