Chicago Bears: What has been holding Jordan Howard back?

GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 23: Jordan Howard #24 of the Chicago Bears runs with the ball while being chased by Gerald Hodges #51 of the Arizona Cardinals during the first quarter at State Farm Stadium on September 23, 2018 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 23: Jordan Howard #24 of the Chicago Bears runs with the ball while being chased by Gerald Hodges #51 of the Arizona Cardinals during the first quarter at State Farm Stadium on September 23, 2018 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images) /

What can the Chicago Bears do to get Jordan Howard rolling more on the ground?

Lost in the national takedown of Mitch Trubisky and his future in the NFL is also the idea that the Chicago Bears ground game has not necessarily helped. With Jordan Howard entering year three and getting Kyle Long, and Eric Kush healthy, the idea was this line should be a lot better on the ground.

Jordan Howard is fifth in the NFL in carries but ranks 10th in yards. His 3.4 yards per carry this season is a cool 0.7 yards behind his career low. This is not helping a young quarterback trying to learn an offense.

So, it brings the question, what is the issue with Jordan Howard?

When looking into some offensive line metrics, the team currently ranks 11th in adjusted line yards. Not bad. However, the falloff statistically for the team is when looking from second level yards, to open field yards. Second level rushes are rushes where Howard can rip off 5-10 yards. Open field rushes go for more than 10 yards. They rank 15th in second level yards and fall all the way to 29th in open field yards. He gets 1.81-second level yards per carry, but just 0.21 open field yards per carry.

With that in mind, and going back through every rush attempt that Howard had, the overall idea is that there are a lot of little kinks to work out, and a lot that will. However, there are a few more glaring questions than others.

Play Calling

One of the bigger talking points surrounding Jordan Howard entering his first year with Matt Nagy was how Nagy was going to put him in ideal situations. Howard was much better last season running from the shotgun than he was running under center. Nagy ran more from the shotgun than any team last year, so it was suspected that we would be seeing a lot of Howard from the shotgun.

The team has run the ball with Howard from under center 18 times, and from the shotgun just 16 times. From the gun, he is averaging 4.1 yards per carry, from under center, 2.5.

However, he still just has a 38% success rate from running under shotgun this season.

Another issue with the play calling feels like something that can be fixed. When going back through every attempt one thing that stood out was how often Nagy incorporated motion and fake reverses and sweeps.

Most of these are set in to throw the defense off, window dressing for a simple run concept. This is a staple of the Nagy offense. However, with a new offense and Nagy adding so many pieces this offseason, some of this needs to be worked out as well.

Watch the play linked here. Anthony Miller is in motion. However, you can see that as the ball is snapped, Miller already passed Trubisky. So, while his motion was supposed to get the linebackers leaning to his side, they are not buying that Miller is touching this ball and are staying put.

Josh Bynes reads the fake sweep and knows that this is a run play to Howard, considering they run so often with these fake motions. He stays put, rips into the gap and makes the tackle.

Watch the play linked here. This is a successful run from the preseason where Tarik Cohen times his motion perfectly. Trubisky could hand it to either back in this spot.

Miller is a young receiver, and Trubisky, a young quarterback. The timing will sort itself out.

However, another facet of this being too predictable is that while they motion on the majority of their running plays, Taylor Gabriel has three carries, and is the only wide receiver with a carry so far.

They are using these receivers as a threat to run, but they have not run too often with these receivers. Miller, whose motion helped key Bynes into a run to Howard has not gotten the ball on one of these motions yet. Maybe because his timing is off.

Nonetheless, one way to get Howard going a bit more in the running game may be to go away from him in the running game a bit. Put the fear of these receivers taking these sweeps and handoffs, and it will freeze linebackers to open some holes for Howard.

Jordan Howard

Of course, this is not solely on the play calling. Howard has not been great either. There have been a few instances where his vision has let him down. Take the two pictures highlighted on this particular play.

Here is the first picture, what Howard is initially reading. Kyle Long is leaving Bobby Massie to perform a combination block on 51 in the second level. You can see that if Long picks that block up, there is a pretty nice hole to the left of Howard.

However, check out his decision. He tries to bust into the small hole between Long and Massie, despite the bigger hole being cleared between Whitehair and Long. Howard is usually known for excellent vision between the holes, but this was a mishap on his part.

Offensive Line

The fact of the matter is that the entire offensive line has let Howard down in moments, especially when thinking about breaking those second level runs.  Charles Leno has been the teams run blocker. However, that it is in part because Leno has not been tested. The Bears have not run to his side too often.

Watch this play from Cody Whitehair. Whitehair is in the second level and has to cover Gerald Hodges. Hodges sheds him easily and ends what could have been an open field run.

Kyle Long has missed blocks in the second level as well, as linked in the play here. Long, along with Bobby Massie are supposed to get an initial push on Robert Nkemdiche. Long is supposed to get that push and get to the second level, to spring Howard into the second level.

However, Nkemdiche blows the two off of the line. He gets Long on the ground, who stumbles to the second level helping end the run short.

So, while Whitehair and Long are not spared any blame, Massie and Kush are quite clearly the weak spots of this group. You saw that Massie was no help to Long on the play earlier. On top of that, the Bears are averaging just 1.0 yards per attempt when running to the right tackle.

Jarran Reed shoved him aside in the play clipped here. On top of that check out this play. Massie is trying to pin down Nkemdiche while Eric Kush is trying to pull across the line. Nkemdiche blows up Massie into Kush, and the two take each other out of the play.

That is not it for Eric Kush. Mike Daniels had his way with him in Week One. Robert Nkemdiche got him in Week Two.

Then, we have another issue with him trying to pull into open space. The play is linked here. The way that Dion Sims runs, it looks like Sims would have picked up the edge player, 51. Kush likely should have turned upfield to cover 58, who steps in unblocked while Kush and Sims double team a player.

Whether it be off of the line, pulling, or communicating, Kush is not quite getting the job done. This is not to say that James Daniels would be a better option than Kush. However, it certainly would not hurt to try.

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So, after looking in depth, the fixable solutions would be.

  1. Run from shot gun more often with more spread formations
  2. Try to run to the left edge more often
  3. Continue to use motion and fake jet sweeps, but start to incorporate more jet sweeps so that they are not predictably decoys
  4. Look into starting James Daniels over Eric Kush