GREEN BAY – A month ago, the Bears ran the ball 54 times in a game and won. A week later, they threw just seven passes and won again.
The traditional approach of stopping the run early won’t be enough when the Packers head to Soldier Field on Sunday. Green Bay will have to be prepared to stop the run the entire game.
“They’re going to stick to it,” defensive tackle Kenny Clark said, matter-of-factly.
It’s become the Bears’ M.O. with rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Their commitment to the run is helping bring along a young QB slowly. Their defense is stout enough to justify the approach as well.
They’re getting results they like, with two wins in Trubisky’s four starts, and two one-score losses to first-place teams (Minnesota and New Orleans). So there’s little reason to expect a major deviation, even with them coming off their bye week.
The big, bruising Jordan Howard (6-2, 222), a second-year pro who was a fifth-round draft pick out of Indiana in 2016, is on pace for a second straight 1,300-yard season. He has 662 yards and four touchdowns through eight games this season.
He quietly ranked second in the NFL in rushing behind the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott a year ago, and he ranks fifth this year. He’s on pace for an eye-popping 325 carries this season, and Sunday he’ll be as rested as he’s going to feel coming off the bye.
“He’s a big back,” Clark said. “He does a great job when they run their stretch plays, cutting inside and making the defense pay whenever they’re not covering their gaps. He can get the extra three yards when you wrap him up.”
Howard is complemented by rookie Tarik Cohen, though Cohen actually has more receiving yards this season (234) than rushing yards (228). He’ll line up as a receiver with Howard in the game, and his speed and shiftiness give Chicago’s backfield a different look when Howard does take a rare breather.
For all their struggles on defense, the Packers have played the run fairly well, holding opponents to 3.9 yards per rush overall.
The Falcons, Cowboys and Saints all had big rushing games, which has put Green Bay’s league ranking at 23rd against the run. The cautionary tale for the Packers is all three of those teams racked up significant rushing yards in the second half.
That’s what they have to be prepared for against the Bears – to defend the run all game long – making this game a referendum of sorts for their run defense heading into the season’s second half.
“It is tough,” defensive end Dean Lowry said of playing run defense from start to finish in a game. “The Bears will run the ball the whole four quarters. It’s important to stay on-guard and keep that mentality. With those running backs, they can make a big play, a big hit.”
Last Monday, the Packers didn’t let the Lions get anywhere running the ball (33 carries, 64 yards) and posted a handful of tackles for loss to boot, but Detroit ranks 29th in the league in rushing offense.
This will be a much tougher test, and it’ll be a make-or-break factor in the outcome.
“The Bears, that’s really who they are is a run-first team,” Lowry said. “I think that plays to our strength as a D-line. Overall we’ve played the run very well so far this year. It has to continue, but also when the chances are there for the pass rush, we have to get home on the quarterback.”
Yes, Trubisky will be given more on his plate each week, and Head Coach Mike McCarthy said on Thursday he’s not expecting Trubisky to throw just 10 passes. He believes the Bears will open up the offense more than they have, with that being part of the natural progression for a young quarterback.
The question is whether the Bears will turn to Trubisky more by choice, or if the Packers force them to, and that falls on the guys up front.
“Our defensive line, going into it, we already know what kind of game it is,” Clark said. “One game they only threw the ball like six times. That’s unheard of. That was crazy.
“We know what kind of game it’s going to be.”