It may have taken three quarters to click, but the Bears offense found balance to open the season.
After being held to three points in their opener against the Green Bay Packers last season, the offense exploded for 27 points, more than they scored in all but two games in 2019, in Sunday's dramatic 27-23 win over the Detroit Lions. The biggest difference was their ability to establish the run.
In last season's opener, the team ran only 12 designed running plays for 37 yards. On Sunday, those numbers more than doubled and tripled, respectively. The trio of David Montgomery, Tarik Cohen and Cordarrelle Patterson combined for 124 yards on 24 carries.
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Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky credited the rushing attack for establishing the balance that allowed the Bears to erase a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit to win their opener for the first time since 2013.
"Hitting them with the pass," said Trubisky, "hitting them with the play-action and then hitting them with nakeds, screens, the runs, I think when you're a balanced offense, everything just starts to open up. The O-line did a great job opening up lanes for the running backs to run, and it was creating a rhythm for our offense."
Adding in Trubisky's 20-yard scramble in the fourth quarter, the team averaged 5.3 yards per carry, a stark improvement from last season's 3.7 mark. Even without Trubisky's improvisation, the team still averaged a full yard more per carry.
Montgomery, whose status was in doubt until late last week due to a groin injury, led the way with 13 carries for 64 yards. Cohen put in his best rushing performance since 2018, contributing 41 yards on seven carries. Converted receiver Patterson added 19 yards on four carries.
Coach Matt Nagy commended his offensive line for setting the tone early and giving the running backs space to create plays.
"They never get their credit," said Nagy, "and I thought they did a really, really good job establishing that run, early on especially. There were some nice runs, six-, seven-, eight-yard runs. We stayed patient with that. In the end, it looks like there was about 4.7 yards per rush, which, you love that in this league."
The offensive line returns four of five starters from last season, after bringing in Germain Ifedi at right guard. However, the unit was able to do something they were rarely able to do last season: push the line of scrimmage and open running lanes.
While the passing game struggled to find momentum in the first half, the Bears were able to march down the field twice to set up manageable field goals for Cairo Santos. Trubisky felt that the early focus on running the ball helped set the tone.
"I think it helps the big boys up front," said Trubisky. "They love coming off the football and opening up run lanes for our running backs, and I think it settles our running backs as well. We just want to keep teams off balance, and that comes, for us, [by] being in balance, and then [other teams] never knowing what's going to come next."
While the offensive line has remained constant, the team brought in new offensive line coach Juan Castillo to shake up the veteran crew and make the scheme more conducive to Nagy's offense. Nagy credited Castillo and assistant offensive line coach Donovan Raiola for making in-game adjustments.
"I thought coach Juan and coach Donny," said Nagy, "their communication down on the sideline talking through things that we like and don't like protection-wise and run game-wise, that's what it's all about."
The team also benefited from adding two physical tight ends in Jimmy Graham and rookie Cole Kmet. Graham scored the first touchdown of the season early in the fourth quarter, but he also helped in the run game. Last week, general manager Ryan Pace credited Graham for his improvement as a blocker over the decade he has spent in the league.
"I felt that was a big reason, along with our O-line, that we got our run game going, with those tight ends," Nagy said. That's so huge. So I don't want to discredit anything that they did."
The team will return to Chicago next week to take on the New York Giants. While the Giants have yet to play their first game, last year's squad held Montgomery and Cohen to a combined 47 yards on 19 carries. The game may serve as a test to see if the Bears' rushing attack is here to stay.
"We've got to keep grinding, keep getting better," said Trubisky. "I definitely love to see the run game going, running backs running hard and the O-line busting their tails up front. They played a great game."