After months of frustration, Jordan Howard has put together his best back-to-back games of the season, totaling 177 rushing yards on 35 carries for a 5.2-yard average, including 101 yards on 19 carries against the Rams Sunday night.
“It meant a lot because they put the ball in my hands, so I had to take advantage of those opportunities,” Howard said. “I didn’t want to let the team down.”
Howard’s explosive runs, absent for most of the season, have returned. After just one run of 20-plus yards in the first 13 weeks of the season, Howard has three in the last two games.
For weeks, coach Matt Nagy has vowed to find a way to get the ground game off the ground, and to get Howard rolling as he did when he rushed for 1,313 yards as a rookie in 2016 and 1,122 yards last year. In the first 13 weeks, Howard averaged just 3.3 yards per carry, a far cry from his rookie mark of 5.2 and even last year’s 4.1. He’s gotten 20 or more carries in a game just twice all season but has yet to voice his public displeasure, which Nagy appreciates – and expects.
“We don’t have individuals,” Nagy said. “I’m OK with guys being frustrated throughout the year, because that means they care. But you handle it the right way, and that’s what he’s done from the very start. And I appreciate that.
“You tell him two things, we’re going to get this thing figured out, and on top of that, it’s just going to happen where it’s going to be your time. (Sunday) night was a great opportunity for him to get those chances. I thought he ran the ball hard and his vision was good, and of course it starts with the O-line making sure that penetration’s not happening on the other side of the line of scrimmage.”
If the Bears remain committed to the run and continue to get the same results, it will give slumping QB Mitch Trubisky a greater chance for success throwing the ball down the homestretch of the regular season and into the playoffs
“It would be really big for us to do that,” Nagy said. “Any quarterback you talk to will tell you, to have that running game going, man, it makes things a lot easier. It opens up the play-actions, it opens up the shots downfield.”
A run game that must be accounted for also prevents pass rushers from attacking the quarterback with reckless abandon, which makes life more difficult for the big guys in front of Trubisky.
“The O-line will tell you, 'Let's get the running game going so we can go forward and not always go backwards in the pass set,’ ” Nagy said. “So, that was nice to get that going the other day. We need to build off that. I feel like it was one step forward. Now we’ve got to make sure to continue with that next step going forward.”
The run game also got a huge boost vs. the Rams from Tarik Cohen, who had his most productive rushing game of the season as well, with 69 yards on just nine carries for a 7.7-yard average. That included a 32-yard run, the second longest of the season for the Bears behind Trubisky’s 39-yard scamper against the Patriots in Week Seven.
“The O-line did a great job of controlling the line of scrimmage, getting up to the backers and the defensive backs,” said Trubisky, who has done more than his share in the run game, adding 386 yards on just 57 attempts, for a 6.8-yard average. “And Tarik and Jordan ran super hard getting those extra yards.
"It was big for this offense and it really opened us up to control the ball (for a season-high 36 minutes and 49 seconds), run the clock out in some situations and pick up yards. We realize that sometimes that’s how games are going to go, so you’ve just got to do whatever it takes to win.”
Maybe it’ll all work out in the end for Howard, who carried the ball 252 times as a rookie and 276 more last year but has just 197 going into Sunday’s potential NFC North-clinching contest with the Packers.
“It’s been a bit of an adjustment,” he admitted. “I had to adjust to fewer carries, but I definitely feel like I’m fresher now toward the end of the year. And we’ve been winning, so I can’t complain about that.”
And Nagy appreciates that.