Four weeks ago, it would have seemed inconceivable that the Cowboys would be the more wounded team heading into Thursday night’s game at Soldier Field. Dallas had just won back-to-back divisional games to finish the first half at 5-3, and the Bears were on a four-game losing streak which featured literally one of worst halves of offense in the history of pro football.
Months are long in the NFL. The Cowboys that are coming to Chicago on Thursday aren’t the same Cowboys the Bears expected to get a month ago, and there’s an argument to be made that the same blueprint that can get the Bears their seventh win can also carry them into the playoffs.
Consider, first, the Cowboys. Since their Week 9 win over the Giants, Dallas has played the Vikings (L), Lions (W), Patriots (L), and Bills (L) – and allowed at least 100 yards rushing in all four games. Of those teams, Buffalo and Minnesota are both top-10 rushing teams by DVOA (8 and 10), while New England and Detroit (21 and 27) are both subpar.
In fact, Dallas has had three of their worst four performances against the run – in terms of yards allowed – over the last month. Four of the 11 rushing touchdowns they’ve allowed have come over the same span. Case in point: the Cowboys’ run defense has been a weakness lately.
“Yeah, there’s not much exploitable about that defense,” said Matt Nagy, apparently unconvinced. “That front four and front seven is one of the best in the NFL, and it’s not even close. So, they bring it, they’re good, they’re strong, they’re quick, they’re smart. It’s a good front.”
The numbers bode well for a Bears offense that has, when committed, found success running the ball. They’re 3-1 when rushing at least 25 times, and that record looks even more impressive if Eddy Pineiro hits the game-winner against the Chargers. When they run the ball at least 20 times? 6-2. They’re 0-4 when they don’t hit 20. It’s not always glamorous, but with the season 75 percent of the way over, there’s clearly some correlation.
“It makes it a lot easier, because it’s open to what the next play call’s gonna be based off of second-and-3, second-and-4, second-and-5,” Nagy added. “It’s way easier. You felt that. Now, every week is different, because there’s some weeks where you play a defensive line or a defensive front that’s totally [different]. You can’t just put on Tecmo Bowl and all the sudden be playing this front on arcades. It’s different fronts.”
Since their four-game losing streak, the Bears’ per-game rushing average has leveled out a hair above 24. There’s even been more consistency:
Rushes in Weeks 1-4:
15, 29, 24, 33
Rushes in Weeks 5-8:
17, 7 (lol), 38, 18
Rushes in Weeks 9-12:
24, 24, 26, 23
“I think it took a little time but coach Nagy is a brilliant coach and you’ve got to be adaptable in this league,” Mitch Trubisky said. “And find what works for your offense personnel-wise – what is working this year, and just find ways of how our offense can get better.
“So he’s done a great job of trial and error, trying things out and finding what works for this offense, especially with the injuries and guys moving around and with new pieces that’s coming in. We just got to keep working on that and continue to get better every week.”
Running the ball down people’s throats is decidedly NOT Nagy 202, though it might be their way into the playoffs. After Dallas comes Green Bay, who rank 28th in rush defense DVOA and have allowed the eight-most rushing yards of any defense. After that is Kansas City, who rank 30th in rush defense DVOA and have allowed the third-most rushing yards.
It all ends with Minnesota, who admittedly have a very good run defense. To that point: if the Bears have clawed their way back into a winner-take-all Week 17 game in Minnesota, all bets are off anyways. It may not be what Matt Nagy wanted out of his second-year offense, but if the Bears are looking for an identity to co-opt for the final month of the season, it’s staring them right in the face.
“We got to come out hungry and humble again this week and just go to work,” Trubisky said. “And if everyone does their jobs and we’re good on third down and take care of their front, we just got to go out there and make plays, but it’s not just going to happen. We’ve got to have a great week. We’ve got to go make it happen.”