How Bears are preparing to face Bucs stout rushing defense originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? That’s what we’ll see when the Bears rushing offense takes on the Buccaneers rushing defense this Sunday.
Ok, calling the Bears run game an “irresistible force” may be a bit hyperbolic, but it’s certainly the strength of their offense and it's better than most other teams. They rank in the top-10 for rushing attempts, yards, touchdowns and first downs across the entire league. Meanwhile the Buccaneers defense ranks first in the NFL in rushing attempts allowed, yards allowed, 20+ yard runs allowed and first downs allowed. They’re second in YPC and third in rushing touchdowns surrendered.
From Matt Nagy’s perspective, it will be a “true test” for his coaches and players. So what gives, and how do you prepare for a game in which two teams’ strengths are pitted against each other?
“Some of it you can plan and predict and some of it you have to play the game as it plays out,” said offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. “I wouldn’t take away credit from their defensive front by saying that it’s all because their offense scores. We know a lot of these players who have been around the league for a while on defense and that they’re very good players. We know the kind of scheme that they run and certainly it’s a formidable job trying to run the ball against them.”
In the middle of it all is nose tackle Vita Vea. Think of him as the Bucs’ version of Eddie Goldman. He doesn’t light up the stat sheet, but he’s an essential cog in the middle of Tampa Bay’s defensive line.
“Just such a great job holding the point in the run game,” said Lazor. “It’s hard. Usually when you double-team someone, you feel like, well, if we double-team him, at least we can get a little bit of movement. We can control him. It’s just a matter of how long do we have to stay on before someone can get up to the linebacker? But he can destroy double teams so well that it’s hard to get off for the linebackers, and then in the pass game he has a rare ability to push the pocket. He really does. He really does.”
But this isn’t the first time the Bears will be facing an elite defensive tackle. Last week they played Kenny Clark and way back in Week 1 they took on the best in the biz in Aaron Donald. And in each of those games the Bears found ways to run the ball effectively. Against the Rams and Packers the Bears racked up 274 rushing yards on 52 carries, good for a 5.3 YPC rate. They also punched in three rushing touchdowns. When you take out QB scrambles, the running backs still put together an impressive 41-217-2 line.
Lazor said that those games can provide lessons for how the Bears build their gameplan against another dominant player like Vea.
“What we have to do as a staff is constantly evaluate what’s the best way to either neutralize this guy, take care of him? You just have to balance, do you remove somebody else from a pass route to help? It’s harder to help on defensive tackles. You can with a back, but obviously you make those decisions. Do you turn the protection to him every time? What does that do to the other side of our protection? I think both as a staff and as players you do that. You know, you have to make decisions going in. That’s why when you face great players it tends to be long hours for the coaches.
“I think the players, some of the players who get put in positions to be one-on-one at times or for the group– especially obviously usually dealing with the offensive linemen when you’re talking about defensive tackles– for the group, they also can learn lessons about how do we get help to this guy. It might be that our past assignment in protection is to check a linebacker on the other side, but once we know he’s not coming, how can we get help back to him. So I think individual guys can learn it and then as a group.”
The Bears aren’t selling themselves short either. They believe in their ability, and they believe in their backs. Khalil Herbert may be the Bears’ third-stringer, but the team sees characteristics in his game that can help him succeed against even the stoutest defense.
“Just his low contact balance,” Nagy said. “You're not going to get arm tackles on him I don't think. He's proven that. I love his– he's a really quick decision maker so when he makes decisions and sticks a foot in the ground, hits it with that low contact balance, he's hard to bring down. So there's not a lot of negative yards which is important. And so that combined with probably his confidence is going to grow every day, every snap he gets. And I just love his demeanor. He’s a team player, not really vocal or loud or anything like that, but he's just a really good running back.”
Even if things don’t go well against the Bucs, the Bears also emphasized the importance of staying committed to the run game.
“Just famine, famine, feast is something we talk about in the running back room,” said Herbert. “You might get your three-yard gains, four-yard gains, but eventually one is going to burst. So just taking those three yards, taking what they give you and then making them pay when they mis-fit or something like that.”
Matchups like this are some of the most compelling you can ask for in the NFL. Strength vs. strength, who’s going to budge? Not many people outside Halas Hall are giving the Bears a chance to compete with the Bucs on Sunday. But if the Bears can find a way to run the ball effectively against another top-tier front, they can make Justin Fields’ job easier and put themselves in a better position to keep up with Tom Brady and the Bucs’ high-flying offense.