The Chicago Bears Retool: Wide Receivers and Running Backs

The next area we will address on our Chicago Bears retool: backs and receivers. A group that has, rightfully, come under fire this season. The Bears were able to escape Sunday with a win. But their performance did nothing to change their outlook moving forward despite the division-leading Green Bay Packers suffering a loss on Sunday Night Football.


Chicago Bears Retool: Receivers and Backs

We won’t rehash what occurred in the game, we have already moved beyond that. But between what worked and what didn’t, Sunday’s victory against the New York Giants provided further evidence of what role the skill positions have played in the dysfunction that has been the 2019 season up to this point.

Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky played well (by his standards), mostly when operating in a quick tempo attack. It highlights that much of what afflicts him is mental. That is what made it difficult to project his ceiling; no one can predict when a player will “get it” and the game will slow down. It hasn’t happened for Trubisky.


Pitch and Catch

Wide receivers Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller combined for 12 receptions for 208 yards and a score on 19 targets on Sunday. The outing was just another standout performance by Robinson (6-131-1). He continues to make circus catches look routine and, despite dropping more passes this season, is still proving to be one of Ryan Pace’s best free-agent signings.

Miller’s stellar outing came as somewhat of a surprise though. After tallying seven touchdowns as a rookie he has been mostly a non-factor. He averaged fewer than two catches and only 24 yards per game over the first nine games. But over the last two outings, he has seen his targets rise to from a little over three per game to 10 and he has averaged six grabs and 65 yards since.

Taylor Gabriel was a member of our preseason hot seat list and his 2019 campaign has highlighted why. This is not speaking on his health (he is listed on the injury report with his second concussion this season. Instead, like Robinson, Gabriel has been afflicted by drops (at key moments) while also being limited by his size if he can’t flat-out beat his man deep.

Many have wondered why the Bears haven’t utilized Javon Wims more. His size would seem to be an asset with a scattershot quarterback. He showed well in his only extensive action this year hauling in four balls for 56 yards against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 4. He (and rookie fourth-round pick Riley Ridley) should see time this week with Gabriel banged up.

Tight end has been a source of much agony for the past two years, even with Trey Burton (IR) playing all 16 regular-season games last year. They never got production commensurate with his contract, but he was also brought in to play a different role. The real issue (aside from Burton’s money) is the colossal failure Adam Shaheen’s development has been.

Chicago got one good effort from Ben Braunecker but he is in the concussion protocol as well and is a longshot to play Thursday. Jesper Horsted was brought up and many fans were excited by his potential. But the reality is that he is an undrafted rookie free agent, none of those things are working in his favor as far as signs of being a major contributor.

Back to the Future

Remember when the Bears being sixth in attempts and 11th in yards was considered a down year on the ground for this franchise? Ah, good times. Here they are in 2019 ranking 24th and 29th, respectively, in those categories and no one knows how to fix it. The attempts and usage are one thing but the players need to do better themselves.

Rookie David Montgomery has assumed the role of lead rusher from the departed Jordan Howard and has made his predecessor look like Barry Sanders comparatively. Montgomery’s standard stats are all near the bottom of the barrel, his advanced metrics offer little more encouragement.

The Iowa State product is 11th in fewest attempts per broken tackle, but, per NFL Next Gen Stats, is also 40th in efficiency and 17th (tied) in time spent behind the line of scrimmage. We can (and will) parse how much of that is on the offensive line (hint: a lot). But Montgomery is not a burner by any stretch and could help himself by being more North-South in his approach.

Tarik Cohen is essentially a running back in name only this season, catching more passes (50) than handoffs (44). The results have been less than impressive. Cohen’s yards per catch gone way down. He has also seen his catch percentage dip (team-leading six drops) as well. The skewed usage has also made Cohen a less effective runner, emphasizing his reduced carries.

Usage has been an issue for this backfield as much as individual performance. A lack of commitment to running has hindered Montgomery from wearing down the defense more often than not. It has also turned Cohen into a signal for the defense tipping that a pass is likely coming. That much is on the play-caller, another aspect to be addressed at a later date.

Cutting Mike Davis was the most responsible way out of an incredibly irresponsible signing by Pace; something that is all too common. The league’s view on running backs is such that paying anything substantial for a journeyman like Davis should have been out of the question. Especially since it kept a young player like Kerrith Whyte off the team.


Inner Workings

Unlike in the first installment, this time there were no suggestions for outside improvements for retooling the Bears receivers and backs, rookie or veteran. That is because the Bears have the personnel to accomplish great things. These are mostly the same players from last year’s 12-4 unit. The drops and miscommunications have risen but have coincided with the quarterback’ regression.

That is not in any way absolving the role the skill positions have played in the madness. But if the leader of the group is shaky, it stands to reason his supporting cast will be as well. Will fixing quarterback remedy all that has ailed the Bears backs and pass-catcher? Absolutely not. But as we have seen time and time again, great quarterbacks elevate those around them. Imagine that.

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