The Chicago Bears are heading into Week 6 with a depleted depth chart at running back. However, the Green Bay Packers shouldn’t sleep on the ground game on Sunday, especially with rookie Khalil Herbert in the Chicago backfield.
Head coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor have put an emphasis on the Bears’ running game in order to take some of the pressure off of first-round quarterback Justin Fields. Despite some disappointing offensive performances at times, the Bears are still ninth in the NFL with 126.8 rushing yards per game. That presents a potential mismatch for the Packers. Despite some encouraging signs from the defense, Green Bay still ranks 29th in the league in DVOA against the run according to Football Outsiders.
The good news for Packers fans is that the Bears are extremely thin at running back. With David Montgomery on injured reserve and Damien Williams on the COVID-19 list, the Bears are left with just Khalil Herbert and Ryan Nall. But just because the Bears are missing a couple of backs, that doesn’t mean that they should sleep on Herbert.
At 5’9” and 212 pounds, Herbert was selected in the sixth round of the 2021 NFL draft after a productive college career at Kansas and Virginia Tech. Despite his smaller stature, he showed flashes as a strong one-cut back with good vision and explosiveness.
Herbert finally got his first legitimate NFL workload last week, running the ball 18 times for 75 yards. He found a lot of success on zone runs, showcasing his vision by consistently finding cutback lanes to pick up yards.
Khalil Herbert loves those cutback lanes... Packers LBs - can't overrun/fast flow this week pic.twitter.com/PFjL4xx1Rm— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) October 13, 2021
The opportunities for cutbacks are something that the Packers defensive personnel and coaching staff have likely been playing close attention to. Those types of plays will put additional emphasis on Green Bay’s edge rushers and inside linebackers to keep containment and flow to the ball.
On the edge, Preston Smith has made a huge impact as an edge setter against the run. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) currently has Smith as their highest-graded edge rusher against the run with a minimum of 25 snaps. After a disappointing 2020 campaign, his ability to stop the run has been a huge lift to the defense, and something he’ll need to continue to maintain on Sunday.
Preston Smith set some physical/violent edges in the run game yesterday vs CIN pic.twitter.com/1ANWFvstz1— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) October 11, 2021
The other edge rushers, however, may have a bit of a harder time constricting cutback lanes. Jonathan Garvin and LaDarius Hamilton are backups who haven’t done much yet, but the bigger concern will be with the talented Rashan Gary.
Gary is a talented pass rusher who wins with power and athleticism. Unfortunately, that can sometimes lead to losing outside containment, or gaining too much depth and allowing the ball carrier to side-step him to find the open field. It’s something we haven’t seen nearly as much of the past couple weeks, but is worth keeping an eye on this Sunday.
Helping stuff Chicago’s run game will be another big opportunity for De’Vondre Campbell to add to his potential Pro Bowl resume. The 28-year-old has proven that he can do pretty much anything he’s asked to do, whether it’s in coverage or stopping the run. He’ll likely be asked to clean up a number of runs, which is encouraging because he’s been such a reliable tackler. In fact, he has only missed one tackle through the first five games of the year.
One other thing to keep an eye on with Chicago’s running game is the use of additional offensive linemen, specifically Alex Bars. The Bears used him as an eligible player on 13 snaps last week, and while the results weren’t extremely effective, it is something that could stress-test Green Bay’s defensive line.
Stopping Chicago’s run game could help make the Bears a one-dimension offense early, allowing the pass rush to start attacking a rookie quarterback behind a banged-up offensive line. They may be missing Montgomery and Williams, but the Packers can’t sleep on Herbert, and it’s something that could have a big impact on this chapter of an iconic rivalry.