Hoge’s Film Study: How the running game helps Justin Fields originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley went viral Wednesday with one the best scheme-related explanations youâll ever hear an NFL head coach give you.
The question at hand: What does the running game do for a quarterback?
The answer? I encourage you to watch the entire video below, but the gist is this:
âYou donât need a good running game to be a good play-action team, but what you need the running game for is the physical element of the game,â Staley said. âThereâs a physical element of the game that is real. If youâre just a passing team, thereâs a physical element to the game that the defense doesnât have to respect, and thatâs the truth.â
The former Bearsâ outside linebackers coach has been on a meteoric rise through the coaching ranks, landing in Los Angeles last year as the Ramsâ defensive coordinator before the Chargers hired him as head coach this year. Heâs a former quarterback turned defensive guru under Vic Fangio, and you can understand why heâs having early success with a young quarterback like Justin Herbert and answers like this.
Staley went on to explain an obvious point that we all sometimes lose sight of: the running game forces the defense to play blocks and tackle on every play, while the passing game does not.
âSo what the running game does is it really challenges your physicality,â Staley said. âAnd thatâs why I think the run game is important to a quarterback, because itâs going to allow him literally to have more space to operate when you do throw the football. Itâs not that you need the run game to throw it, itâs just what it gives the rest of your skill players.â
So what does this have to do with the Bears? Well, from my view, this is the fundamental difference between what the Bears failed to do with Justin FieldsÂ against the Cleveland Browns two weeks ago and what they successfully did against the Detroit Lions last week.
Against the Lions, the Bears used the running game â 34 carries from their running backs â to help Justin Fields complete five passes of at least 20-plus air yards on just 17 passing attempts. It was the most completions of 20-plus air yards in the Matt Nagy era since Mitch Trubisky accomplished the feat against the Packers in 2019, but on 53 passing attempts.Â
And it didnât take long SundayÂ to get the deep shots going. After running the ball on five of the first seven plays, Fields was able to hit wide receiver Darnell Mooney on a deep crosser for 21 yards. The throw wasnât perfect (a more accurate pass would have led to an even bigger play) but Fields still gave Mooney an opportunity to make a play, and the receiver did with an acrobatic diving catch.
From â11â personnel with three wide receivers, the Bears kept tight end Cole Kmet in to block. That provided the time necessary for the play to develop. Meanwhile, the play-action kept the linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage, while two vertical routes tookÂ four Lions defensive backs deep. Detroit certainly didnât play this well, but the result was a wide open hole in the intermediate level for Mooney.
The theme of combining protection with play-action to create deep shots continued throughout the game. Later, using â21â personnel with J.P. Holtz lined up as a fullback, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor used a âdaggerâ concept to create an explosive throw to Allen Robinson. The dagger uses a vertical route to clear out space for a underneath receiver in the middle of the field.
Bunched to the right, Damiere Byrd occupied both Cover-2 safeties by running right at the near safety to the play-side. This created the space for Robinson to cut in underneath and Fields delivered an absoluteÂ strike (look at the ball placement below). Once again, the play-action held the linebackers underneath.
â(The run game) makes my job way easier, of course,â Fields said Wednesday. âWhen the defense sees that weâre in that kind of personnel, theyâre most likely thinking run. So it definitely sets up the play-action well. It gets the passing game going a lot.â
Thereâs no reason to stop here, as Robinsonâs outstanding catch on the Bearsâ sideline also came off of play-action. And it was an absolute dime by Fields.
Once again, the play-action holds the underneath defender just enough to create the throwing window â and this window wasnât nearly as big. But the Bears are also in a seven-man protection, which gives Fields the necessary time to let the routes develop. The heavy protection probably wasnât necessary since the Lions only sent four rushers and dropped seven, but this play goes to show that you can still find a deep shot with only two receivers running against seven defenders when thereâs time and space to work with. One of the reasons why Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan use tighter formations is because it gives receivers more room to operate outside the numbers.
Of course, you still need the quarterback to make the throws. And this is not an easy throw. But thatâs exactly why Nagy ended the drama Wednesday and named Fields his starting quarterback going forward.
â(The deep threat) was big because that really helps the run game, and we werenât real big on that when you look at the hit chart, right? The passing chart of where those were coming from, they werenât happening much (before Sunday),â Nagy said. âEven if you donât complete them â¦ youâre helping your run game out. Youâre helping your linemen out. So when you connect on them and youâre able to flip the field, huge.â
Fields simply gives Nagyâs offense a threat it has severely lacked, but it all works together in tandem with the run game. Staley has the same luxury right now in Los Angeles with Justin Hebert.
But thatâs exactly why the Bearsâ spread-it-out/static routesÂ game planÂ in Cleveland continues to look maddening. Even against a much better defense than the Lions, it wasnât necessary and didnât put the rookie quarterback in the best position to succeed.
That changed against the Lions, and whatâs particularly encouraging is that the throw to Robinson on the sideline was an example of âNFL openâ that Fields appeared reluctant to the pull the trigger on in Cleveland. You could argue that even on that play he could have gotten rid of the ball a tick quicker, but it was still a huge improvement from the week before.
Going forward, it wonât be as easy as it was against the Lions â and losing David Montgomery in the running game doesnât help â but if the Bears donât abandon the run and stick with what worked last week, they will be putting Fields in position to make the explosive throws needed to win games in todayâs NFL.
Staley clearly gets it. Can the Bears commit to it?
(As always, for more detail on the grading system, click here.
â With 17 games on the schedule, the schedule can no longer be divided into even quarters, but this is typically where we can start lending some credibility to the overall grades on the season. With that in mind, here are some key young players playing at a level the Bears hoped: linebacker Roquan Smith (4.50), wide receiver Darnell Mooney (3.50), cornerback Jaylon Johnson (3.50). All of them are at least in the longterm starter category, with Smith breaking the blue-chip barrier.
â Then you have players exceeding expectations, like Montgomeryâs 7.00, Robert Quinnâs 4.00, and Angelo Blacksonâs 3.00.
â Players who must improve as the season goes along: safety Eddie Jackson (0.75), tight end Cole Kmet (0.50) and right tackle Germain Ifedi (-0.50). Although, it should be noted that Ifedi played much better against the Lions.
â While the tight ends have been largely disappointing so far this season, all four (Kmet, Jimmy Graham, Jesse James and J.P. Holtz) graded out well as blockers against the Lions. You have to think their targets in the passing game will eventually increase.