No one should underestimate the importance of the Bears’ meeting with the Oakland Raiders on Sunday in London.
After getting upset by the Green Bay Packers on opening night, the Bears have rattled off three straight wins, and although it hasn’t always been pretty, they’ve clawed their way back into a first-place tie with the Packers. Although you’d love to win them all, getting to the bye at 4-1 and at least a share of the division lead would put them exactly where they need to be heading into the most difficult stretch of their schedule.
One of the reasons we should never waste significant time on difficulty of schedules before the start of a season is that they never are as hard or easy as they looked in the summer.
Coming out of the bye, the Bears will get the Saints and then the Chargers at home, travel to Philadelphia, come home for a division tilt with the Lions and then travel to L.A. to take on the Rams.
None of those four 2018 playoff teams have been as good as we expected them to be, with a combined record of only 10-7, while the Lions, who were supposed to be the breather in this stretch, are actually much better than we expected. But all five appear to be much tougher challenges than the Raiders.
“Must win” is the most overused expression in sports, but the Bears do really need the Raiders game.
Much like their past three, style points won’t make a win over the Raiders worth any more, but if they can do it by getting their offense untracked, it will put them in a much better spot going forward, and it’s pretty unlikely that will happen just because Chase Daniel will be playing quarterback for the injured Mitch Trubisky.
That Trubisky’s lack of development so far this season has been disappointing is an understatement, but it really hasn’t been the biggest issue with the offense.
The bigger problem with the Bears’ offense is that they can’t run the football, and when the opponent knows you aren’t likely to run it successfully, it allows them to make life a ton more difficult for the quarterback – regardless of whether that is Trubisky or Daniel.
And it’s fair to wonder if the biggest problem isn’t that the Bears haven’t been able to run the football since Matt Nagy and his next-generation offense arrived.
Through four games this season, the Bears are 25th in the NFL running the ball and 25th in average gain a carry at only 3.6 yards a pop.
Remember, this past offseason the Bears traded Jordan Howard – as we understand it because he wasn’t a good fit for Nagy’s scheme – and gave up a bunch of draft capital to bring in David Montgomery.
In his first two seasons, Howard averaged 5.2, and 4.1 yards a carry but slipped to 3.7 last year in Nagy’s scheme.
Montgomery was supposed to add chunk plays, but on his first 58 carries through these first four games he is averaging 3.4 yards a carry and only 3.1 on 57 of those runs if you take away his one 25-yarder.
In the meantime, Howard is averaging 4.7 yards on 40 carries in Philadelphia.
The point is not a comparison of the two running backs.
Montgomery has shown flashes of being who the Bears hope he will be, and Howard is basically an inside runner who is going to be a free agent after the season.
The issues: Is the Bears’ offensive line good enough in the run game, and for all of his creativity and the volume of plays in his playbook, does Nagy have a scheme for the ground game that will work?
What we do know is that Tarik Cohen is more than capable of chunk plays, and his rushing average was 4.3 before Nagy arrived and 4.5 last year, but he is averaging only 2.1 this season.
The Oakland Raiders are 15th in the NFL against the run and 11th in average gain a carry, allowing 3.94 a rush, but they will be without their best run defender, Vontaze Burfict.
The only thing more valuable for the Bears than a win in London would be if they get it done with their ground game leading the way.
• Hub Arkush is executive editor of Pro Football Weekly. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter @Hub_Arkush.