If any one factor is currently threatening the Chicago Bears' ability to stay afloat in the playoff hunt, it's a 32nd-ranked run defense that was just gashed by the St. Louis Rams and now faces at least three difficult tests over the final five games.
The bruised and battered Bears allowed a season-high 258 rushing yards to St. Louis on Sunday, including 123 in the first quarter. No team in Rams franchise history has rushed for more yards over the first 15 minutes of a game.
By the time the steamrolling in St. Louis was over, the Bears had capped off a stretch of games against the run that ranks among the worst in Chicago's long and decorated history.
Since Week 7, the Bears have allowed an NFL-high 985 yards on the ground—an average of 197 per game. Chicago now ranks 29th or worse in total rushing yards (1,597, 32nd), rushing yards per game (145.2, 32nd), rushing touchdowns (14, 29th) and yards per carry (4.9, 30th). This team is currently on pace to allow the most rushing yards in franchise history.
|Yards per Game||145.2||32nd|
|Yards per Rush||4.9||30th|
|Rushing First Downs||89||32nd|
Source: Pro Football Reference
The defense's struggles stopping the run will only be magnified down the stretch.
Chicago's next five games include this Sunday's matchup with Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings along with later clashes against the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers, two teams ranked within the top five in rushing this season.
If the inability to stop the run continues, the Bears likely won't be playing past Week 17—and they know it.
"We talk about [stopping the run] every week, but it doesn’t happen," Bears defensive end Wootton said, via Michael Wright of ESPN. "It’s something that’s definitely a cause for concern. If we even want to make the playoffs, we have to shore that up."
Fixing the problems against the run don't appear to have an easy answer. Bears head coach Marc Trestman insists his defense is practicing the various run looks that have hurt Chicago in recent weeks.
"There has been inconsistency in fitting the runs," Trestman said, via Rich Campbell of The Chicago Tribune. "They're runs that we have practiced. They show up in games...We're going to continue to work at it."
Injuries have certainly played a factor in the severe regression. The Bears lost the likes of Henry Melton, D.J. Williams and Nate Collins to season-ending injuries earlier this year, and Lance Briggs, Shea McClellin and Stephen Paea have all missed significant time with their own dings. Charles Tillman was also recently placed on injured reserve with designation to return.
Instead of a veteran, well-traveled front seven lining up every week, the Bears have been forced to play young players such as Jon Bostic, Khaseem Greene, Landon Cohen and David Bass. Additionally, responsibilities for veterans such as James Anderson, who is now calling the plays, and Corey Wootton have since increased dramatically.
Predictably, the Bears have performed well below the standards once set by Lovie Smith, but few could have envisioned such a drastic fall off.
In just the last two games alone, opponents have rushed for 432 total yards. The Rams' 258 yards—representing a big chunk of that 432—were the third most allowed by the Bears in a single game since 1976.
But this wasn't a one-time occurrence. Three different times since Oct. 20, Chicago has allowed 199 or more rushing yards in a single game. For context, consider the Bears have only kept three different opposing offenses under 100 rushing yards this season.
Source: Pro Football Reference
Somehow, the Bears need to pick themselves up off the canvas before the next wave of running attacks ends Chicago's season.
First up on the to-do list is Adrian Peterson and the Vikings, who have rushed for 364 yards over the last two weeks. On Sunday in Green Bay, Peterson and backup Toby Gerhart combined for 237 yards on the ground against the Packers.
The Bears have annually had trouble corralling Peterson, who is first all-time against Chicago with a 107.7-yard rushing average over 11 career games. In four of those 11 games, Peterson has cracked 120 rushing yards.
The Bears have to be especially aware of their tendency to give up big chunks on the ground. This season, Chicago has allowed eight runs of over 30 yards and three more of over 40. In St. Louis, the Bears allowed Tavon Austin, Zac Stacy and Benny Cunningham to each crack a run of over 25 yards.
Bears run defense is hard to watch. Just too easy for the Rams. Doesn't matter if a safety is in the box.— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) November 24, 2013
According to Trestman, missed assignments at every level have been to blame.
"That's where you get the big gains, you get the big explosive runs, and we've had too many of them," Trestman said.
After Peterson, the Bears run defense will get a temporary reprieve when Dallas and Cleveland—each ranked in the lower third of the NFL in rushing—come up on the schedule. Chicago will need to use those two weeks to prepare for a final two-game stretch that will likely determine whether or not the Bears are playoff worthy.
In Week 16, Chicago travels to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles, who are currently ranked No. 1 in the NFL in rushing at 150.6 yards per game. Over 11 games, the Eagles have rushed for 200 or more yards three times while being held under 100 just twice.
If the Bears miss the playoffs, what one factor will be most to blame?
LeSean McCoy, the NFL's leader in rushing yards at 1,009, is a big play waiting to happen every time he touches the football. He's also been the perfect back for Chip Kelly's high-tempo, run-based offense.
A week later, the Bears will welcome the Packers and their fifth-ranked rushing offense to Chicago. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers (fractured collarbone) should be back by then, but it's rookie running back Eddie Lacy who could really sting the Bears defense.
A Marshawn Lynch clone, Lacy is currently the rookie leader in rushing yards at 806. His 150 yards against the Bears in the first meeting is still a career high, and he did it without Rodgers playing more than one series.
If the Bears can't be better against the run over their final month and change, it's difficult to envision this team winning more than two of its remaining five contests. If that scenario unfolds, an 8-8 record isn't likely to be enough to either win the NFC North or secure a wild-card berth.
Like he's done seemingly every week for the last month and a half, Trestman admits his defense needs to make big strides against the run.
“We’ve got work to do, but our guys are up for it," Trestman said. "We’ve got a strong, hungry football team that’s passionate about playing the game, practicing the game and winning. We’re gonna get over it."
If the Bears don't get over the struggles stopping the run sooner rather than later, a lost season remains the most likely result. The remaining schedule demands improvement.