The Chicago Bears running back room has become a lonely place. Starter David Montgomery went down with a sprained knee in Week 4 (he’s expected to miss at least four games), and top reserve, Damien Williams, was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Thursday. That leaves rookie sixth-round pick, Khalil Herbert, as the primary (and maybe only?) running back Chicago can lean on in Week 6’s rivalry game against the Green Bay Packers.
What a bizarre Sunday it will be for a Bears team that is now forced to trust a rookie quarterback and running back to score enough points to topple Aaron Rodgers. It’s a tough task, for sure, but Herbert proved in Week 5’s win over the Las Vegas Raiders that he’s NFL-ready. His 18 carries for 75 yards were a mix of explosive burst and tackle-breaking balance, two traits that tend to serve running backs well early in their careers.
Still, Herbert wasn’t forced to carry the load alone last week. Williams had 16 carries of his own, and when you add his two catches to those totals, he had the same number of touches as Herbert. It’s wholly unreasonable to expect Herbert (or any running back not named Derrick Henry) to touch the ball 36 times against the Packers, but what does a reasonable workload look like?
At this point, a look at the Bears’ usage of Montgomery can provide the best insight into what Herbert’s workday might be. Montgomery had 20 or more carries in each of Chicago’s wins that he played in, and in the games that weren’t particularly close—the Rams and Browns—he had 16 and 10 carries, respectively. Gameflow will matter, of course, but don’t rule out another game with close to 20 carries for Herbert if the Bears keep it close.
As for the Packers’ run defense, here’s what they’ve given up to starting running backs so far this year:
Week 1: Alvin Kamara - 20 carries, 83 yards
Week 2: D’Andre Swift - 8 carries, 37 yards
Week 3: Trey Sermon - 10 carries, 37 yards, 1 TD
Week 4: Najee Harris - 15 carries, 62 yards, 1 TD
Week 5: Samaje Perine - 11 carries, 59 yards
Green Bay’s best run defense appears to be their offense; build a lead and take away the opponent’s run game. Obvious, right? But the Bears present a different challenge than the other teams the Packers have faced this season. Chicago has Justin Fields, a quarterback with elite rushing traits, so forcing the Bears into a pass-first offense doesn’t mean the run game, even if an unintended run game, won’t have an impact.
Fields’ rushing threat helps Herbert and his potential production, too. Green Bay didn’t have to respect Jared Goff’s legs, or Jimmy Garoppolo’s. They certainly didn’t care if Ben Roethlisberger tucked and ran, and while Joe Burrow is a very good athlete, he’s still on the mend from a torn ACL last season. Fields will cause Green Bay’s front-seven defenders to pause, even for a beat, to make sure he isn’t pulling the ball from Herbert’s belly and making a play on his own. And that’s all Herbert will need to use his burst to get to the second level and, perhaps, beyond.
The Bears’ depth chart behind Herbert starts and ends with Ryan Nall, who was promoted from the practice squad for this week’s game. He’s more of a special teams player than a traditional NFL running back. Chicago is going all-in with Herbert, who’s prepared for this moment since NFL draft weekend.
"Since Day 1, Khalil’s came to work,” Fields said of Herbert this week. “I feel like he's treated this whole process like a veteran. Like, literally every time I pull up, he's always here. In the morning he's here early. He really takes his work seriously.”
Matt Nagy, who’s been a consistent voice of praise for Herbert since training camp, was high on the rookie’s Week 5 performance, too.
“You saw some really good times where he hit that zone and he stuck that right or left foot in the ground, planted it, and he went north and south and got 7, 8 yards every time,” Nagy said. “I like his vision. I like his patience. I also like his toughness, and you guys see it when he’s returning kickoffs. He’s smooth, and people bounce off him, so he’s got good contact balance.”
Nagy was close to running out of superlatives in that breakdown, which can be interpreted to mean only one thing: Herbert’s number is going to be called—a lot—this Sunday.