[dt_divider style=”thick” /]The 2016 NFL regular season has come to a close and the Chicago Bears finished with a very disappointing 3-13 record, which is the franchise’s worst record for a 16-game season. However, there was a bright spot during an otherwise dark season, and that was the performance of fifth-round rookie running back Jordan Howard out of Indiana.
Howard finished with 252 carries for a Bears rookie record 1,313 yards and 6 touchdowns with a 5.2 yards-per-carry average on the ground. Astonishing when you consider the rich history this organization has with running backs. He also finished second in the NFL in rushing, trailing only fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys’ 1,631 yards.
Coming out of college, Howard was projected to be chosen in the second or third round by some prognosticators. However, there were injury concerns with Howard given his bruising running style and his history of knee and ankle injuries in college. While the Bears were hopeful he could contribute as part of a committee backfield alongside Jeremy Langford and Ka’Deem Carey, he would actually become their three-down back as the season progressed and put up a season nobody saw coming.
[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Yards After Contact
One of Howard’s greatest strengths is his ability to gain extra yards after initial contact. His running style and sheer power and willingness to not go down are a great trait to have and has certainly contributed vastly to his success. Howard finished the season averaging 3.0 yards after contact, tied for 4th in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell and ahead of Ezekiel Elliott’s 2.9 yards after contact average. It is not a stretch to say that Howard may have been the best running back in the NFL after first contact this season.
Here against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 17, it’s 1st and 10 at the Bears 15-yard line with 9:44 left in the 2nd quarter. Howard (#24) takes the handoff to the right side of the formation where a nice hole opens up for him, making it easy to make the second level. It’s what he does as he enters the secondary and is met by the deep safety Anthony Harris (#41) where we see his ability to keeps his leg moving and drive for extra yards. At the end of the play, he is finally brought down by Harris and linebacker Eric Kendricks (#54), but not before gaining four yards after initial contact.
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We can see another example of how Howard accumulates yards after contact against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 3. Here it’s 1st and 10 at the 50-yard line with 0:40 seconds left in the game. Although the game is all but over, this is still a nice play by Howard as he receives a pass from quarterback Brian Hoyer in the flat.
As he secures the pass, he makes good use of the space given to him and isn’t afraid to make his way to the middle of the field rather than looking to get out of bounds. Once he is met at the Dallas 40-yard line by linebacker Sean Lee (#50), he is able to keep his legs moving as he is being brought to the ground by Lee and LB Damien Wilson (#57), and once again gains an extra 4 yards in the process.
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Coming out college Howard was seen as a player who had pro-ready vision with the ball in his hands, and he certainly proved that this season. What he lacks in speed, he more than makes up for with his vision and ability to hit the right hole at exactly the right time, allowing him to make it to the second level and beyond.
A nice example of this can be seen here in Week 8 against the Vikings. It’s 1st and 10 at the Bears 18-yard line with 11:04 left in the 1st quarter. Howard is lined up directly behind quarterback Jay Cutler in the shotgun formation. As Howard receives the handoff, a narrow hole develops which Howard sees at just the right time. He is able to make himself skinny as the hole closes and ultimately frees himself through the secondary for a 69 yard gain.
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Like the play against the Cowboys in Week 3 where Howard cuts back infield to find extra yards, he does it again here. In the Bears’ Week 16 against Washington, on a 1st and 10 on the Bears 26-yard line, Howard (#24) uses this ability on an outside toss play. He follows his blocks outside and is able to make a nice cut back infield and down the sideline for an extra 10-yard gain.
A running back who finds extra yards, rather than go out of bounds? Remind you of anyone, Bears fans?
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When watching Howard it is clear that he is best used as a ‘north and south’ runner, running between the tackles and using his aforementioned vision and yards after contact.
This leads to defensive coordinators trying to scheme Howard to run outside the tackles, forcing the running back to use his speed rather than power.
However, Howard did do an excellent job of winning on the outside against Washington with the help of solid blocking in the open field. He also had a nice outside run in Week 12 against the Tennessee Titans on a 2nd and 10 play at the Bears 35-yard line with 8:43 left in the 1st quarter.
Pay attention to right guard Ted Larsen (#62) and full back Paul Lasike (#47) on this play. They both pull to the left and set the edge with nice blocks to get Howard around the corner and free for a 22-yard gain.
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There is no denying Howard has had a terrific season for the Bears. With the rash of injuries they had on both sides of the ball, Howard stayed healthy and continued to perform at a Pro Bowl-level. However, this means he’ll be a marked man next season and with the loss of his running back coach, Stan Drayton per the Chicago Tribune, it’ll be interesting to see how Howard performs in year two.
Will he win the offensive rookie of the year award? Probably not, but he certainly deserves to be in the conversation. To top off his great rookie year he will now travel to the Pro Bowl in place of injured Arizona Cardinals running back, David Johnson. The Bears have a key offseason coming up but one thing is clear, they have found their three-down running back.