Bears hope Khalil Herbert can continue to 'knock it forward' in David Montgomery's absence

Khalil Herbert carried the load against the Texans after David Montgomery went down with an injury. Quinn Harris/Getty Images

LAKE FOREST, Ill. – There's a saying making its way around offensive meeting rooms in Chicago.

As the defense aims to push opponents back, the offense wants to 'knock it forward.' It's the mindset the Bears have carried through grind-it-out wins over San Francisco and Houston on the way to a 2-1 start. Personifying an old-school identity of brute running and blocking put Chicago in position to generate the franchise's largest single-game rushing output in 38 years -- 281 yards -- during a 23-20 win over the Houston Texans.

The last time the Bears rushed for at least 281 yards, Walter Payton was leading the way on Sept. 30, 1984 vs. Dallas. On Sunday, it was Khalil Herbert stepping in midway through the first quarter in place of an injured David Montgomery, who sustained knee and ankle injuries while in pass protection. Herbert gave knocking it forward a new meaning by accounting for 157 yards and two touchdowns.

"I feel like he took that literally in his heart," Bears right guard Teven Jenkins said. "He's more determined now than he used to be. He's running more downhill, more physical. I love seeing that from him."

Through their first three games, the Bears have rushed for the second-most yards (560), the third-most first downs (27) and second-most rushing yards after first contact (225) in the NFL. Chicago envisioned building a run game that could sustain this level of production consistently split among its stable of backs when it installed a new scheme during the offseason.

What the Bears weren't expecting was their rushing attack having to carry the offense out of necessity due to early-season struggles in the passing game. Justin Fields has attempted 45 passes through three weeks, the fewest by any team since 1982, according to ESPN Stats and Information. The second-year quarterback's 23.0 QBR ranks 31st among the 32 qualified QBs this season. Missed throws, untimely interceptions and a lack of continuity only describe some of the issues the Bears hope to solve with their young quarterback.

Chicago's anemic passing attack has forced offensive coordinator Luke Getsy to adjust his game plan to lean more heavily on a ground game that has found its groove.

The Bears held Montgomery out of practice on Wednesday and are classifying his status as day-to-day. The 2022 season is a contract year for the fourth-year running back, so the situation bears close watching as he recovers from two separate injuries, including with the right knee, which was injured last year and cost him four games.

Herbert averaged 7.9 yards per rush and generated six explosive runs (10 or more yards) against Houston, highlighted by a 52-yard scamper in the third quarter that set up his second touchdown.

After scoring, Herbert and his teammates trotted to the sideline to watch his big run on their tablets. The hole created by the entire offensive line pulling to its right was unlike anything Herbert had ever seen.

"We could have drove a bus through there," Herbert laughed.

It was a testament to a 5-foot-9 running back who doesn't view his size as a detriment to the type of workload he can shoulder. As a rookie last season, Herbert averaged 97 scrimmage yards and 22 touches per week during the four-game stretch when Montgomery was sidelined.

Herbert averaged 5.2 yards before contact on his 20 rushes against Houston. While he dealt with soreness on Monday from that workload, he is prepared to handle the same if Montgomery can’t play at the New York Giants (1 p.m. ET Sunday, Fox).

Herbert was already part of a rotation before Montgomery went down (13 carries for 83 yards and a touchdown in Weeks 1-2) and expects to hold a similar role no matter when his rushing counterpart comes back.

That's the difference between this year's offense and the one he was a part of in 2021. Herbert carried the load of a No. 1 back when Montgomery was hurt Weeks 5-8 last season. When Montgomery returned, Herbert became an afterthought on offense and didn't top more than four rushes Weeks 9-17.

That stretch when his production skyrocketed is what the Bears believe can be replicated going forward by leaning on history to help carry this offense in Montgomery's absence.

"You look at last year what he did -- four games in a row, led the NFC in rushing," coach Matt Eberflus said. "He's done it. He's a good player. I think he's an exciting guy to watch."