By Dan Durkin–
(CBS) There’s never a good time for a team to lose its best player. That’s exactly the predicament the Bears found themselves in last week after running back Matt Forte was knocked out of the team’s overtime loss against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 9.
However, if there was a silver lining to losing Forte’s unfailing productivity, it was that it afforded the Bears’ front office and coaching staff an opportunity to evaluate rookie Jeremy Langford in a featured role.
In a rebuilding year, everything is about player development and evaluation. With Forte closing in on 30 and in the final year of his contract, the future at the position — which may or may not include Forte — must be considered.
Prior to Forte’s injury in the Vikings game, Langford’s season-high in touches was six. He was sparsely involved in game plans, but everything changed Monday night.
Langford became the focal point of offensive coordinator Adam Gase’s plan of attack against the Chargers in the Bears’ 22-19 win. He touched the ball on 21 of the team’s 70 offensive plays, finishing with 142 total yards, generating five first downs, a touchdown and a two-point conversion.
Drafted out of Michigan State in the fourth round, Langford was a highly productive runner who racked up 40 touchdowns and a 5.1 yards per carry average. At the combine, he flashed his athleticism, running a 4.42 in the 40-yard dash, which was the fastest among running backs, as were his 10-yard (1.5) and 20-yard (2.5) splits.
In his first few seasons in East Lansing, coaches were searching for his best position on the field for Langford. He played cornerback in 2011. In 2013, he was tried at receiver during spring practices before settling back in at running back. The shared skills required to play each of those positions are lateral quickness, vision and hands, all of which were on display during Monday’s contest in San Diego.
Langford’s receiving skills were showcased on the Bears’ second offensive possession. Facing a third-and-3 at the Chargers’ 48-yard line, Gase emptied out the backfield in a four-by-one set from an 11 personnel grouping. Langford (circled in yellow) lined up as the No. 2 receiver.
The Chargers responded with nickel personnel in Cover-1 man free coverage, with Eric Weddle lined up as the single-high safety 16 yards off the ball in the middle of the field. Linebacker Kavell Conner traveled with Langford outside, so quarterback Jay Cutler knew he had the matchup he wanted with Langford.
The Bears ran a levels concept with the three other receivers, and tight end Zach Miller (lined up as the split end on the back side of the formation) ran a curl.
(All images courtesy of NFL GameRewind)
Conner lined up six yards off of Langford in inside technique. He severely underestimated Langford’s speed and was caught flat-footed off the snap. Langford had a free release to the outside, which allowed him to quickly stack on top of Conner and give Cutler a huge throwing window to drop the ball into.
Cutler led Langford perfectly, who laid out to make an acrobatic 31-yard catch, setting the Bears up with first-and-10 from the Chargers’ 17-yard line.
Langford also showed excellent patience, vision, burst, power and a feel for running lanes throughout the game. He converted two crucial short-yardage runs on his two-point conversion and touchdown runs, which has been a pain point for the Bears’ running game.
One of Langford’s most impressive runs that displayed his vision, lateral quickness and burst came in the second quarter on a 16-yard split-zone scamper.
Here’s an animated .gif of the run from start to finish with some embedded commentary and overlays.
Langford pressed the hole and headed toward his original aiming point (the play-side B-gap), but with it closed, he did a quick jump cut to bounce it to the outside and was back up to full speed in three steps. He turned a potential negative run into an explosive one.
Langford’s fresh legs and extra gear give the Bears a different skill set they haven’t had at the running back position in a while.
Apart from the physical skills needed to succeed at running back, a player must be trustworthy in pass protection. This requires a knowledge of the teams’ protection schemes and thorough film study of an opponent’s fronts to identify threats that the offensive line can’t account for.
Langford checked all those boxes against the Chargers. He was stout in blitz pickup, accounting for the proper rusher and showing an ability to sink his hips to brace for the collision and redirect with power on contact.
All in all, Langford’s performance on Monday night was an overwhelming success. He gives the Bears a playmaking piece they can count on for the rest of this season and beyond at the running back position.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.