In last week's crushing loss to the Los Angeles Chargers -- the Bears' fourth defeat of the season, already matching their total for the entire 2018 regular season -- the rookie running back registered career highs in nearly every rushing category, with 27 carries (31 total touches) for 135 yards, including a 55-yarder (his longest run of the season) during a second-quarter drive that resulted in a field goal.
Before Week 8, Chicago's run game felt almost nonexistent at times, as Matt Nagy's offense averaged just 70 rush yards per game. The second-year head coach made a conscious effort to get the run game going -- a smart decision, considering Mitch Trubisky's ongoing struggles -- and pounded the rock 38 times (half of the team's offensive plays) for 162 yards against the Chargers. Mixing that stout ground game with a solid defensive effort allowed the Bears to control the clock, as they had the ball for 16 more minutes than the Bolts. This game plan put Chicago in good position to end a skid, but the missed field goal by Eddy Pineiro as time expired sent the Bears home with a third straight loss.
Despite the defeat, Montgomery impressed in that game and finally had the breakout performance we've been waiting for. I always thought the third-round pick's hard-nosed running style would translate well to this level. At Iowa State in 2018, he forced 100 missed tackles (most in the FBS), according to Pro Football Focus. As a rookie in the NFL, his tackle-breaking ability has produced 19 missed tackles, and 217 of his 366 rushing yards have come after contact. His production in these two categories should increase in bulk as we get into November and December, because tackling running backs as physical as Montgomery in freezing temperatures is a major challenge for defenders.
With Montgomery getting opportunities to make an impact in a Nagy offense that appears re-committed to the rushing attack, he could finish Year 1 with a bang. And here are three other backs who are poised to break out in the second half of the season:
Tevin Coleman, San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers' running backs are averaging 209.3 scrimmage yards per game this season, and three players have at least 300 ground yards this season (Coleman, Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert). Coleman had a season-high 105 rushing yards and career-high four scrimmage TDs in a 51-13 win over the Carolina Panthers. Kyle Shanahan and Coleman were together in Atlanta, but the running back was in a backup role there. With the two reunited in San Fran, we're starting to see how dangerous the speedy back, who battled an ankle injury early in the season, can be as a centerpiece in Shanahan's offense.
Jordan Howard, Philadelphia Eagles: While the Bears are happy with their new RB in the wake of his breakout Week 8, Chicago's old RB is heating up for the Eagles. Since Week 4, Howard has logged 75 carries for 344 yards (4.6 yards per carry) and five scrimmage touchdowns. The Eagles have run the ball successfully in each of their four wins this season and Howard has been at the forefront in the team's last three victories. Turning 25 years old on Saturday, Howard has plenty of tread left on the tires and knows how to close out games -- like he did against the Bills. Last week, Howard's 96 rushing yards were the most by an Eagles running back since LeGarrette Blount ran for 97 vs. Chicago in Week 12 of 2017. The Eagles have gone 36 straight games without a 100-yard rusher (longest active drought in the NFL), but Howard has the goods to end that drought with his bruising running style. In Howard's three seasons with the Bears, more than half of his 100-yard rushing games came in the second half of the season.
Sony Michel, New England Patriots: The Patriots showed they were comfortable putting the game in Michel's hands in last season's playoffs, and the rookie passed with flying colors with 336 rushing yards and six rush TDs in their run to another Lombardi Trophy. Although Michel has been consistent this season, he hasn't been that player just yet. But you can bet the Patriots will lean on their run game late in the year. What better way to control the clock and maul opponents during a tough part of the schedule than with a tough, downhill runner who breaks tackles? Averaging 2.0 yards after contact per attempt entering Week 9, Michel is an ideal candidate to get more opportunities in the stretch run.
Now, let's get to the weekly rankings ...
Former NFL rushing leader and NFL Network analyst Maurice Jones-Drew will survey all running backs and rank his top 15 each week of the 2019 season. His rankings are based on this season's efforts alone. Here is MJD's list heading into Week 9.
McCaffrey is already closing in on his career mark for rush yards in a season (1,098 in 2018), and his 5.2 yards per carry this year is the best average of his career. McCaffrey's 1,078 scrimmage yards are the most by a player through a team's first seven games since Chicago's Matt Forte logged 1,091 in 2011. Keep tuning in to McCaffrey's season because this is something special.
The Vikings' offense has the upperhand this week against a beat-up Chiefs defense that has been without several key players. I expect Minnesota to keep it old school with Cook leading the way in an effort to top the Chiefs at Arrowhead. The Vikings have a good shot to win their fifth straight with the way Cook has been playing.
Since Week 6, Zeke has averaged 30.5 touches and 150 scrimmage yards per game. The Cowboys face the Giants in a big divisional tilt, so we'll see if Zeke can keep this up. I suspect he will against a defense that ranks 22nd against the run.
Fournette's contribution to the passing game this season has been a pleasant surprise. He's just one catch away from matching his previous season high midway through the 2019 campaign, and he's taken a ton of pressure off Gardner Minshew and kept Jacksonville within striking distance. Fournette needs another huge day on the ground and out of the backfield in this week's divisional bout against the Texans in order for the Jags to chip away at the teams ahead of them.
Jones' 11 scrimmage TDs are tied for the most through eight games (Ahman Green in 2003) by a Packers player since 1950. He is finally getting the opportunities I thought he should've had in the first two seasons -- and what do you know, it's paying off!
It was painful to watch Chubb lose fumbles on back-to-back offensive snaps in the first quarter. The first was returned for a touchdown by Dont'a Hightower, and the second was knocked out after Chubb took it 44 yards downfield. This game really felt over after that. Chubb has enjoyed an exceptional season, but these are huge mistakes that the 2-5 Browns can't afford.
In a low-scoring tilt against the Denver Broncos, Mack came through in a big way by scoring the Colts' only touchdown on a 10-yard scamper late in the third to set up the tying extra point (... which Adam Vinatieri missed, before nailing a 51-yarder for the win one quarter later). Because Mack gives it his all every time he takes the field, he's on pace to shatter his career-high 908 rushing yards in a season. At this pace, he'll surpass 1,300 for the season.
After early-season fumble troubles, Carson has been dependable while racking up enough rushing yards to put him in the top five in the league. At the beginning of the season, I felt Rashaad Penny might get a chance to become the starting running back in Seattle, but Carson's steady output has put the kibosh on that thought.
Last season's Offensive Rookie of the Year started to look like himself in his second game back from his high ankle sprain. Against the Lions, he registered 143 scrimmage yards and added his first receiving touchdown of the season. Really looking forward to Monday night's NFC East clash that features Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott.
Henry had another steady performance to help the Titans get back to .500, as he rushed for 75 yards against the Bucs. He's hit that mark in six of eight games this season, and the Titans are 4-2 when he does. Every week feels like a must-win scenario for Tennessee going forward, and Henry must get back to his punishing running style to keep his team climbing.
There's so much talent on the Rams' offense that players rotate big performances. It was Cooper Kupp's turn last week, but Gurley chipped in with 10 carries for 44 yards and a rushing TD. It'll be interesting to see if Gurley becomes a bigger part of the game plan coming out of the bye week, considering the Rams sit third in the division.
As mentioned above, I think Coleman is poised for a big second half in Kyle Shanahan's offense. It's hard not to acknowledge his four-TD day against a good Panthers defense, which is a testament to Shanahan's brilliant game-planning, Coleman's vision and ability to find openings and the offensive line for creating them.
Hyde added 83 yards on 19 carries in last week's win over Oakland. That's a solid performance, but he needs to start convincing me -- and more importantly, the Texans -- that he can be a go-to player against tough opponents. Houston is in a dogfight for the AFC South and it's only going to get tougher.