With all the hype around Rookie of the Year front runner Ezekiel Elliot, the accomplishments of Bears rookie back Jordan Howard were widely overlooked. After taking over as the full time starter, the Bears 5th round draftee carried a struggling offense on his own. Howard rushed for just over 1,300 yards, second to only Elliot in the NFL, and ranked in the top five among NFL running backs in both rushing yards per attempt (4th), and rushing yards per game (3rd).
After losing Matt Forte last off-season, the Bears looked for younger options at running back to help rebuild what has been a struggling offense for years now. Jeremy Langford, who the Bears drafted in 2015, was the projected RB1 coming into the year, but after struggling with injuries the door opened for Howard and he made the job his own.
Howard’s break out game came in week four against division rival Detroit. With Langford out, Howard took majority of carries for the team, and made the most of it rushing for 111 yards on 23 carries as the Bears won their first game of the season.
The Lions had the worst defense in 2016, as ranked by FootballOutsiders, and many of Howards rushed looked a little something like this:
He still was impressive, though, and showed some skills that rookies may at first lack while adjusting to the NFL. On this second quarter play, Howard shows his vision and patience, and slips through a small gap before turning up field for a decent gain.
Although a hole opens up down the middle, Howard sees the Lions defenders closing in, and instead of trying to power his way for minimal gain, cuts to his left. Howard balances himself and almost comes to a complete stop and waits for space to open up in front of him. He shoves himself through the initial defensive wall then turns up field. This play could have easily resulted in a 2 or 3 yard gain, but Howard’s vision and ability to read the play in front of him gained a few extra yards.
It wasn’t a game breaking play, but small plays like this help keep the Bears ahead of the chains, and helps keep a struggling offense moving.
His ability to find holes and hit them for big gains can lead to big plays when a huge opening does open up on the first level.
A week after the Lions game the Bears met the Indianapolis Colts, another awful defense, and took full advantage of the space his offensive line gave him.
On this second quarter play, Howard takes a hand off out of the backfield and has two options. He can either slip through the middle and turn up field, or break towards the sideline and turn the corner. Colts Cornerback Patrick Robinson (#25) makes a crucial mistake on the play, and begins to cheat up towards the line after the hand off. Robinson covers the edge, and Howard reads this then turns up field. With no one on the second level, Howard rumbles down field for 57 yards.
This play, though, does show Howards lack of speed. Some of the faster NFL backs may have been able to break this play for a touchdown, but the Colts deep safety catches up to him and drags him down inside the 15.
What Howard may lack in speed, though, he does somewhat make up with some of his other open field skills.
On this play, earlier in the same game, Howard uses his open field vision and agility combined with his strength in staying on his feet, for a decent pick up.
Howard catches a screen out of the backfield, then quickly cuts around a block. By getting around the block, it allows him to get towards the sideline faster and gives him more open space. He cuts it very close though, and gets within tackle range of a Colts linebacker who spins off of a block. He manages to shake off an arm tackle, the breaks another on his way towards the sideline before being pushed out of bounds for an 18 yard gain. If Howard had been able to beat the safety who eventually tackled him, he had two good blocks up field and could have turned this play for a huge gain.
What Howard does lack in speed, though, he makes up for in power.
His best opportunity to show off his strength came in week 13 during a snowy game against the San Francisco 49ers. He scored three of his six touchdowns on the year during this game, and all of them from within the 5 yard line.
He scored his first touchdown right at the end of the second half, powering his way for the final yard on a touchdown drive. He’s met just after crossing the line of scrimmage by three 49ers, then pushes himself forward to fall into the end zone for a touchdown.
His third touchdown was themost impressive of the day. He takes the hand off out of the backfield, then forces his way through the pile for a five yard touchdown. He miraculously stays on his feet the entire way, even confusing the camera man for the score.
Jordan Howard is strong. He’s a gritty runner who forces his way forward, and can sometimes just push his way through multiple defenders turning minimal gain into much more. On almost every play covered during this breakdown he manages to either push his way through someone, either outright shake off a tackle or gains a few extra yards at the end of a play before being dragged down. Weighing in at 225 pounds, he is hard to stop once he gets going, and is a little too much to handle for your average defender.
His vision combined with his strength in breaking tackles and just being able to fall forward always can pile on yards and can wear down a defense over the course of a game.
Howard displayed this early in the Colts game, as he combined these skills for a decent gain.
The rookie takes a pitch out of the backfield, the treads towards his right. No space opens for him on the edge, so he cuts back towards the inside and turns up field. As two defenders close down on him, he manages to find space to stretch the play for a bit more, and even propels himself further forward as he is gang tackled.
During the Bears upset victory over the Vikings in week 8, Howard broke the game open on one of these runs.
He takes a hand off out of the pistol, and slips through a small hole in the first level of the Vikings defense. Howard splits two defenders caught flat footed on the second level, then rumbles down field for a huge 69 yard gain, his longest of the season. His lack of speed leads catches up to him as he gets chased down by a defensive back from the opposite side of the field.
Jordan Howard will not win rookie of the year, but an impressive rookie campaign definitely has caught some attention around the league. His stats, even compared to Ezekiel Elliot, are impressive.
2016 Season Stats
Over the course of the season, Elliot is clearly the better runner, but since week 4, when Howard took over as full time RB1, Howard did close the gap:
2016 Stats (Since week 4)
Elliot and Howard both saw their numbers go up as they adjusted to the speed and overall change of play style in the NFL. There is a notable disparity in touchdown count, which can be attributed to Howard’s lack of down field running ability in the open field, compared to Elliot.
Howard, though, is playing on a significantly worse team then Elliot, and with a worse offensive line. The Cowboys are better than the Bears at pretty much every position group which opens up the running game even more for the Cowboys rookie. Elliot is still the better back, clearly, but Howard also has potential to be an elite back in the future.
The Bears are rebuilding pretty much everywhere this season, and after drafting a running back two straight years and letting go of Matt Forte last off season, it is obvious the direction Bears are going on offense. With much speculation around potentially drafting a new quarterback in the first round this year, and a young, but struggling, receiving corps, Howard emerging as a potential franchise piece allows the Bears to focus on many of the other positions they need help at.
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