Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for the running backs

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for the running backs

With training camp starting next week, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each Bears position group heading to Bourbonnais. Today’s group: the running backs.

1. Can Jordan Howard get to the Starting Gate healthy?

By now, there’s no question the franchise’s all-time leading rookie rusher can do it. And after the fifth-rounder answered some durability questions last season, the last thing the Bears need is Howard to be banged-up or unavailable heading into a brutal first month of the season. If the Bears are to compete against the likes of the Falcons, Buccaneers, Steelers and Packers, they’ll need their ball-control game to be effective behind the league’s second-leading rusher last season. The humble star spent the offseason trying to get even better, from eye surgery, to finding ways to get through the second level and outrun defenders.

“Just improving on the little things, my conditioning, my weight, catching passes,” Howard said at last month’s minicamp. “And looking for ways to finish runs better. I feel like I’m in much better shape than I was at this time last year, a little more toned-up.”

2. Spark from Sparty

Jeremy Langford entered last season as the starter following an impressive rookie season of his own, looking like the heir to Matt Forte as he split time with the veteran. But after 28 carries the first two games, the Michigan State product injured an ankle in Week 3 at Dallas after gaining 31 yards on only three carries. He was never the same once he came back, totaling just 31 carries for 84 yards. He remained out of team work during minicamp last month, working out individually on the side in an effort to be full-go for Bourbonnais. Howard took the ball and ran with his opportunity once Langford went down. But it’s not reasonable for him to carry the entire workload once the season begins, unless Dowell Loggains is asking for trouble. Langford returning to his rookie form will help.

3. The 3 C’s

That’s Tarik Cohen, Benny Cunningham and Ka'Deem Carey. Carey heads into his fourth season, having bought into special teams roles and being fearless charging into opposing defenders, even pancaking a few in his time here. But unless he finds a way to make himself a core performer on Teams, or if Howard, Langford, Cohen, or Cunningham suffers an injury, one doubts the Bears would enter the season with five running backs, especially if they decide to keep a fullback around. Cohen provides his unique skillset as the “human joystick” third down threat and potential as a returner. The latter is what Cunningham’s built his career upon, and has a similar build as Carey.

“I think it’ll play a key role and benefit me,” the 5-foot-6, 179-pound Cohen said of his stature and waterbug-like moves being a part of the offense. “The linemen are going to be bigger and it’ll be really hard for defenders to see behind my linemen. I didn’t necessarily want to be bigger (growing up), but I wanted to beat the bigger kids.”

Top 10 NFL games on 2017 schedule

Top 10 NFL games on 2017 schedule

With the 2017 NFL schedule officially released, a look at a handful of games that are must-watch events or that could determine playoff scenarios in January of 2018:

Thursday, Sept. 7: Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots

The defending champs open their title defense with a Chiefs team that went 12-4 and won the AFC West last year. Kansas City had the AFC’s second-highest point differential at +78, but that was less than half of New England’s (+191) in 2016. The last time these two teams played was in the divisional round of the 2015 playoffs, with New England winning that, 27-20. 

Sunday, Sept. 17: Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons

A week after opening the season in Chicago against the Bears, Atlanta will play its first game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday Night Football against a Green Bay side it crushed, 44-21, in the NFC Championship Game in January. This could be an early battle for NFC supremacy or, at the least, an entertaining, high-scoring game. 

Sunday, Sept. 17: Dallas Cowboys at Denver Broncos

Can Dak Prescott do it again? The Cowboys sophomore quarterback will face a tough schedule this year, headlined by this trip to Denver to face a team that had the NFL’s fourth-best scoring defense (18.6 PPG) and best passing defense (5.8 yards/attempt) last year. 

Monday, Oct. 2: Washington Redskins at Kansas City Chiefs

Kansas City’s 18 interceptions tied for the most in the NFL last year, while Kirk Cousins threw for 4,917 yards and 25 touchdowns. With Cousins likely to be on the open market after this season, he could set the tone for a rich contract with a strong performance against a top-level secondary in primetime here. 

[RELATED: NFL does Bears no favors with opening four-game stretch]

Sunday, Oct. 22: Atlanta Falcons at New England Patriots

This is only the seventh regular season rematch between the previous season’s Super Bowl participants in NFL history, though they’ve been oddly common in recent years: Denver beat Carolina last year, and in 2014, Seattle won in overtime against Denver. 

Monday, Nov. 20: Atlanta Falcons at Seattle Seahawks

The December Monday Night Football schedule is full of potential division-deciding matchups  (Pittsburgh at Cincinnati, New England at Miami, Atlanta at Tampa Bay) and overall, this year’s Monday night slate is strong. But this Falcons-Seahawks matchup in late November carries plenty of intrigue. These two teams met in the 2016 regular season, with Seattle making a fourth quarter comeback to win, 26-24. 

Monday, Dec. 11: New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins last year made the playoffs for the first time since 2008, and if they have any lofty designs on unseating the Patriots in the AFC East, this could be the game that does it. Miami lost their home game against New England last year by 21 points.

Sunday, Dec. 17: Dallas Cowboys at Oakland Raiders

Prescott against Derek Carr on Sunday Night Football, in what could be one of the last “big” games at Oakland Coliseum, should be one of the better cross-conference games of 2017. 

Sunday, Dec. 31: Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia’s offseason haul was headlined by adding Alshon Jeffery to pair with Carson Wentz, which could be a dangerous combination in the NFC East. if Dallas were to fall back to earth, circle this season-ending game as one that perhaps could decide the division. 

Sunday, Dec. 31: Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions

Green Bay ended last season at Ford Field, too, with their 31-24 win securing an NFC North title. If the division goes down to this game again, there’s some added intrigue given the Lions pulled T.J. Lang away from Green Bay in March with $19 million guaranteed — an awfully high price for a guard. 

Bears open season against defending NFC champion Falcons, check out full 2017 schedule

Bears open season against defending NFC champion Falcons, check out full 2017 schedule

Week 1: vs. Atlanta Falcons (Sunday, Sept. 10, 12 p.m.)

A very good team got stronger in its defensive core with addition of defensive tackle Dontari Poe to help one of NFL's worst run defenses. Super Bowl losers can struggle the next year and Falcons need to get past devastating loss to the New England Patriots.

Moon's call: L

Week 2: at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sunday, Sept. 17, 12 p.m.)

The Bucs are difficult case study in what the Bears haven't been able to do over the past several seasons: get the franchise arrow pointing conclusively up. Tampa Bay was 2-14 in 2014 while the Bears were collapsing under Marc Trestman, got the quarterback thing right by selecting Jameis Winston No. 1 overall and have gone 6-10 and 9-7 the past two seasons, missing the 2016 playoffs only by a tiebreaker. The Week 10 game vs. the Bears last season was a Jay Cutler low point.

Moon's call: L

Week 3: vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (Sunday, Sept. 24, 12 p.m.)

One of two 11-win opponents (Falcons) for the 2017 Bears. The Steelers haven't been sub-500 since 2003 — when Ben Roethlisberger arrived — and reached the playoffs the past three seasons. May be toughest opponent on Bears schedule.

Moon's call: L

Week 4: at Packers (Thursday, Sept. 28, 7:25 p.m.)

Bears have produced surprises — good and bad — in Lambeau, including going up 10-6 early in the second half of their game in Green Bay last year with a defensive touchdown before losing Brian Hoyer and Kyle Long to arm injuries and collapsing defensively.

Moon's call: L

Week 5: vs. Minnesota Vikings (Monday, Oct. 9, 7:30 p.m.)

Jay Cutler's last Bears win was over the Vikings, who've shaken up their roster, signing new offensive tackles' Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers and running back Latavius Murray to improve the offense, and underachieving defensive end Datone Jones from Green Bay for the defensive line.

Moon's call: W

Week 6: at Baltimore Ravens (Sunday, Oct. 15, 12 p.m.)

A top-10 defense and a stable quarterback situation (Joe Flacco) make Ravens a consistent threat, and beating the Bears to sign safety Tony Jefferson upgrades their secondary. Credit Ravens for creative thinking, going by cruise ship to game in London rather than by airplane.

Moon's call: L

Week 7: vs. Carolina Panthers (Sunday, Oct. 22, 12 p.m.)

Another sufferer of the Super Bowl curse now looking to regain dominance, bringing back Julius Peppers and Mike Adams to defense. Head coach Ron Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman can't afford another underachieving year with Cam Newton in place.

Moon's call: W

Week 8: at New Orleans Saints (Sunday, Oct. 29, 12 p.m.)

The Saints traded Brandin Cooks to the Patriots but Drew Brees, Bears GM Ryan Pace's template for a franchise quarterback, predicts Saints' rise despite being sub-.500 in four of the last five seasons. Coby Fleener is matchup problem for Bears, who haven't handled good pass-catching tight ends well.

Moon's call: W

Week 9: Bye

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Week 10: vs. Green Bay Packers (Sunday, Nov. 12, 12 p.m.)

The Packers underwent massive offseason changes, and new tight end Martellus Bennett adds a threat but the Bears simply need to end second-half collapses regardless of specific Packers on the field. As long as Aaron Rodgers dresses, the Bears remain underdogs.

Moon's call: L

Week 11: vs. Detroit Lions (Sunday, Nov. 19, 12 p.m.)

Matthew Stafford directed eight comeback wins in 2016 but the Lions lost their final three games and were blown out at Seattle in the wild-card round of the playoffs. Bears have lost seven of last eight to Lions. Turnover on the offensive line makes the Lions offense an unknown until the parts mesh.

Moon's call: W

Week 12: at Philadelphia Eagles (Sunday, Nov. 26, 12 p.m.)

Eagles made their big quarterback move in least year's NFL Draft (Carson Wentz) and handled Bears easily in Soldier Field. Now Bears have to deal with motivated Alshon Jeffery, presuming injury issues don't return for the talented wide receiver.

Moon's call: W

Week 13: vs. San Francisco 49ers (Sunday, Dec. 3, 12 p.m.)

"The Brian Hoyer Bowl" is probably a touch strong for this meeting of 2016 bottom-feeders, both making wholesale changes and owning top-3 picks going into the draft. The 49ers were the Bears' only victim over final eight games last season. Kyle Shanahan becomes fourth head coach in past four years in down-spiral since Jim Harbaugh.

Moon's call: W

Week 14: at Cincinnati Bengals (Sunday, Dec. 10, 12 p.m.) 

Bengals flop in playoffs but they get there under Marvin Lewis (6 of last 8 years). And 11 picks in the 2017 draft should add talent to a good core of defensive tackle Geno Atkins, quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green.

Moon's call: L

Week 15: at Lions (Saturday, Dec. 16, 3:30 p.m.)

Bears have lost four straight in Ford Field, the last two by field goals, including Week 14 last season when Josh Bellamy dropped a pass for a fourth-down conversion, all this after the Bears rallied from 10 down to lead 17-13 but could not stop a 76-yard go-ahead Lions drive.

Moon’s call: L

Week 16: vs. Cleveland Browns (Sunday, Dec. 24, 12 p.m.)

The Browns have lost 13 straight away from their lakefront as quarterback issues fester — cutting ties with Robert Griffin III and Josh McCown, The Browns have had 26 different starting quarterbacks since 1999. And now they have Brock Osweiler after his failed trip to Houston, plus an expected addition via the draft.

Moon's call: W

Week 17: at Vikings (Sunday, Dec. 31, 12 p.m.)

Bears haven't won in Minnesota since 2011 and their last two losses there were by 21 and 28 points, as Vikings have been on the rise and Bears on the decline both during recent seasons and as competitive franchises. Bears desperately need prove-it road win to start regaining relevance in NFC North.

Moon's call: W

Moon’s season prediction: 8-8