Bears' defense must be wary of Washington's play action, even without a good run game


A core tenant of football’s analytics revolution is that an offense does not need to establish the run to be effective using play action. The 2019 version of Jay Gruden’s offense in Washington has been a perfect example of that thought.

Only three quarterbacks entered Week 3 with a higher passer rating on play action than Case Keenum’s 145.8 clip. And he’s done it while his offense has averaged 2.5 yards per rushing attempt (30th) and 37.5 rushing yards per game (also 30th).

“Jay Gruden does a great job of creating a great offense and scheming against certain opponents,” Bears safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who played with Washington last year, said. “We just have to be good with our eyes, pay attention to the little things.”

It seems unlikely that Washington will be any better running the ball on Monday night against a dominant Bears front seven — even with Bilal Nichols (hand) all but assuredly out — than they were in Weeks 1 and 2 against the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys.

Adrian Peterson, a healthy scratch in Week 1, is Washington’s No. 1 running back with 2018 second-rounder Derrius Guice on injured reserve. Left tackle Trent Williams, one of the best run blocking tackles in the NFL, is still holding out. And the Bears are allowing a shade under three yards per carry, good for sixth in the league (and two of the teams ahead of them played the tanking Miami Dolphins).

But that doesn’t mean the Bears won’t be susceptible to getting beat on play action. Part of what makes Washington’s play action so good is the respect around the league for Peterson, who defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano quickly pointed out is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer the team still needs to take seriously.

The Bears stopped the run effectively against the Green Bay Packers in Week 1, yet still were beat on a deep ball following a play fake, too. Safety Eddie Jackson pointed to Aaron Rodgers’ deep heave to Marquez Valdes-Scantling in Week 1 — safety Deon Bush bit on play action on that chunk gain — as something the back end of the defense can’t let happen again.

“You've just got to keep your eyes in the right spot and play your keys and just focus in on your job or your man,” Jackson said. “If you've got man, they do a lot of things where they're you know chip-blocking, somebody free releases late or things like that to try to get you off your mark. We've just got to stay on top of our keys and play with discipline.”

Keenum has attempted three passes over the middle that traveled at least 40 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, hitting rookie speedster Terry McLaurin on one for a 69-yard touchdown in Week 1. The 31-year-old Keenum is 7/13 on passes traveling at least 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, with all seven of those completions coming over the middle. It's not just the deep balls where he's had success, it's the intermediate throws, too. 

So there will be a decent amount of pressure on the back end of the Bears' defense on Monday night, even if Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Roquan Smith, Danny Trevathan etc. are making sure Peterson isn’t a legitimate threat.

“They do a great job of selling the run on their play action with their offensive line,” Pagano said. “(Washington offensive line coach Bill) Callahan does a great job coaching those guys so it opens up big cavities in the big spaces between your second and third levels. And then you get one-on-one, big post routes, you know what happened to us in the first game against Green Bay.

“… They do a great job of it so between the run game, the play action, the boots, the waggles, the throwbacks, the screen game it's difficult. Because if it's not there then he checks it down and everybody's turning, they've got their backs turned and they're trying to find all those crossers and then they hit a back on a checkdown and you're having a hard time trying to get him on the ground.”

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