Chicago Bears counting on new line coach to resurrect run game
The Bears' running game ranked 11th in total yards in 2018, then plummeted all the way to 27th in the league last fall.
Attempting to fix the problem, the Bears decided it's easier to hire a new teacher than expel a room full of students.
Juan Castillo is on board as the new offensive line coach, replacing Harry Hiestand, who held the job in both the good times of 2018 and the downturn of '19.
"I'm really not worried about what happened (last year)," Castillo said in a recent conference call with reporters. "It's how we're going to approach things and how we're going to do things. The past is the past, that's done. They're very athletic and tough kids. I'm excited."
The personnel is essentially the same, with the only expected change at right guard as former Seattle lineman Germain Ifedi steps in for the retired Kyle Long. Tackles Charles Leno Jr. and Bobby Massie, guard James Daniels and center Cody Whitehair should be back.
The Bears will have a new crew of tight ends, between rookie Cole Kmet, veterans Jimmy Graham and Demetrius Harris, and new tight ends coach Clancy Barone.
In the backfield, rookie David Montgomery posted similar numbers to what Jordan Howard did in 2018, but the rushing totals of both Tarik Cohen and quarterback Mitch Trubisky dropped by more than 200 yards last fall.
Castillo has an interesting background. He played linebacker in college at Texas A&I, then for a couple of years with the USFL's San Antonio Gunslingers.
As an NFL coach, he spent 18 years with Philadelphia from 1995-2012. After a long run as offensive line coach, he switched to defensive coordinator for his last two seasons with the Eagles.
From there, he was line coach in Baltimore and Buffalo. Between jobs last fall, he was an analyst for Michigan.
During those Philadelphia years, Castillo built a friendship with a new arrival named Matt Nagy, who started with the Eagles as a coaching intern in 2008.
"We were right across from each other and he was in my office a lot," Castillo said. "We got to spend a lot of time early in his career. I think he feels comfortable with me. I feel comfortable going into his office and talking to him, and I think that's very important,
"I think what coach saw in me is I'm an overachiever. I work hard. My parents were from Mexico, I'm first generation, so I only know one way. My thing with my players is I try to lead by example. My guys are going to outwork everybody."
Castillo was relatively simple when explaining his strategy of coaching linemen. He also unveiled a catchphrase by repeatedly talking about doing things "over and over and over" in practice.
He gave examples from the Philadelphia days when Castillo and Nagy worked under Andy Reid, who later moved on to Kansas City.
"Andy Reid was an ex O-lineman from BYU," Castillo said. "What coach allowed me to do, we got to start practice early and we were able to take care of some of our fundamentals and we got a lot good work in before practice.
"It didn't matter whether coach threw it or ran it, we were going to find a way to be physical. That's the way we did it. We were going to be physical getting that job done. That's the bottom line."
Offensive line was a clear weakness for the Bears last year. Pro Football Focus ranked the Bears' line 25th in the league. With the personnel mostly the same, it's up to Castillo and new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor to make the run game work better.
The Bears are putting faith in the idea that Montgomery will make a nice jump from his rookie to sophomore season and have not signed a veteran to back up Montgomery and Cohen. As it stands today, the backup job is battle between former practice squad member Ryan Nall and two undrafted rookies, Artavis Pierce from Oregon State and Napolean Maxwell from Florida International.
"Certainly when you hire someone like Juan Castillo, who's proven in this league, you expect them to take the leadership role in the run game," Lazor said.
"I have a really good friend who coached at Iowa State. I've gotten probably as good a recommendation for David as a person as you could possibly receive and nothing that I've seen has shown to be counter to that."
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