Khalil Herbert stood at his Soldier Field locker about a half an hour after the Chicago Bears squeaked out a 23-20 win over the Houston Texans and gave a one-word answer for how he felt.
“Sore,” he said with a smile.
But sore in the best way.
The second-year Bears running back rushed for a career-high 157 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries as the Bears piled up 281 yards on the ground. It was the Bears’ best rushing performance since 1984, according to the team, and a much-needed lift for an offense as the passing game continues to struggle under quarterback Justin Fields.
Herbert spent the first two games of the season as the second option to running back David Montgomery and totaled 13 carries for 83 yards. But on the Bears’ second drive, Montgomery’s right leg was caught awkwardly under a Texans defender, and he was out the remainder of the game with what the Bears announced as knee and ankle injuries.
Herbert didn’t miss a beat.
On the next play, Herbert rushed for eight yards. Two plays later, he broke for 11 yards. And one play after that, he scored on an 11-yard touchdown run, breaking to the left sideline before popping back in through a hole to speed to the end zone for a 10-0 Bears lead in the first quarter.
“What he did is special,” Bears right guard Lucas Patrick said. “Any back to run for that is special, but then to step up when one of our offensive leaders goes down, and to do that and say, ‘Don’t worry, I got us,’ it invigorates all of us. It inspires all of us to keep going, keep pushing. Even at the end, for him to get that huge run at the end, it’s like, ‘We’re going to get this.’”
Bears coach Matt Eberflus said the news is positive on Montgomery, whom he said is “day to day.” Herbert and Fields both said they talked to or texted with Montgomery, and the running back was doing well.
Herbert, who was a 2021 sixth-round pick out of Virginia Tech, filled in for Montgomery over a four-game stretch last year and had 78 carries for 344 yards. So he has experience stepping up when needed.
“It’s really just making the most of my opportunities,” Herbert said. “I come in with that mindset every week, whether it’s one carry, 20 carries. Just try to make the most of that and make a play with what I get.”
On Sunday, Herbert’s performance included a 52-yard run to open the Bears’ first drive of the third quarter. Herbert credited the offensive line and fullback Khari Blasingame for opening a massive hole he darted through before fighting off cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. to get to the Texans’ 23-yard line.
“We were looking at the pictures on the sidelines — we could have drove a bus through there,” Herbert said. “It was a really big hole. It was my job to make the safety miss and I was able to do that.”
Four plays later, the Bears went ahead 20-17 on Herbert’s one-yard touchdown run, and the Bears went on to win on Cairo Santos’ 30-yard field goal as time expired.
Fields said Herbert’s performance wasn’t a surprise to his teammates, who know the work he puts in and the type of player he can be.
Fields contributed to the Bears’ big day on the ground with eight carries for 47 yards. Equanimeous St. Brown had two carries for 43 yards and rookie Trestan Ebner added seven carries for 23 yards. Montgomery had three carries for 11 yards before leaving.
The run game, two timely interceptions from the Bears defense and Santos’ three field goals helped the Bears keep pace with the Texans despite Fields completing just 8 of 17 passes for 106 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. He was sacked five times for a loss of 24 yards. It was a poor follow-up to a week in which Bears coaches faced many questions about their lack of production in the passing game.
“Straight up I just played like — I want to say the A word, but I’m not going to do that,” Fields said. “But I just played like trash. I played terrible and really just got to be better.”
The development of Fields is widely considered Objective A in this season of reconstruction under new general manager Ryan Poles. So the Week 3 performance was obviously disappointing, with Fields pointing to the two interceptions to Texans safety Jalen Pitre as things that bothered him most.
But the effectiveness of Herbert and the run game — and the win — should help soften the edge as Fields addresses his mistakes this week in practice.
“When you’re working with a young quarterback in a new offense, the people around him have to be solid and have to be good,” Eberflus said. “The protection has to be good, the run game has to be good, the defense has to be really good, and special teams we’ve got to be awesome. You support that quarterback while he’s growing and while he’s going through this. There’s going to be good, and there’s going to be things he has to improve on. But that’s the whole football team.”
Herbert was happy to do his part.
“I told 32 (Montgomery) that was for him today,” Herbert said. “We held it down and did good today.”