LAKE FOREST — When Bears running backs coach Michael Pitre watched Khalil Herbert’s college tape, what he saw was “a natural ball carrier.”
“[I saw] a guy that had a natural vision and just had a knack to break tackles,” Pitre said. “I think that’s the same thing you’re seeing from him right now.”
For the second straight week, Herbert stepped into a big role and played well. The 24-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday marked his first career start, and it was the first time he had to be the featured back in an NFL offense.
He acquitted himself well, running for 97 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries to go along with two receptions for 15 yards. Starting running back David Montgomery is out with a knee injury, and backup Damien Williams went on the reserve/COVID-19 list last week. That left Herbert, a 2021 sixth-round draft pick, as the lead back.
A week earlier against the Las Vegas Raiders, while splitting carries with Williams, Herbert ran for 75 yards on 18 carries.
Before the Raiders game, Herbert hadn’t seen much action on offense. He had been the team’s primary kick returner, however. Pitre said Herbert’s kick return experience definitely readied him for a starring role on offense.
“Those reps on special teams are extremely valuable for any young player,” Pitre said. “It just continues to help him get used to the speed of the game. And, obviously, returning kicks gets you used to getting tackled.”
Herbert scored a touchdown Sunday, the first of his career. It came on the Bears’ first possession. He thought he had another one later in the game, but it was called back because of a holding penalty.
It’s unclear when the Bears will have Williams back. It comes down to his vaccination status. Per the NFL COVID-19 protocols, an unvaccinated player who tests positive must isolate for 10 days, while a vaccinated player can return once he is asymptomatic and tests negative twice at least 24 hours apart.
If Williams is unvaccinated and is required to miss 10 days, he wouldn’t be available for Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay.
Bears wide receivers coach Mike Furrey also remains away from the team facility because of COVID-19 protocols.
“I thought as a staff we did a great job of saying this is the circumstance we’re dealing with, this is how we’re going to move forward,” Pitre said. “And I think it all started at the top with coach [Matt] Nagy and [offensive coordinator Bill Lazor] just having a great plan in place.”
Herbert said Montgomery has been communicative throughout the past two weeks. Montgomery went on injured reserve, which requires an absence of a minimum of three weeks. So he will again be unavailable this week.
“From pass protection to just letting things come to you, not forcing anything,” Herbert said of Montgomery’s advice. “He texts me before every game. After every game we talk. So just different stuff on and off the field have helped me a lot.”