For Bears, balance finally favors run
Back to the run, back to the win column for the Chicago Bears.
Question is: Do they stay with it?
Matt Forte ran for a career-high 205 yards, and the Bears escaped with a 34-29 victory over Carolina on Sunday to end a two-game skid.
The Bears (2-2) didn't run much in losses to New Orleans and Green Bay, but it was a different story against the Panthers.
They went from calling a combined 95 pass plays and 20 runs the previous two weeks to going with 31 runs and 17 passes Sunday. The result was 224 yards rushing after being held to 13 by the Packers.
''We knew as an offense that we can run the ball, we just had to establish that first,'' Forte said.
Forte, also the Bears' leading receiver, didn't get many chances to run the first three weeks.
The lack of balance on offense and the struggles on the offensive line, were reminders of last season's struggles.
Back then, quarterback Jay Cutler was taking a pounding with no protection and no balance. The Bears eventually committed to the run, and with improved protection, won the NFC North and advanced to the conference championship game.
There are still some glaring issues after a defense expected to be the team's strength gave up 543 yards and got picked apart by Cam Newton after struggling with Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.
Also the offense still has work to do. The wide receivers remain a question mark. So does the offensive line.
Against New Orleans in Week 2, pass protection was an issue, with Cutler getting sacked six times. So was the play-calling.
Coach Lovie Smith was seething after the Bears called 52 passes and 11 runs against the Saints and made it clear he wanted more balance.
A week later, Cutler had enough time but the balance again wasn't there, with Chicago calling 43 pass plays and nine runs.
Forte finished with 2 yards on nine attempts, but Smith had no issue with the play-calling against the Packers. There simply was no room to run, but there was plenty on Sunday even though the Bears were juggling their line.
Already missing right tackle Gabe Carimi (knee), the Bears played most of the first half without right guard Chris Spencer after he suffered a small fracture in his right hand.
Lance Louis filled in for him and then replaced Frank Omiyale at right tackle when Spencer returned in the second half.
Even with those moves, the Bears were able to open holes.
Forte had almost as many attempts (25) against the Panthers as he had in the first three games combined (35).
Add in the fact that Carolina came in ranked 25th against the run, and it was no surprise that the Bears tried to establish it.
''We felt like we could run the football against them,'' Smith said Monday. ''As you could see by our commitment to it early on, we thought we could get a little bit from it. It always helps when you have early success to give everybody confidence that you can.''
The Bears didn't even attempt a pass on their lone first-quarter possession.
Forte broke off a 46-yard run on their second play from scrimmage, and Chicago handed the ball off seven times before Cutler got stopped at the 2 on a 2-yard draw, leading to a 20-yard field goal by Robbie Gould.
''We saw some things on tape that we took advantage of,'' said Roy Williams, who caught Chicago's first pass early in the second quarter.
''(Offensive coordinator Mike) Martz did a great job of calling the plays. The offensive line did a heck of a job executing and we blocked pretty good on the outside as well.''
Notes: Devin Hester said it was simply a spur-of-the-moment reaction when he somersaulted three times after his record-setting 11th punt return for a TD, and he understood why he was called for unsportsmanlike conduct. ''I know I can't keep flipping like that,'' he said. The same probably goes for RB Marion Barber. Sidelined the first three games by a calf injury, he tried to perform a backflip after running for his first TD for the Bears and wound up landing on his face. ''It's hard enough staying healthy during the play,'' Smith said. ''You don't them to put themselves at risk. Normally, you learn from it. And if you decide to make a flip, at least make it all the way over.''