- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Chicago Bears reporter
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- It's healthy skepticism, that natural tendency to focus on negativity.
But to embrace a superficial viewpoint of Chicago's rise to 4-1 diminishes its significance as potential training ground for down the road when the stakes are highest, given all the challenges faced by the team through the first five games, not to mention the creative methods deployed to overcome them.
"It has to help us later on to have won in different ways, and just how you have to. Each game is different," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "If you talk offense, there's going to be some games where we're gonna have to just pass the ball a lot to win the football game. You just look at what you have to do to win the game at that time. Defensively, we played more man than we normally do [Sunday against the Panthers]. During the course of the season, you're going to have to rely on everything."
Through five games, the Bears seem to have already cornered the market in that arena.
Against the Panthers, the club overcame a horrid outing by backup quarterback Todd Collins (6.2 passer rating and four interceptions) with stellar play in the rushing game and on special teams to win 23-6. Chicago's wins this season come against teams with a combined record of 5-14, which casts doubt on how good the Bears really are.
What's resonates most, though, is the club has been good enough.
"You want to play hitting on all cylinders," said backup quarterback Caleb Hanie. "But in this league, it's hard to get wins on the road, and we'll take them as we can get them. You can say, ‘ugly victory,' but you can also take the good things out of the game."
Like this: a week after sputtering against the Giants in allowing 10 sacks while rushing for just 59 yards, the Bears -- already missing starting quarterback Jay Cutler and starting left tackle Chris Williams -- bolstered the weakest side of their line with a rookie (J'Marcus Webb) at right tackle, and a right guard (Edwin Williams) who had played in just five career games headed into the contest. The duo didn't exactly inspire talk of the Pro Bowl.
Webb and Edwin Williams merely performed solidly in helping Matt Forte rush for a career-high 166 yards and a pair of touchdowns, as the team combined for 218 yards on the ground.
"It shows how resilient they are," Forte said. "Those two young guys, they weren't out there wide eyed and scared of anybody."
Knowing all week Cutler wouldn't be unavailable for Sunday's contest, the Bears tailored the game plan to help out Collins, who would be making his first start since 2007. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz bucked his own pass-happy reputation to make sure the club spent a good portion of the afternoon operating out of double-tight end formations to bolster the ground game, while taking pressure off Collins.
"All along we've said we're going to do what we have to [in order] to win the game," tight end Greg Olsen said. "Our running game has been spotty in the first couple of weeks, and yesterday was a good opportunity with Jay out and obviously some of those factors playing in there [gave us] a good chance to get the running game going."
Ultimately, when asked to throw, Collins faltered.
Yet the Bears picked up the pieces around him in other areas, which is what they've done throughout the season in several different areas when needed. Whether it's been the leaky offensive line, an anemic ground attack or a front seven that can't get to the quarterback, the Bears continue to find ways to hide weaknesses and erase mistakes by highlighting strengths and forcing opponent miscues.
They've done so with coaching adjustments, and clutch plays in key moments in every facet of the game, in addition to a little luck.
"You've got your second-, your third-string quarterback in the game," Devin Hester said. "You know, you want to give him as much help as you can. When you get good field position by the returners, it takes a lot of pressure off. We wanted to get good field position to eliminate some of the stress on the quarterback."
Hester and safety Danieal Manning did that with electric performances on returns. Hester ran back three punts for 68 yards, including a 50-yarder. Manning averaged 44.3 yards on three kick returns. His game-opening return, a 62-yarder, set up Forte's first touchdown burst. Manning returned his second kickoff 37 yards to set up Forte's 68-yard TD on the very next play.
Safety Chris Harris said the club should be able to benefit from all it's been through over the first five weeks.
Facing so many challenges while overcoming the majority of them in a variety of ways gives the Bears confidence about how they'll handle adversity in November and December when the stakes go up and the club's playoff life is potentially on the line.
"We see we can win close games," Harris said. "We can play down the stretch, run the ball when we need it, and play good defense. All of this is very good to get early, so when November and December come around, we can be prepared."
The Bears are proving to be a resilient -- if not pretty -- team.