Bears: Michael Bush
How does each NFC North team look at running back, and what still needs to be done?
Chicago Bears: If you were drawing up plans for an experienced but diverse backfield, you could do a lot worse than modeling after the Bears. Starter Matt Forte is a shifty off-tackle runner and one of the NFL's top pass-catching running backs, a collection of skills that will fit neatly into new coach Marc Trestman's offense. Forte has caught 267 passes since his career started in 2008, the third-most in the NFL by a running back over that stretch. Backup Michael Bush, meanwhile, is a bigger and stronger inside threat who gives the Bears a better option in short-yardage and goal-line situations. He produced a first down on 24.6 percent of his rushes last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the 10th-best percentage in the NFL. As long as Forte and Bush are healthy, the Bears' relatively thin depth behind them is irrelevant.
Detroit Lions: Free agent acquisition Reggie Bush figures to benefit from opponents' attention on receiver Calvin Johnson to much greater extent than the Lions' backfield did last season. Early indications are the Lions will use Bush similarly to the way the New Orleans Saints did earlier in his career. With the Saints in 2006, Bush caught 88 passes. Training camp should bring competition for the right to be the "thumper" behind Bush. Will it be 2011 second-round draft choice Mikel Leshoure, who looked slow and not very elusive after returning last season from a torn Achilles tendon? (No NFL running back had as many touches as Leshoure without at least one play of at least 20 yards.) Or will it be the lesser-known Joique Bell, who as Pro Football Focus points out, made defenders miss regularly last season. He forced 26 missed tackles in 82 carries and actually averaged more yards after contact (2.99) than Bush did with the Miami Dolphins (2.06).
Green Bay Packers: The team re-made its backfield through the draft after years of transition, throwing the situation into unknown territory. At some point, the Packers will have to thin the herd of a group that includes returnees DuJuan Harris, James Starks, Alex Green and John Kuhn, along with rookies Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin. The competition is wide open, although both Starks and Green have failed when given previous opportunities. Lacy's build and pedigree suggests he has an excellent chance to ultimately win the starting job, but Harris impressed the team late last season and could get the first shot this summer.
Minnesota Vikings: Adrian Peterson. Is there much more to say? Historically, runners who put together a 2,000-yard season tend to fall back the following year. But nothing about Peterson's career suggests he will fit neatly into a trend. He has set a goal of 2,500 yards, and however unrealistic it might be, he has earned the benefit of the doubt. Backup Toby Gerhart is in his fourth and presumably last season as Peterson's understudy. While Gerhart hasn't shown much explosion in short stints in Peterson's place, you would think he'll want to look elsewhere for more carries when his contract expires after this season.
The Chicago Bears invested heavily in their ground game last offseason when they awarded lucrative contracts to Matt Forte (four years, $30.4 million, $17.1 million guaranteed) and Michael Bush (four years, $14 million, $7 million guaranteed), only to see both players have relatively modest seasons amid talk that neither was used enough.
Forte managed to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards (1,094) for the third time in his five-year NFL career, but his average yards-per-carry fell from 4.9 to 4.4, and he also set career-lows in receptions with 44 for 340 yards. However, Forte remains one of the top all-purpose backs in the league and should be one of the key offensive pieces moving forward under new Bears coach Marc Trestman.
Injuries seemed to limit Bush, who dealt with shoulder and rib issues during his first season in Chicago after a successful four-year stint with the Oakland Raiders. But even when Bush was healthy last season, he did little more than provide the Bears with an effective and powerful goal-line back.
Bush views himself as much more than simply a battering ram in the red zone, but he only carried the ball 114 times and caught nine passes in 13 games. In Bush's final year in Oakland, he ran the ball 256 times and had 37 receptions while starting nine of the Raiders' 16 regular season games. Everybody knew Bush came to Chicago to back up Forte, but Bush probably believed he would see more action in the Bears' backfield when he signed.
With Forte ($7.175) and Bush ($3.550) scheduled to eat up a combined $10.725 million in salary cap space in 2013, the Bears' only objective this offseason might be to upgrade at the No. 3 running back spot, although options do exist internally.
- Quarterback Jay Cutler said during his ESPN 1000 radio show that his stiff neck shouldn't keep him out of next Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers. Cutler allowed the Vikings to set the tone with a pass rush that prevented him from finding a rhythm. He completed only one of eight passes against the Vikings' blitz for eight yards, according to ESPN's Stats & Information. And Sunday might have been one of the few occasions when Cutler has forced the ball too often to receiver Brandon Marshall. Cutler (14) and backup Jason Campbell (one) threw 15 passes to Marshall that traveled at least 10 yards in the air. That was the highest total in one game for a wide receiver in at least the past five years. Cutler completed only two of seven such throws in the second half, one of which was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Vikings safety Harrison Smith, and the Bears couldn't close the gap created by an early deficit.ESPN.com
- Running back Michael Bush only got two snaps because of a recurring rib injury that had left him questionable for the game. That is one of an inordinate amount of injuries the Bears are dealing with for their key people. Cutler might miss some practice time this week. Bush obviously had a setback. Receiver Earl Bennett is trying to come back from a concussion. Linebacker Brian Urlacher has a hamstring injury that could keep him off the field for the rest of the regular season. The same goes for cornerback Tim Jennings' shoulder injury. Place-kicker Robbie Gould's calf strain might necessitate reinforcements. Rookie defensive end Shea McClellin suffered a knee injury Sunday that prevented his return. Two of the Bears' best special teams players, Craig Steltz and Sherrick McManis, left Sunday's game because of chest and knee injuries, respectively. That's a long list of ailments for a team that needs to win at least two of its last three games, and perhaps all of them, to make the playoffs.
- The Bears rotated Edwin Williams and James Brown at left guard, with Brown actually getting more snaps (42) than Williams (36). Offensive coordinator Mike Tice has spoken highly of Brown since training camp, and you wonder if he is considering using Brown as a starter as Chris Spencer deals with a knee injury. Brown is an undrafted rookie and the Bears have already used five different starting guards this season, but his sudden entrance into the game Sunday was worth noting.
Earlier this season, we noted the Bears hadn't established an offensive identity. Other than Cutler's connection to Marshall, it wasn't easy to come up with a long list of things the Bears do well offensively. After Week 14, that's still the case. They rank No. 18 in the NFL in yards per carry (4.2), No. 27 in passing yards per game and No. 28 in scoring. At the end of this season, whenever that comes, we'll have to ask whether the Bears' preseason plan to mesh their former scheme, Tice's philosophies and the ideas of quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates all into one offense was too complicated a task.
Which team will be at the top of the division standings at the end of the season? Our panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: The Bears will win the NFC North.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. The Bears still have to prove they can defeat Green Bay before we can anoint them NFC North champions. But with a one-game lead over the Packers in the standings, the Bears hold their own destiny heading into Sunday's home game against the Seattle Seahawks. Right now, it looks as if the Bears have a good shot to win their fourth division title under Lovie Smith, but until they can find a way to knock off Green Bay, that kind of talk is somewhat premature.
Kevin Reece/Icon SMIAaron Rodgers has led the Packers to wins in five of their past six games.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. It won't be easy to beat Minnesota at its house on Dec. 9, followed by a struggling Packers squad at home on Dec. 16. But the Bears proved in the 2011 finale they could defeat the Vikings on the road, and I’'m not sure Green Bay can fix its myriad issues sufficiently enough before its meeting with the Bears. It's somewhat concerning that Chicago plays its last two games on the road at Arizona, before finishing up at Detroit. Despite Arizona's 4-7 record, a trip to the West Coast won't be easy. But then again, by then, it's likely the Cardinals would have already given up on the season. Besides, victories in the next three games could pretty much wrap up the division for the Bears. They're certainly capable of winning the next three, but they've got to get off to a good start toward accomplishing that goal Sunday against the Seahawks.
Scott Powers: Fiction. I still think it's the Packers' division to take. They weren't too impressive against the Giants, but I could see the Packers winning out. Their remaining schedule is Minnesota, Detroit, Chicago, Tennessee and Minnesota. If the Bears defeat Seattle on Sunday, the division likely will come down to their game with the Packers on Dec. 16 at Soldier Field. The Bears have struggled against the league’'s elite teams so far, including their early-season loss to Green Bay, so the Packers have the edge as of now.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Green Bay is going to come into Soldier Field and steal a win on Dec. 16. I took a spin through ESPN.com’'s Playoff Machine, and I had the Bears and Packers going 12-4, with Green Bay taking the tiebreaker. The Bears better hope that doesn't happen, because it could mean they travel to play the New York Giants in the first round. That spells trouble for Cutler and the Bears' chances to return to the NFC championship.
- Bears coach Lovie Smith acknowledged Monday that "we think" quarterback Jay Cutler suffered his concussion on a hit by Texans linebacker Tim Dobbins with 2:30 remaining in the first half on Sunday night. So why did Cutler remain in the game? Smith insisted that he was evaluated by the team's medical staff before the next play and did not show any concussion symptoms until halftime. According to Smith, that's why Cutler played seven more snaps over two possessions. "Our trainer talked to him, evaluated him, and he was fine from there," Smith said. "Players from the huddle didn't see anything wrong with him. Not just then. We continued to talk to him all the way out until halftime. … If you look at his play, it's not like he was light on his feet or starry-eyed or anything like that. We felt like he was in control of everything." There are two options here. One is that the Bears fell short on their medical protocol, either failing to examine Cutler thoroughly or making an inaccurate initial diagnosis. The other is that Cutler had a relatively minor concussion that didn't present right away. Regardless, given the concussion climate in today's NFL, it's fair to consider Cutler questionable at best for next Monday's game against the San Francisco 49ers.ESPN.com
- Going back to Week 7 of last season, the Bears are 12-1 in games Cutler starts and finishes and 1-6 in those he either doesn't play or leaves early. That's precisely why the Bears spent $3.5 million to sign Jason Campbell this offseason, hoping that he could bridge any Cutler absence better than Caleb Hanie and Josh McCown did last season. Replacing Cutler at halftime of a bad-weather game against a tough opponent was far from ideal, but as Smith said, "that's why you bring in a veteran like Jason Campbell." You can only assume Campbell will look more comfortable with a week of preparation, but it's not unheard of for a premium backup to play better under unexpected circumstances than Campbell did. He was exceedingly cautious, attempting only two passes that traveled more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. He also had trouble against the Texans' blitz, completing only three of 10 passes when they brought at least five pass-rushers.
- The Bears' defense did a fine job against Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, holding him to 14 completions and 95 total yards. But the Texans were able to run the ball much better than anticipated. Tailback Arian Foster was one of the few runners to beat the Bears to the outside, gaining 45 of his 102 yards outside the tackles, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In their first seven games, the Bears defense allowed only 107 total yards outside the tackles. Just something to keep an eye on.
Normally I'm in favor of a "number count" approach to calling offense. If the defense is lined up to stop the run, you pass. Likewise, if the defense is aligned to stop the pass, you run. But considering Sunday night's rain and wind, it was surprising to see the Bears throw so much in the first half while Cutler was in the game. Cutler dropped back on 17 of his 25 first-half plays. He threw 14 passes and scrambled three times. Meanwhile, Matt Forte and Michael Bush combined for 22 yards on eight carries. Whether or not the Bears should be able to throw in the rain and wind, and regardless of the advantage receivers should have in unsure footing, it became clear pretty early that the Bears were having trouble throwing. How bad? Cutler completed only one pass that traveled more than five yards past the line of scrimmage (in eight attempts). You don't normally want to force the run, but in this case I'm not sure why the Bears were so willing to throw.
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 10:
Big-time clash: As we noted earlier this week, Sunday night's game at Soldier Field will feature a rare matchup in the second half of the season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it will be only the fifth time since 1970 that a pair of one-loss teams have met in Week 10 or later. Ten of ESPN's 14 experts are predicting a Bears victory, but the oddsmakers have made the Bears slim 1.5-point favorites playing at home. One reason: The Texans have not been prone to the kind of mistakes the Bears have capitalized on this season. The Bears lead the NFL with 28 takeaways, but the Texans have the fewest turnovers (six). That's not good news for those who hope the Texans will collapse under the pressure of a prime-time game at Soldier Field. It could happen, but so far the Texans are 3-0 on the road this season.
Mike DiNovo/US PresswireChicago RB Matt Forte has shined recently, but a challenging matchup against Houston awaits him on Sunday.
Paring down: Over the past six weeks, the Detroit Lions have simplified their offense in ways that are obvious to knowledgeable outside observers. In preparing for Sunday's game at the Metrodome, Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams said the Lions have "narrowed down" their offensive menu. "They've streamlined what they're doing," Williams said. "Not a lot of formations like we saw last time [in Week 4]. They are sticking to a package and doing that well." That doesn't mean the Lions have been more conservative. In fact, quarterback Matthew Stafford has nine attempts that traveled at least 21 yards in the air over the past three weeks. It just means they have gotten back to one of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's most basic tenets: having the ability to run a wide variety of plays with the same personnel packages.
Preparing for Reiff: We've spent plenty of time discussing the Lions' increasing frequency and impact of using offensive lineman Riley Reiff as a sixth offensive lineman/tight end. It has shifted from a novelty to a significant part of the Lions' offense, and the Vikings spent considerable time discussing and preparing for the look this week. Williams said: "[T]his might be a stretch in some sense, but he's a little bit like Adrian Peterson in that you can't simulate him in practice. Everyone thinks with Adrian that, 'Hey these are just designed plays for him and we stop this.' But when you get in a live situation, Adrian Peterson is a different deal. That's the same thing with the extra lineman coming in. He does a great job. He's athletic, he gets his pads down and he's going to be a handful." That's high praise from an opponent.
Peterson's power: What's most amazing about Peterson's 458-yard spurt over the past three weeks has been how it's largely come against defenses with at least one extra defender near the line of scrimmage. How is Peterson defeating those schemes? The answer is nothing more complicated than flat-out breaking tackles. Not only is Peterson leading the NFL with 515 yards after contact, 156 yards more than the next-best running back, but he is also averaging 3.1 yards per rush after first contact. The Lions have every reason to bring at least one of their safeties into the box to defend him, but if Peterson continues his current surge, they'll have to be prepared to gang-tackle him.
(Statistics courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information unless otherwise noted.)
- The Bears' schedule is about to get much more difficult, with consecutive games against the 7-1 Houston Texans and the 6-2 San Francisco 49ers. But while we have a moment, we should note how well the Bears have eaten through the softer part of their season. Through nine weeks of the season, during which they've played one less game than some teams because of an early bye, the Bears have the highest point differential (116 points) in the NFL. That means they've outscored their opponents by a larger sum of points than any other team. The Texans are next at 100, followed by the New England Patriots at 92. Margin of victory is a mostly meaningless statistic in the NFL, unless the league needs to use its seventh or eighth tiebreaker to determine playoff inclusion or seeding. But it speaks to the Bears doing what good teams do: Beat up on lesser opponents.ESPN.com
- What more can we say about Charles Tillman's season that we haven't already? He forced another four fumbles Sunday, bringing his season total to seven and allowing him to pass Charles Woodson on the NFL's all-time list for forced fumbles by a defensive back. Tillman has 34 in his career, second only to Brian Dawkins' 36. Keep in mind Dawkins played 16 years and Woodson is in his 15th season. Tillman's patented ability to punch the ball out of an opponent's hands has put him in the record books. We've mentioned him in the MVP discussion already. It's an unlikely scenario given the recent history of the award, but Tillman should be in the realistic conversation for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The NFL record for most forced fumbles in a season is 10, according to pro-football-reference.com.
- We've spent some time discussing why the Bears have favored Michael Bush over Matt Forte near the goal line. So it's worth noting that when Forte scored on an 8-yard run in the first quarter, it was his first goal-to-go carry of the season. Bush had taken each of the six such plays the Bears had run on this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and scored on three of them. Entering the season, Forte had the fourth-most goal-to-go rushes in his career and the lowest number of touchdowns among qualified runners. He now has 10 touchdowns on 87 goal-to-goal carries over five seasons.
Receiver Brandon Marshall's three touchdown receptions brought his total to seven this season. Five of them have come with the Bears holding at least a 17-point lead. Quarterback Jay Cutler acknowledged that early leads have created more favorable one-high safety looks from opposing defenses, which apparently are assuming the Bears will run the ball with a lead. That's not to diminish anything Marshall has done this season. He has provided a play-making element the Bears haven't had in perhaps their history. But the real test for Marshall and the Bears will be whether he can help them build leads against the likes of the Texans, 49ers and Green Bay Packers. He's done it twice, against the Indianapolis Colts and Detroit Lions. It's much more difficult to operate against an opponent that is close behind than in a game that is a blowout. Can Marshall and Cutler do it? Let's see.
- I don't care how favorable the matchups might have been, or the Bears believed them to be, against the Panthers' pass defense. It's hard to reconcile a game plan that called for more passes than runs in the first half. Jay Cutler was playing on a short week after his well-documented bruised ribs Monday night against the Detroit Lions. He also needed several moments to regroup after Panthers lineman Greg Hardy sacked him on the Bears' first play from scrimmage. At that point, if not before, the Bears would have been well-advised to feed a steadier diet of running backs Matt Forte and Michael Bush than they did. Cutler had 15 drop backs in the first half and was sacked six times. Forte and Bush combined for 10 carries over that stretch. I understand not wanting to limit the offense based on an injury Cutler said he could play with, and there's no doubt Cutler could have thrown the ball away a few times. But it wouldn't have been criminal to flip that run-pass ratio given Cutler's condition.ESPN.com
- With that said, the Bears' offense deserves credit for taking exactly what the Panthers were giving it during its game-winning drive. As several have pointed out, including Panthers safety Charles Godfrey, Carolina never came out of its soft zone shell as the Bears took their yardage in small chunks on nearly identical plays. Cutler completed 5 of 6 attempts that gained between 4 and 12 yards, moving from the Bears' 22-yard line to the Panthers' 26 in two minutes, 16 seconds with only one timeout at his disposal. Cutler might be known for his aggressive downfield approach, but he smartly dialed it back on that final drive. It helps to know you have a reliable place-kicker in Robbie Gould, but there was a time in Cutler's career when he absolutely would have pressed the ball downfield against the Panthers' soft zone.
- The Panthers didn't dare test cornerback Charles Tillman after he shut down the Lions' Calvin Johnson last Monday night. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), quarterback Cam Newton targeted receivers Tillman was covering on three of his 39 attempts. (One was caught.) Cornerback Tim Jennings was obviously the Panthers' target, and according to PFF he was covering a receiver Newton threw to on 17 of his attempts. Eight of the passes were complete for 127 yards, but Jennings also intercepted two of the passes -- returning one for a go-ahead touchdown -- and deflected another away. As we approach the season's midpoint, I think we can safely say the Bears have the NFL's best cornerback tandem. Both are on the way to the Pro Bowl. But here's a real question: Should Tillman and Jennings be the NFL's first-team All-Pro cornerbacks?
When will the Bears get to the receiver rotation we all expected when the season began? Brandon Marshall and Earl Bennett have long histories with Cutler and he clearly trusts them without reservation. Regardless of Devin Hester's big-play potential, I think it's pretty clear the Bears are best suited to use Marshall, Bennett and rookie Alshon Jeffery -- when he returns from a fractured hand -- as their three-receiver set. Sunday, Hester played 40 snaps (73 percent) and Bennett 37 snaps (67 percent) on offense. Based on what I saw, Bennett is healthy and ready to leapfrog Hester on the depth chart.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Here are Five Things We Learned in the Chicago Bears' 41-3 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.
1. The defense continues to save the day: Where would this team be without the defense? The amount of sacks, turnovers and defensive touchdowns so far this year has been remarkable. Need a big play to jumpstart a sluggish Bears offense? Here's a Charles Tillman 36-yard interception return for a score. Want to put an exclamation point going into the bye week? Here's Lance Briggs with another pick-six of his own. Tillman and Briggs are now the only two teammates to have each returned an interception for a touchdown in consecutive weeks. I've resisted calling this defense better than the 2006 unit that helped carry the Bears to the Super Bowl XLI, but I'm not sure how much longer I can hold out.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesJay Cutler has yet to prove that he can deliver under pressure this season.
3. Charles Tillman could be the best Bears DB in history: If he's not, then Tillman is certainly in the team photo. Look at the numbers: eight defensive touchdowns (No. 1 in team history), 32 interceptions for a cornerback (tied for No. 1 in team history), 30 forced fumbles (tied for No. 5 in the NFL since 2003), 131 career starts and eight seasons of 80-plus tackles. He can do it all. Not only that, Tillman plays hurt. He's gutted it out over the years despite a variety of injuries and still performs at a high level. Tillman’s current deal expires after the 2013 season, but the way he's going, it seems reasonable to wonder if one more contract extension is on the horizon.
4. Bears need more out of Gabe Carimi: The Bears’ first drive in the third quarter was a nightmare for Carimi when he surrendered a sack and got whistled for false start penalties on back-to-back plays. That sequence of events came after Carimi got nailed for a holding penalty in the second quarter that wiped out a Kellen Davis 12-yard gain. I firmly believe Carimi can be a very good offensive tackle in this league, but we just haven't seen it yet on a consistent basis. For all the grief J'Marcus Webb gets for his play on the left side, Carimi hasn't been much better on the right side. Carimi is a first round-pick. It's time he starts playing like one.
5. There is no doubting Michael Bush's athleticism: I really haven't heard people question whether or not Bush is an all-purpose back lately. Most Bears fans have accepted the fact Bush is much more than a power back built for the red zone. But if you're still on the fence, get off it. Bush hurdled a Jacksonville defender on Sunday and kept running. Yes, 6-foot-1, 245-pound Michael Bush jumped clear over a guy in the open field. The Bears are at their best with Matt Forte (107 yards), but Bush (26 yards on four carries) still looks one of the best No. 2 tailbacks in the league every time he touches the football. The Bears are lucky to have him.
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesA healthy Matt Forte will go a long way in improving the Bears' execution in their running game.
“There’s a commitment to the run and that’s good,” Smith said. “But we still need to get more production from our running game.”
Running back Matt Forte averaged 5 yards per carry in the opener against the Indianapolis Colts, and finished with 80 yards, which ranks as the club’s best individual rushing performance through the first four games. So although the team has posted a 6-4 record over the past four years when they generate between 75 and 99 yards on the ground collectively, the Bears are 8-3 in that span with a 100-yard rusher.
The Bears have pushed the ball downfield more than most NFL teams through three weeks, but their efficiency on such passes -- judged as balls that travel in the air more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage -- is among the league's worst. As they prepare to face the Dallas Cowboys' top ranked-defense on ESPN's "Monday Night Football," the question is whether the Bears will pull back or keep pushing.
"It's the first year in this offense," Cutler told reporters this week. "It's going to take time. Very few teams go out there in the first year of an offense with a new offensive coordinator, a new system, and put up 30-40 points per game. It's a whole season, and you've got to build each and every week and get better."
The Bears opened the season with a 41-point showing against the Indianapolis Colts but have managed a total of 33 points in their two games since. Cutler's average pass has traveled 9.8 yards past the line of scrimmage, the fourth-highest in the league according to ESPN Stats & Information, and overall he is averaging a pass of 10-plus yards once every 2.66 attempts. That figure ranks eighth in the league.
But as the first chart shows, Cutler ranks at or near the bottom of quarterback performance on such throws, completing only 40 percent of them. He has been especially ineffective with three or more receivers on the field, completing a little more than half of his throws from that formation and throwing five of his seven interceptions, as the second chart shows.
Cutler has always been known as a gunslinger, but never in his career has he pushed the ball downfield the way he has so far this season. He averaged a career-high 11.5 air yards per pass in the Week 2 loss to the Green Bay Packers, and 11.1 air yards against the Colts, the third-highest total of his career.
Here were Cutler's averages for air yards in each of his previous three seasons with the Bears:
- 2009: 7.5
- 2010: 7.4
- 2011: 8.7
OK, enough with the numbers. What does this all mean?
Like everyone else, Cutler and the Bears are eager to produce the kind of offense they should be capable of playing, based on the skill players on their roster. Not only does Marshall provide a legitimate threat, rookie Alshon Jeffery has also proved dangerous running down the middle of the field. Cutler, meanwhile, has been given new freedom to change plays to best capitalize on defensive fronts.
The Bears, however, have struggled to protect Cutler, most notably against the Packers. More significant, I think, has been an underwhelming average of 3.32 yards per first-down play. That performance can be traced to the passing game as well. With so many low-percentage throws, it's not surprising that Cutler's first-down completion percentage of 47.1 percent ranks 30th in the NFL. That only sets up the Bears for more difficult, and lower-percentage, throws on second and third down.
The Bears are expected to get tailback Matt Forte back for the Cowboys game. That gives them the 1-2 punch with Forte and Michael Bush they haven't had for most of the last six quarters. Forte's return will put the Bears back to full strength, but it might take more time than everyone hoped to get them to peak efficiency.
(All statistics from ESPN Stats & Information, unless otherwise noted.)
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastMichael Bush took a hit to the shoulder against the Rams, but he expects to play on Monday night.
"I'm fine," Bush said. "I practiced all day (Wednesday). Nothing is wrong. I'm good. I got hit on (the shoulder), but it's a part of the game. I'm alright."
But Bush's role in the offense might change on Monday night if, as Bush expects, starter Matt Forte returns to action after missing last week due to a sprained ankle.
"I think Matt will be up this week," Bush said. "I'm still learning and (going) to make sure I'm ready in case he's not. I'm always ready."
Bush has rushed for 151 yards on 44 carries (3.4 yards per attempt) and scored three touchdowns through the first three weeks of the regular season. Bush left the Bears’ 23-6 victory over the Rams early in the fourth quarter and was replaced by Kahlil Bell, who played the Bears’ final two series on offense.
- To this point, the Bears' 41-point explosion in Week 1 against the Indianapolis Colts is looking like the exception rather than the rule. The Bears obviously have a talented group of skill players, and Michael Bush is the best No. 2 running back in the Matt Forte era. But there is clearly a level of cohesion missing through three weeks. The Rams have made good defensive showings now against the Bears and Detroit Lions, and they are no pushovers. But quarterback Jay Cutler connected on fewer than half of his first 12 throws, a turn of events that made clear the Bears would have to grind this game out.ESPN.com
- For as much scrutiny as the Bears' offense has faced in the past few weeks, their defense is continuing to play classic Rod Marinelli football. Sunday, the Bears sent four or fewer pass-rushers on 86 percent of quarterback Sam Bradford's drop backs. Still, they sacked him five times and intercepted him twice in those situations. In their two victories this season, the Bears have held opposing quarterbacks to 50 percent completions, no touchdowns and four interceptions via their standard pass rush. We've discussed many times how valuable an effective four-man rush is. The Bears can devote maximum personnel to coverage, among many other advantages. Overall, the Bears lead the NFL at the moment with 14 sacks.
- Cornerback Tim Jennings continues to be the Bears' best defensive player through three games. A seeming afterthought in the offseason, Jennings already has hit his career high of four interceptions and has broken up a total of nine passes. According to Pro Football Focus, opposing quarterbacks have a 19.7 passer rating on throws he is responsible for. That's tied for fourth best in the NFL behind Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie and Kareem Jackson. That's how spot on Jennings has been in coverage this season.
Brian Urlacher broke up a couple of passes Sunday but they have been among a relatively small group of "flash plays." In three games, he has been credited with 14 tackles and has neither a sack, a forced fumble nor a fumble recovery. The Bears' defense has played at an elite level all season and Urlacher is its leader. So does that mean Urlacher has answered all questions about his status after a summer full of drama? Here's what Urlacher said to the Fox postgame show in Chicago: "I think I'll get better and better every week. My legs will get underneath me and I'll get in better shape. [The knee] is good. If it wasn't good, I wouldn't be playing. So I feel good about it." It's fair to say that Urlacher hasn't been the player he was in his prime, but to this point the Bears haven't needed him to be.