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Air and Space: Running on empty

9/23/2010

If it wasn't before, the transition of the NFC North division from Black and Blue to Air and Space will be complete Monday night at Soldier Field. At about 8:30 p.m. ET, you'll see two teams that have started 2-0 with elite quarterbacks behind center and little help from their running games.

That's right. As the chart illustrates, the Chicago Bears have rushed for 123 yards this season. That total, along with their average of 2.8 yards per carry, ranks No. 28 in the NFL. The Packers, who lost tailback Ryan Grant to a season-ending ankle injury in Week 1, rank 14th with 223 yards but are managing only 3.7 yards per carry and, like the Bears, are one of 10 NFL teams without a run of 20 or more yards.

Those numbers could even out a bit when the weather turns in December, but there are no guarantees as long as Mike Martz is the Bears' offensive coordinator and the Packers continue to field a mishmash committee of tailbacks. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy is well-known for his downfield throwing mentality, but he insisted this week that the Packers need to establish a running game Monday night. Knowing McCarthy, however, he mostly wants to set up play-action passes and protect his drop-back game.

"You have to have the ability to run the football," McCarthy said, "because [the Bears] do a very good job the way their defense is built against drop-back passing. I'm not looking to run the ball just to set up the pass. I'm sure some of you may disagree with me. When we run it, we want to run it very well."

The Bears, meanwhile, are riding the hot hand of quarterback Jay Cutler and -- as many expected from Martz -- have focused their tailbacks more in the passing game than on the ground. Matt Forte leads the team with 12 receptions, 188 yards and three touchdowns, while backup Chester Taylor is tied for third on the team with five receptions. But they have combined for 114 rushing yards on 40 carries.

Of the two teams, the Bears might be more in need of elevating their running game. This essay from KC Joyner suggests that Cutler might never lose the risk-taking mentality that has largely gone dormant this season. If Cutler hits a wild stretch, it would be nice to rely on Forte or Taylor until he settles down.

But that's not how we do it in the Air and Space division, is it?