NFC North: Matt Forte

Rapid Reaction: Chicago Bears

December, 28, 2014
Dec 28
3:55
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MINNEAPOLIS -- A few thoughts on the Chicago Bears' 13-9 loss to the Minnesota Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium.

What it means: The season is mercifully over. With team matriarch Virginia McCaskey and team chairman George McCaskey in attendance, the Bears' record dropped to a disappointing 5-11, the franchise's worst single-season finish since 2004 (also 5-11). Embattled head coach Marc Trestman awaits word on his future after posting a futile 13-19 record in two years on the job. For weeks, Trestman refused to directly answer questions related to job security, but ESPN.com’s Michael Wright reported Sunday morning that at least three assistant coaches expect to be fired. Now it’s only a matter of time before the general public learns Trestman’s fate.

General manager Phil Emery’s future is unknown. Emery hit on recent draft picks Alshon Jeffery, Kyle Long and Kyle Fuller, but he’s responsible for two colossal blunders: hiring Trestman and awarding quarterback Jay Cutler a lucrative contract extension. Emery watched Sunday's game in a private suite alongside the McCaskey family.

Stock watch: Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker is not a popular figure in Chicago. However, the defense turned out to be the least dysfunctional of the club’s three groups. Tucker’s defense limited Minnesota to three points and 118 total yards of offense in the first half. On multiple occasions throughout the year, the defense did enough to keep the Bears in games, only to be let down by the offense. Sunday was no exception. Fuller's early third-quarter interception, and subsequent return, gave the offense the football at the Vikings’ 9-yard line. Sadly, the Bears had to settle for a field goal.

Eventually, the defense made its share of mistakes in the second half -- including a busted coverage on Adam Thielen’s 44-yard touchdown reception -- but the effort was evident. The Bears even stopped Minnesota on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line.

Trestman’s offense predictably struggled in Week 17, even with Cutler back at quarterback in place of concussed Jimmy Clausen. The Vikings' 15th-ranked total defense stymied the Bears for much of the afternoon. The Bears end 2014 without scoring more than 28 points in a single game.

Forte milestones: Bears tailback Matt Forte passed Larry Centers for the most single-season receptions by a running back (102). Forte also topped the 1,000-yard rushing plateau for the third consecutive season and the fifth time in his seven-year NFL career.

Game ball: In a lost year, Forte again proved to be one of the most versatile all-purpose tailbacks in the league, topping the Bears in rushing yards and catches. His current contract is set to expire following the 2015 season, meaning Forte’s agent is likely to press the Bears for another extension in the offseason.

What’s next: The Bears return home to Lake Forest, Illinois, for exit physicals and one final team meeting on Monday. While the team is scheduled to hold an open locker room period Monday for reporters, the Bears have not released any further media information.

Matt Forte eyes milestones

December, 24, 2014
Dec 24
5:15
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Matt Forte remained upbeat Wednesday despite missing out on being named to his third Pro Bowl as the running back eyes a couple of significant milestones Sunday when the Chicago Bears face the Minnesota Vikings.

With 94 receptions through 15 games, Forte needs just eight more to break the NFL single-season record for receptions by a running back, set in 1995 by Larry Centers (101 receptions). In addition, if Forte gains 13 yards rushing against the Vikings and catches six passes, he’ll join LaDainian Tomlinson as just the second player in NFL history to finish a season with 1,000 rushing yards and 100 catches.

[+] EnlargeMatt Forte
Brian Kersey/Getty ImagesMatt Forte is just eight receptions from setting the NFL record for running backs in a single season.
“It’s important, but not the most important thing to me,” Forte said of the single-season record for receptions by a running back. “I’m not going to go out looking to get eight catches. I’m really just going out there to run the ball, catch the ball, block, and do what I’ve got to do for us to be successful on offense and help us win the game.”

Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long, however, wants to make the record reality for Forte.

“I was gonna butt in there when he was talking about how it’s not important to him,” Long joked. “We’re in the National Football League, and I’m sitting next to a guy who has an opportunity to catch the single most passes in NFL history for a running back in a season. I know I’m gonna be yelling at our quarterback to throw him the ball. Are you kidding me? What a tremendous honor to get to play with a guy like Matt and have an opportunity to be a part of something like that that will stand for a really long time.”

Bears coach Marc Trestman doesn’t plan to alter the game plan to make sure Forte reaches his milestones. With nothing left to play for, it would be easy for the team to turn its attention to such matters.

“Last games, oftentimes there’s those types of things that are up on the table,” Trestman said. “But I think the primary focus is to do what we have to do on each and every play to win the game, and those things will usually take care of themselves.”

That’s fine by Forte.

“I’m just looking forward to this weekend. I’ve got a chance to do something special this week,” Forte said. “Obviously I’m focused on winning the game first. But on this offense, we’ve obviously this year underachieved, but there’s still room to go out there and improve and finish strong in the last game. It’s not just, ‘Oh, it’s the last game of the season.’ You’ve got to go out there and prove that you deserve to be in the league. We’ve got another chance to go out and play well.”
CHICAGO -- In the aftermath of a third consecutive humiliating defeat, Chicago Bears players faced a barrage of questions regarding the future of the coaching staff and front office, a murky subject after the team’s record slipped to 5-9.

Forte
Forte
“I don’t worry about that, no,” Bears running back Matt Forte said. “That’s not my job to be worried about that stuff. If changes happen, you roll with the punches and all that stuff. I’m here to play football and be coached and be coachable. Whatever happens... happens. I do my best to learn what I need to in the classroom and go out and display that on the field.”

Fans are clamoring for the organization to make wholesale changes, not limited to head coach Marc Trestman, general manager Phil Emery, and even team president Ted Phillips. Several, if not all, of the club’s coordinators appear to be in serious jeopardy of getting launched at season’s end, but ownership has given no indications on how it plans to deal with the mess.

Because of the front office’s silence on the topic of job security, veteran players such as offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod will be forced to answer difficult questions until the regular season wraps up on Dec. 28.

“I ain’t got anything to do with that,” Bushrod said. “The guys we got in here are great guys and we’re going to find ways to go back to work. We all have to individually find a way to do something better. We have to. Coming out here and being in these situations, especially the last three weeks, is tough.”

If the Bears lose their final two games to Detroit and Minnesota, the team would finish 5-11 for the first time since Lovie Smith’s maiden voyage as Bears head coach in 2004.

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Dating all the way back to September, the Chicago Bears brass routinely spouted rhetoric about the need to achieve a more balanced run-pass ratio. Yet the Bears haven’t delivered.

With the Bears coming off a 34-17 loss at Detroit in which they called 48 passes and eight runs -- a franchise low for runs in a game -- such talk continued at Halas Hall Monday as they prepare to host the Dallas Cowboys Thursday night at Soldier Field.

“We’re just trying to get some balance in our offense. We’ve got to take the mistakes we made last week and turn them into a positive this week,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said. “One of the things we know we have to do is we have to attempt to run the ball more. As I said to our team, ‘We don’t have to run the ball for 7 yards a carry.’ Running the football has a residual effect on a lot of different things. It helps your movement game. It helps your play-action game. We all know these things. We didn’t get it done last week. We admit to that, and we have to move forward.”

Forte
Forte
That’s all been said before by Trestman, quarterback Jay Cutler, running back Matt Forte and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer. With an offense featuring one of the league’s best rushers in Forte, the team has called more runs than passes only once this season, and that was during a 38-17 loss to Green Bay Sept. 28.

Even during the team’s five victories, the Bears called 109 runs to 163 passes. The closest to achieving true balance with the run and pass was the club’s Nov. 23 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in which the Bears ran 26 times and called 27 passes.

“It’s of the utmost importance, especially if we’re playing outside with the weather and stuff,” Forte said. “You can’t just sit back there and throw 50 passes a game and expect to win. [Against Detroit], the front four were pinning their ears back. They didn’t have anything to do but pass rush. They’re not respecting the run, and then if you play fake, they’re not going to take the play fake because you haven’t been running the ball. It’s a big part of the play-action game, to keep the defense off of keying on exactly what to do, whether it’s pass rush or trying to stop the run.”

Considering Chicago hadn’t scored a touchdown in the first quarter of six consecutive games until Thursday against the Lions, the Bears have been playing from behind in many cases. But even then, Kromer believes the Bears can still benefit from running the ball because it opens up other facets of the game.

Headed into the matchup with Detroit, the game plan was to hit the Lions with the quick passing game and screens before leaning on the rushing attack.

“But then the game didn’t present itself the way we hoped at that point where we got down by two touchdowns, and then we had to try to throw it to get back in it, we felt,” Kromer said. “A (part) of it is individual game plans. So you’re playing Detroit and they’re giving up very limited amount of run yards and so you say to yourself, ‘Well, but they’re not doing a great job on the perimeter versus the quick screens,' and so like I said, we’re trying to establish that at first, and then start to run it more often as the game went on. But what’s not happening is we’re not in the game when we’re going to start running it more, and then it becomes a passing game.”

That complicates matters for the entire offense.

Cutler
“It’s hard, it makes things hard,” Cutler said. “If you’re running the ball efficiently and giving the illusion you’re going to run the ball, it definitely helps. You want to throw the ball. You want to throw touchdowns. You want to throw for big yards. But you definitely want to win football games, and I think anyone who has been doing this for a while realizes you’ve got to have the best of both worlds. You’ve got to be able to run the ball. You’ve got to be able to do some play-action. There’s no one out there who can drop back 40 to 50 times consistently and win football games. It’s really hard.”

That’s why the Bears hope to flip the script against Dallas, which currently ranks 22nd against the run (allowing 119.6 yards per game) and is coming off an outing in which LeSean McCoy ripped the defense for 159 yards and a touchdown.

“I trust our offensive line and those guys want to run the ball, too,” Forte said. “I know they were upset about the outcome last week. This defense that we’re going up against is really good against [the run], too. They might be ranked lower, but ranks don’t mean anything in the NFL.”

In 8-degree temperatures with a wind chill of minus-9 at Soldier Field last season against the Cowboys, the Bears racked up 490 total yards, with 149 of that coming courtesy of the rushing attack. The Bears called 32 runs and 36 passes in that outing and will need to achieve similar balance Thursday against the Cowboys to come out on top.

“We’ve got to get some more balance in our football, and part of that is being able to run the ball, not just more effectively, but to allow it to [be in] balance with the other things we do. We’ve got tremendous targets outside,” Trestman said. “We’ve got three tremendous targets and we’ve got a very good running back. We’ve got to continue to work to try to balance all that out. We would have liked to run it more [against Detroit]. It didn’t happen that way, and we’ve got to move forward to Dallas. We could have that discussion forever.”
CHICAGO -- Chicago Bears tailback Matt Forte praised the team’s opportunistic defense for keeping the club afloat after another lethargic first half by the offense that helped Tampa build a 10-0 lead and win the total yardage battle, 211 to 68.

Forte
Forte
“Basically at halftime coach was telling us that basically we just played the worst half of football and we’re only down 10 to nothing,” Forte said. “Our defense definitely kept us in the game with that. We can’t come out and lay an egg in the first half and expect to come from behind all the time. Luckily it was only 10 points. Our defense did a great job in the second half causing turnovers that we could convert into touchdowns down in the red zone. Our defense did a great job doing that and helped us win the game.”

Forte finished with a game-high 89 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the 21-13 victory, but the offense managed to put together scoring drives of only 58, 13 and 15 yards. The Bears scored 14 of their 21 points off turnovers provided by the defense.

Forte said penalties and a lack of attention to detail hurt the Bears all afternoon. The Bears have still not scored above 28 points in a game this year.

“It was all on us,” Forte said. “Penalties ... backing us up first-and-15 and not executing little nuances of the plays. If all 11 aren’t on the same page, sometimes the play can work but most times it won’t work. Halftime we came in and Kyle [Long] wrote on the board, ‘execute and no excuses.’ Don’t make excuses of why we didn’t do this or why we didn’t do that, just go out there and execute the plays and drive the ball down the field.”

Penalties continue to plague the Bears. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall was flagged three times in the first half, twice for illegal blocking (the Bucs declined one of the illegal blocking penalties) and once for a false start.

Marshall offered no explanations for why the Bears looked so sluggish, but he did throw a bouquet at the defense for its four-turnover, five-sack effort.

“Man, they won the game,” Marshall said. “They did a great job today. We’re really proud of them. They did a great job.”

The Film Don't Lie: Bears

November, 18, 2014
Nov 18
11:00
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A weekly look at what the Chicago Bears must fix:

The Chicago Bears freshened up the offense and better utilized running back Matt Forte in their win over the Minnesota Vikings, but when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, they’ll have to do a better job exercising patience and taking what the defense gives.

Of Chicago’s 10 possessions against the Vikings, just four spanned 10 or more plays. The club probably needs to improve on that number against the Buccaneers, which, under Lovie Smith, will force the Bears to play a slow, dink-and-dunk style because of the difficulty of sustaining long drives without making mistakes. Obviously, Jay Cutler threw two interceptions against the Vikings, which is another area in which improvement is needed, considering he’s turned over the ball multiple times in each of the team’s past three outings. The win over the Vikings marked the first time this season Cutler turned it over more than once (a feat accomplished in each of the team's six losses), and the Bears came out victorious.

Forte carried the ball 26 times for 117 yards against the Vikings, and the Bears improved to 18-5 when he hits the century mark. The only issue with the team’s use of Forte against the Vikings was when they did it. Of their first 15 plays, the Bears ran 13 passes, which isn’t conducive to establishing the running back early and letting him get into a rhythm. The Bears need to lean on Forte earlier against the Buccaneers.

The Film Don't Lie: Vikings

November, 18, 2014
Nov 18
11:00
AM ET
A weekly look at what the Minnesota Vikings must fix:

The Vikings have typically been a sound tackling team during their first season in Mike Zimmer's defense, but they had what might have been their worst tackling day of the year in a loss to the Bears on Sunday. Considering the running back the Vikings will have to bring down this week against the Green Bay Packers, they'll have to be better to avoid a reprise of some bad memories.

According to Pro Football Focus, the Vikings missed a season-high 13 tackles on Sunday. Rookie linebacker Anthony Barr was credited with five in what was one of the toughest days of his rookie season. Running back Matt Forte shook off Barr's arm-tackle attempt on a 30-yard screen in the first quarter, and Barr was the first of four Vikings to miss on Forte's 32-yard run at the end of the third quarter.

There's no magic formula for the Vikings to improve their tackling; it's a matter of players being in the right spots, taking good angles and wrapping up ball carriers. Barr appeared to overrun several plays against the Bears and paid for it against the elusive Forte. Sunday, however, brings a date with Packers battering ram Eddie Lacy, who is sixth in the league with 2.23 yards after contact per carry, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Lacy rumbled for 105 yards on 13 carries in the Packers' 42-10 win over the Vikings on Oct. 2, and keeping him from gaining extra yards will be an important task for the Vikings.
CHICAGO -- There's no doubt Josh Robinson is more comfortable now as a third-year cornerback playing on the outside than he was during the Minnesota Vikings' failed experiment with him as the slot cornerback last season. But there is one reality of Robinson's move back outside that always seemed hard for him to escape: He is 5-foot-10. The receivers he'd cover on the outside would often be four or five inches taller -- or more.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Marshall
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastThe Bears targeted Josh Robinson on Sunday and 6-foot-4 Brandon Marshall gave Vikings cornerback trouble.
The Vikings knew the Bears would be coming after Robinson in nickel situations on Sunday. Coach Mike Zimmer knew the Vikings would have their hands full dealing with 6-foot-3 Alshon Jeffery and 6-foot-4 Brandon Marshall.

He based his approach to covering the two Chicago Bears receivers on the reality that the Vikings often wouldn't be able to outjump them; "We've got to be great at pulling their hands apart," he said Thursday. "We've got to be great with putting our hands in what I call 'the hole' [between their hands]. Being in the right position, too, that helps."

Robinson often appeared to be in the right position on Sunday. But against a team that had singled him out for special treatment on Sunday, he got burned.

The Bears went after Robinson more than a dozen times on Sunday, with Jay Cutler throwing all three of his touchdown passes to Jeffery and Marshall on balls where it seemed Robinson could do little to make up for the receivers' stature. He was flagged for defensive pass interference on Jeffery's touchdown after the receiver worked through Robinson's arms on his way back to Cutler, shielding the ball with his body.

Marshall snatched a deep ball away from Robinson on the second touchdown, with safety Robert Blanton trailing in coverage. And on Marshall's final TD, he simply made like a power forward, calling for the ball before the play, posting up in the end zone and reaching for the ball after boxing out Robinson.

Between the TDs, there was a 34-yard pass that Jeffery took away from Robinson after it looked like the cornerback was in position for an interception. And at the end of the day, both the cornerback and the head coach seemed at a loss for what to do about it.

"I would have changed up some coverages," Zimmer said when asked what he could have done differently, before adding, "I can't make these guys taller."

Cutler's struggles this season have come largely against zone coverage, when he is frustrated by an inability to go down the field, and his worst throw of the day came on a blitz when the Vikings dropped defensive end Brian Robison back into coverage and safety Harrison Smith sat over the top of Martellus Bennett, waiting to make an interception.

But the Vikings rely primarily on man coverage, and as much as they like to move Smith around, keeping him back in a two-deep shell would have taken away part of the blitz package that's worked so well for them, in addition to exposing them to more damage from Matt Forte, who caught six passes for 58 yards.

Instead, they often relied on man coverage with a single safety deep and counted on their corners to play as well as they have in recent weeks. Against the Bears' taller receivers, Robinson, in particular, could only do so much.

"We played our normal defense," Robinson said. "Our defense relies on our corners to cover. We knew what they were going to do, and they came out doing exactly what we thought. In the end, I need to play better. That's the biggest thing I take from this game. You can't be in position and not make plays."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It was an oft-asked question in the Green Bay Packers' locker room this week.

What's wrong with the run defense?

"That's a question you probably have to ask everyone," Packers defensive tackle Mike Daniels said on Friday. "You're going to get a bunch of different responses."

Daniels
In fact, that's exactly what ESPNWisconsin.com's Jason Wilde discovered on Thursday, when he asked every member of the Packers' defensive coaching staff and several players what they can do to fix their run defense, which is ranked 32nd (a.k.a dead last) in the NFL.

For his part, Daniels' answer on Friday was this: "I just think we have to focus a little better."

While there was little or no consensus about why the Packers' run defense has failed, what's clear is when it all fell apart.

Sunday's opponent, the Chicago Bears, serve as that reminder.

In last season's Week 9 game against the Bears at Lambeau Field, the Packers fielded the NFL's fourth-ranked run defense. The first eight weeks of the 2013 season saw it yield just 83.6 yards rushing per game.

Since then, no team has been run on and run over worse than the Packers. And the Bears started it all with a 171-yard rushing performance, including 125 from running back Matt Forte. That was beginning of a 17-game stretch of regular-season games that has seen the Packers give up an average of 155.5 yards rushing per game and 5.0 yards per carry (see chart below).

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Ten times during that horrific stretch of run defense an opposing running back has topped the 100-yard mark individually, and no team has made the Packers' run defense look worse than the Bears. In all three meetings during that 17-game stretch, Forte has topped the 100-yard mark. He followed his 125-yard game with efforts of 110 in Week 17 of last season and 122 in the Week 4 game this season at Soldier Field.

In the Packers' last outing, Saints running back Mark Ingram put up 172 yards, the most by a back against the Packers since the Viking’s Adrian Peterson ran for 199 in the 2012 regular-season finale.

Forte must be champing at the bit to get another crack at the Packers.

Forte
Forte
"I don't really look at what somebody's ranked in the league, because this is the NFL," Forte said this week during a conference call with reporters at Lambeau Field. "There are still good guys on that team. Just because they may be ranked that low, it doesn't mean that their defense can't stop the run or they're not that good.

"This is the NFL. Guys get paid to play football, play defense, and they're still good. It's always a question from the outside, 'Oh, they're ranked last in the league in this, so you guys should do this on them.'"

Teams sure are trying.

Only three teams have been run on more times than the Packers, who have seen their opponents attempt 257 rushes against them this season.

Until they stop someone -- anyone -- that is not likely to change.

"I would think if you look at us, you'd say that," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "But I've got confidence, and I don't worry about the stats and where they are. I'm worried about, what can we do from this point forward, the second half of the season?

"I've seen us during the first half of the season play pretty good run defense, where I've said, 'Hey, their two running backs got 60 yards.' So when we were ascending and doing that, we had two or three of those games in there. Now, you never want to have a game like we had in the first Bears game, where we didn't play very good run defense, or the Saints game. Those are the things we've got to iron out to where we become a more consistent team in the second half."
There’s no better way to kick off our look around the Bears beat with this piece by ESPN.com’s David Fleming, who spent the bye week with tight end Martellus Bennett as he put the finishing touches on his animated movie “Zoovie”.

Bennett
 Bennett told me he spent his bye week working on the film, which he hopes to enter in some upcoming festivals.

While most of the piece chronicles Bennett’s creative process, the tight end does talk a little football. When he does, Bennett drops a money quote about the importance of Sunday’s game at Green Bay. With the Bears sitting at 3-5, Bennett knows there’s the possibility some of his teammates have given up on the season.

"There are guys, and I've seen it, there are guys in this situation [on other teams], and coaches too, who are already packing it in and shutting it down and already in offseason mode, like, 'What beach or what club or what golf course am I going to?' That's why the Packers game will tell us a lot,” Bennett said. “That's what I want to see: Who's coming back with that mentality that we could still make the playoffs, and who's already packed it in and already thinking about partying and hitting the club in the offseason?"

By the way, Bennett says in the piece he’s fully planning on the Bears advancing to the playoffs.

If you get a minute, take a look at the piece because it’s definitely worth a read to get an idea of what makes Bennett click.

-- ESPNChicago.com’s Jon Greenberg isn’t confident about the team’s chances Sunday at Green Bay with Jay Cutler at the helm. Can’t say I blame him.

Greenberg writes: As you might be able to infer, I'm not too positive about these Bears' chances this week. I don't buy the hype about a post-bye-week revival. That's typical NFL empty blather. Nothing has changed for this team. If it finishes 8-8, consider that an accomplishment.

With a game against the hated Packers on tap, there's more buzz in Chicago about Joe Maddon buying shots and Blackhawks fans buying Winter Classic jerseys.

Who can blame us? How could anyone be confident with Cutler starting in Green Bay?

The Bears are 1-9 against the Packers with Cutler as the starter -- including the NFC championship loss he couldn't finish -- thanks in part to his 20 interceptions and slapdash play. In three games at Lambeau Field, all losses, he's completed 48 percent of his passes for 571 yards, two touchdowns and 10 picks.

-- Matt Forte says talk is cheap, ESPNChicago.com’s Jeff Dickerson takes writes.

-- Dan Wiederer at the Chicago Tribune chronicles Brandon Marshall’s brief session with the media on Thursday at Halas Hall.
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Fresh off a 51-23 throttling at the hands of the New England Patriots, Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery conducted a dual press conference at Halas Hall, where they expressed disappointment over the team’s inconsistent performances through the first half of the season, while stressing the need to remain unified.

“We’re a 3-5 football team, and that’s what our record states,” Emery said. “The NFL’s about winning games, and we deserve the criticism we have and should have from that record. I’m extremely disappointed in where we’re at as a football team right now, and that disappointment starts with being extremely disappointed for our fans. They, like us, held high optimism for the start of our season and where we would be at that midpoint, and we’ve let them down in that regard. We understand and share their frustrations and clearly understand our failures at this point.”

But what will the Bears do to turn things around for the second half? Trestman believes a long, hard critical self-evaluation is in order.

“We’ve got a chance to look back and really take a systematic look at the issues that we’ve had and come up with some bona fide solutions at this present time because that’s the best we can do,” he said. “We weren’t able to get it done the way we wanted to get it done over the first eight weeks of the season. There’s no doubt about it. There’s no consistency there. There’s moments of very good play, of solid play across the board, and there’s moments of very, very poor play, like we’ve seen over the last couple weeks.”

Midseason MVP: Running back Matt Forte is certainly worthy, given his consistency over the first eight games (1,052 all-purpose yards). But defensive end Willie Young receives the nod here. A reserve behind high-priced free-agent acquisitions Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston, Young outperformed his counterparts at the position through the first half of the season and is tied for eighth in the NFL with a team-high seven sacks. Young ranks third on the team in tackles (32), a testament to his high-motor style which allows the fifth-year veteran to make plays from sideline to sideline on a consistent basis.

Biggest disappointment: After a surprisingly productive 2013 campaign which seemed to quiet many doubters, quarterback Jay Cutler received a seven-year deal worth $126.7 million and the high expectations that accompany such an investment. Cutler produced respectable numbers (67.2 completion percentage, 95.8 passer rating) through the first half of the season, but continues to display his penchant for making game-changing mistakes. Cutler turned the ball over on multiple occasions in each of the team’s five losses, leading to 44 points by opponents despite the expectation he would finally soar in Year 2 playing in Trestman’s offense. The staff and front office continue to show unwavering support for Cutler. If Emery is second-guessing the team’s investment in Cutler, he certainly hasn’t shown it.

Best moment: Uncertainty permeated the atmosphere in the 90 minutes prior to the Week 2 opening of Levi’s Stadium against the San Francisco 49ers with questions regarding the availability of receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery as both were questionable due to ankle and hamstring injuries. After putting the receivers through strenuous pregame workouts, the Bears made the late decision to start Jeffery and Marshall. The move paid huge dividends as Marshall caught three touchdown passes to lead the Bears -- who trailed 20-7 going into the fourth quarter -- to a 28-20 upset of the 49ers. Rookie Kyle Fuller helped in Chicago outscoring the 49ers 21-0 in the final 15 minutes as he picked off a pair of passes to provide the Bears' offense with short fields.

Worst moment: Marshall’s impassioned speech -- which could be heard by reporters outside the locker room prior to team officials opening the doors -- and scathing postgame comments following Chicago’s 27-14 loss at home to the Miami Dolphins caused mixed reactions among the team. Marshall called the team’s performances and 3-4 record at the time “unacceptable.” And while some players agreed with the receiver’s comments, others reacted indifferently. Ultimately, Marshall’s locker room speech and comments could have galvanized the Bears, but appear to have done more harm than good considering the beatdown the club took the following game at New England.

Key to the second half: Offensively, the problems run deep as Cutler needs to significantly reduce the turnovers while the staff needs to help out as much as possible on the play-calling end. Trestman talked about the offense’s need to strike a better balance with the pass/run ratio, which obviously would expose Cutler to fewer chances to commit turnovers, while keeping teams guessing. In the passing game, the Bears need to incorporate more weapons instead of relying so heavily on Marshall and Jeffery. Given Martellus Bennett's skill set, there’s no doubt the Bears could use him similar to the way the Patriots attacked the club’s defense with Rob Gronkowski. Defensively, the Bears need to find a way to maintain a level of consistency despite utilizing inexperienced players due to injuries. Injuries were a legitimate excuse for the defense last year, but won’t fly any more given all the depth the team obtained in the offseason, not to mention its stated goal prior to the season of developing every defender on the roster, regardless of stature.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- He was part of the problem early in the season, but now perhaps Datone Jones will be part of the solution for a Green Bay Packers run defense that still ranks last in the NFL.

The second-year defensive end appears set to return this week from the sprained ankle he sustained in Week 5 against the Minnesota Vikings, an injury that kept him out the last three games. Jones went through Monday's workout with the team following last week's bye and proclaimed: "I'm feeling good. I'm back."

The Packers were ranked 32nd in the league in rushing defense when the 2013 first-round pick got hurt, and they're ranked 32nd now upon his return, allowing 153.5 yards per game on the ground (nearly 14 yards more than the Bengals and Browns, who are tied for 30th in rushing defense).

"We were 32nd in the NFL in run defense; obviously, I'm not doing my job," Jones said. "I have to keep improving to get better to help our defense out."

The low point of the season -- at least so far -- for the Packers' run defense came in Week 4 against the Chicago Bears, who rushed for 235 yards. But the Packers still had a relatively easy victory, 38-17, at Soldier Field thanks in large part to a pair of Jay Cutler interceptions.

The Bears likely will try to exploit the Packers' suspect run defense again during the rematch Sunday night at Lambeau Field. In the first game, Matt Forte rushed for 122 yards and Ka'Deem Carey added 72.

"We won the game; that's the most important part," said Jones, who had his lone sack of the season against the Bears. "I felt like we played great on defense. We got off the field a lot. Was it a high-scoring game? I think they scored 17 points. So I think if you limit a team under 17 points, you know what I mean? Your score differential will be limited. Offense only put up 17 points. The rushing yards and that, nothing else matters as long as you win the game, right?"

Not to coach Mike McCarthy, who said last week he wants his defense to be able to play winning football without relying on turnovers.

For Jones, this is chance to wipe away a year and a half of disappointing and injury-filled football. Drafted to be a three-down defensive lineman, what little impact he has made has come as a designated pass rusher (he has 4.5 sacks in 21 career games). Among the Packers' defensive linemen, Jones has the worst grade as a run defender (minus-5.2) from ProFootballFocus.com.

"I'm still writing my story," said Jones, the 26th pick in the 2013 draft. "I'm telling you, like I said before last year, the more I play, you guys will see what I can do. And I'm writing my story now. It's not about what Datone Jones is going to do. It's about what the Green Bay Packers are going to do."
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery responded on Monday to Brian Urlacher's refusal to label Jay Cutler as an elite quarterback by saying Urlacher enjoyed a mutually beneficial on-field relationship with Cutler for better parts of five seasons.

"No, it didn't bother me. Everybody is entitled to their thoughts and opinions," Emery said. "It did hit a research project for me, so I went back and looked at their time together on the field at the same time starting the game healthy, they played 38 games together and during those games, they were 26-12. So, they definitely won together. When Jay was off the field and Brian started, they were 1-6. When Jay was on the field without Brian, they were 9-12. So the only thing that I can get from all that is they were really good for each other. They're both fine football players, lead in their own way and are both great for the organization. So, no, it didn't bother me."

Urlacher
Urlacher questioned the validity of including Cutler in the conversation of elite NFL quarterbacks during an interview last week with 87.7 The Game in Chicago.

"Financially, he is one of the elite guys in the NFL. ...He just hasn't produced like an elite quarterback," Urlacher said.

"You look at the Bradys, the Mannings, the Rodgers, the Brees, those guys win every year, even with no one around them. Rodgers has no offensive line. He wins. [Tom] Brady has no receivers. He wins.

Cutler
"And you look at Jay. He's got Brandon [Marshall], Alshon [Jeffery], Matt [Forte], this great offensive line, Martellus Bennett, and they can't seem to put it together, for some reason. I'm not sure if that's his fault, but for some reason, they just can't figure it out."

Cutler has a base salary of $22.5 million this season ($5 million was converted into a signing bonus in March) as part of a seven-year, $126.7 million contract extension he signed earlier this year, putting him at the top of the list of quarterback salaries in 2014.

Despite committing 12 turnovers (eight interceptions and four lost fumbles) in eight games, Bears coach Marc Trestman praised Cutler’s worth ethic and leadership on Monday. Cutler has completed 197-of-293 pass attempts (67.2 completion percentage) for 2,093 yards, 17 touchdowns for a quarterback rating of 95.8.

"His leadership has been at a premium through all of this on a consistent basis throughout the season," Trestman said. "We have to help him more in terms of playing better complementary football, giving him more of a run game and that goes to complementary football again. And that means everybody working together to get that done. But I think there's a lot of positives here and we're going to work to try and negate some of the negatives that we do see, that we want him to get better at."
LAKE FOREST, Ill. – The Chicago Bears listed center Roberto Garza as participating fully in practice for the first time since the 14-year veteran suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 1, increasing the likelihood that Garza will return to the starting lineup Sunday in Atlanta.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed. Garza practiced today, and we’ll see what kind of aftereffects he’ll have after a full day of work,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said.

Last week, Trestman announced that Garza will return to the starting lineup upon receiving the proper medical clearance, but added the club is pleased with veteran Brian de la Puente, who has replaced Garza at center for four straight games.

Seven players missed practice on Wednesday: running back Matt Forte (coaches' decision), left tackle Jermon Bushrod (knee/ankle), linebackers Shea McClellin (hand), D.J. Williams (neck), Jon Bostic (back), Lance Briggs (ribs) and safety Ahmad Dixon (hamstring).

With the top four linebackers out, the Bears took a look at the trio of Khaseem Greene, Christian Jones and Darryl Sharpton.

In other injury news, safety Chris Conte and defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff were limited because of concussions, and cornerback Sherrick McManis had limited participation because of a quadriceps injury. McManis is a candidate to be used at cornerback in the nickel subpackage Sunday given the release of Isaiah Frey on Tuesday.
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jay Cutler stuffed a hand in one pocket at the podium and readied for the storm of questions about to rain down in the visitors’ locker room at Bank of America Field in the aftermath of the Chicago Bears giving one away.

Leading 24-21 in the fourth quarter on Sunday, Chicago watched its advantage disintegrate as a result of committing turnovers on back-to-back possessions over a span of 1 minute, 39 seconds. Carolina converted those turnovers into 10 points en route to a 31-24 triumph. The giveaways serve as a small snapshot for what appear to be larger issues for Chicago’s supposedly vaunted offense, which has been outscored 34-3 in the second half of its past two outings -- both losses.

“Pretty frustrating,” Cutler said. “There were many opportunities for us to close this out offensively. We put our defense in a bad spot. I thought they played really well given the circumstances and some of the field position we put them in. Offensively, a lot of that is on me. We’ve just got to play better.”

Chicago stormed to a 21-7 lead with 10:51 left in the second quarter when Cutler hit Alshon Jeffery for a 25-yard touchdown, and at that point it looked as though the Bears might run away with the game.

Then halftime hit, which for the Bears these past two weeks is akin to disaster.

The Bears ripped Carolina for 235 yards in the first half, but managed just 112 yards in the second half with two turnovers and a third-down conversion rate of 16.7 percent. Going into Sunday, the Bears had turned over the ball only once in the fourth quarter through the first four outings, yet managed to do that on back-to-back possessions to throw away this contest.

“I think that we’ve struggled at times, and that’s the thing we’ve got to focus on. We’ve had a lot of very consistent moments, and then we’ve gone inconsistent,” coach Marc Trestman said. “We have the last two weeks, certainly in the second half. So it’s something that we’ve got to continue to work on and get better at. We still haven’t put four quarters together. We’ve put some good quarters together, but we haven’t put four quarters together yet.”

Cutler has led nine second-half drives over the past two weeks with three drives ending with interceptions. One drive concluded with a turnover on downs, while three more ended with punts. Two other drives finished with fumbles, including Matt Forte’s with 4:29 left to play which set up Cam Newton’s game-winning 6-yard touchdown pass to Greg Olsen.

Forte said the offense needs to develop “a mindset” that will help it to finish games, and admitted “we’ve got to stop” turning over the ball.

“It’s not like we’re out there being careless with the football,” he said. “Sometimes balls get tipped and guys make good plays out there. They get paid to play football, too. In my case, especially in a crucial situation like that, I can’t let go of the ball.”

You can’t throw interceptions, either. Forte’s fumble came after Cutler was intercepted by Thomas DeCoud on an attempt down the middle of the field intended for Santonio Holmes.

Cutler said the ball “just got away from me,” adding that “high and over the middle of the field is never good. It happened twice today.”

For Chicago to reverse what’s becoming a disturbing trend of futility in the second halves of games, that needs to stop, and the team needs to find a way to adjust offensively to the opponent’s halftime adjustments.

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