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Wednesday, October 5, 2011
'MNF' in Detroit: Modern-day running


The nation will tune in Monday night for what might be called a post-modern look at the Black and Blue division. The starting tailbacks of the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions are two of the best receiving backs in the NFL.

Sorry, national audience. Smash-mouth football largely has departed even our most storied franchises, and while both running backs play a key role in the team's offenses, rarely has either been used in the way that Walter Payton, Billy Sims, Barry Sanders and others once were.

It's true that Bears tailback Matt Forte rushed for 205 yards in Sunday's victory over the Carolina Panthers. In their first three games, however, the Bears averaged 53.7 rushing yards and overall they have the third-fewest rushing attempts (82) of any NFL team.

Forte, however, leads all NFL running backs with 26 receptions. The Lions' Jahvid Best ranks sixth with 17. On the ground, Best is averaging 3.2 yards per carry and the Lions have the fourth-fewest rushing yards (298) in the league.

We've been over this before. A dynamic running game isn't necessarily required in the NFL, and as Lions coach Jim Schwartz said this week, "I mean, good gracious. We don't need to put panic attacks in everything else because we haven't run the ball. With all due respect to [former Michigan coach] Bo Schembechler, we can pass it."

Indeed, the Lions are 4-0 behind the NFL's seventh-most passing yards (1,205). Best and tight end Brandon Pettigrew have accounted for more than a third of those yards on mostly short passes that largely have comprised the Lions' modern-day running game.

The Bears are a different story, however. They are a rare NFL team that is better off running the ball. As ESPN Stats & Information pointed out this week, the Bears' four scoring drives against the Panthers were powered by a run-pass ratio of 84-16. On their non-scoring possessions, the Bears’ ratio was 38.5-61.5.

What does all this mean in terms of Monday night's game? It's hard to imagine the Lions doing anything other than throwing the ball liberally, even if it's short passes to Best and Pettigrew. The Bears' chances for winning, meanwhile, might rest on whether Forte has a better day as a runner or a receiver.