Commentary

Lacking balance, the Bears wobble

Offense needs to lean on Forte's running, not try to make Cutler something he's not

Originally Published: September 26, 2011
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- There were no illusions, no trying to explain away why they had lost to the reigning world champs. The Chicago Bears know they have an identity crisis. Against Green Bay on Sunday, it was there for everyone at Soldier Field to see.

The Bears are not a spread offense with targets all over the field for Jay Cutler to hit. They are an offense reliant on one man, Matt Forte, to carry a balanced load with a defense that plays a traditional Cover 2 and tries to make opposing teams play a patient, methodical style that eventually will lead to a mistake.

When the offensive line can straddle the fine line of being able to pass-protect for Jay Cutler and run-block for Forte, Chicago is a formidable team capable of beating anyone. When it can't, which has been more often than not -- well, the Bears' offense just isn't that good. It doesn't have enough weapons or a quarterback who can overcome deficiencies.

It has been only eight months since the Bears hosted the Packers in the NFC title game, yet a chasm exists between the teams. As Chicago defensive end Julius Peppers astutely noted after Green Bay beat the Bears 27-17, the Packers are "polished" and playing as though their magnificent Super Bowl run and the start of this season were not interrupted by a 4½-month lockout.

Although the Packers have some coverage issues and made some questionable play calls in the run game on Sunday, Green Bay played with poise. Aaron Rodgers continued to be sharp, targeting nine receivers and building on what has become a lethal connection with tight end Jermichael Finley, who caught seven passes, including three for touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeMatt Forte
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireMatt Forte had only nine carries against the Packers -- hardly the balance the Bears' offense needs.

For the second straight game, the Bears got away from putting the football in Forte's hands however possible. In Week 2 against New Orleans, offensive coordinator Mike Martz called 52 passing plays and 11 runs, and subsequently spent part of last week promising to be better balanced. Yet against the Packers, 17 of the first 23 plays were called passes.

For the game, Forte carried the ball only nine times for 2 yards. With Cutler's three rushes for 11 yards, the Bears finished with 13 rushing yards on the day, one of the lowest totals in franchise history. Forte also caught seven passes for 80 yards, and the line gave Cutler adequate protection until late in the game, but Cutler doesn't need to throw 37 times. He needs balance, not 13 rushing yards compared to 302 passing yards.

Cutler begged Martz for more balance last week. He did not get it.

After pulling within 17-10 just before halftime, Cutler opened the second half misfiring on his first five passes, getting sacked twice for minus-18 yards and handing off to Forte for minus-3 yards. Three drives, zero first downs.

By early in the fourth quarter, the Packers led 27-10, and it didn't seem that close.

Asked afterward whether the Bears can win with a lopsided run-pass ratio, Cutler said: "We are 0-2 doing this, so it's not looking very good."

Cutler also said about Forte: "I feel bad for him, because he wants the ball. He wants to help out, and we aren't giving him a lot of opportunities."

When Forte did get the opportunity to catch a screen pass, it typically was third-and-long. That doesn't work, even with someone as dangerous as Forte.

The easy explanation for the run-pass ratio is that the patchwork line is not capable of giving Forte the holes he needs. That is not likely to change. The Bears did not invest in their offensive line in the offseason, and you see the result. Missed assignments. Penalties. No running game. Want to know why the Bears don't have an identity yet? Look no further than up front in the trenches.

"Until we are a little more consistent, I guess we don't [have an identity]," Cutler said.

The Bears do, however, have a feel for where they stand in the league. Their first three games were against playoff opponents from 2010. They beat Atlanta 30-12 but have averaged 15 points per game in losses to New Orleans and Green Bay.

After Detroit's surprising 3-0 start, there is this concern, too: After the first three weeks, the Bears are third in the NFC North, ahead of only the winless Minnesota Vikings.

"We came out pretty well in the first game," Forte said, "but the last two weeks we haven't played as an offense at all. Defense is playing pretty well. We just haven't been able to help them out by putting points on the board. It's as simple as that."

At least the Bears players realize it. They aren't delusional. Chicago's offensive coordinator might have lost touch with how the team best can win, but the players have not.

"We just need to play better," Brian Urlacher said. "It's tough losing at home like that to a division opponent. We just need to play better; that's all there is to it. We didn't make enough plays on defense. We're going to have to play better to beat these good teams."

INSTANT REPLAY

What I learned from Week 3:

[+] EnlargeBills
Kevin Hoffman/US PresswireA comeback victory against the Patriots on Sunday makes it official: The Bills are for real.

David Nelson was correct: The Buffalo Bills' streak of 15 losses to the New England Patriots ended on Sunday, just as he had told me it would.

I talked to the Bills wide receiver last week after he caught 10 passes for 83 yards and a touchdown in a comeback win over Oakland. Nelson said that he loved the chemistry the Bills were building on a team without big-name stars, and really, what is not to love?

On Sunday at home against the Patriots, the Bills fell behind 21-0 but rallied to lead 31-24. You knew Tom Brady would lead New England down the field for a score. But Buffalo answering? The Bills were so effective driving down the field that they actually had to slow down to avoid giving Brady the ball with enough time for him to answer.

The Bills got a break when a replay showed Fred Jackson was down before crossing the goal line. The Bills were able to run the clock down, kick the winning field goal and say goodbye to that 15-game losing streak.

The Lions are for real: The buzz around Detroit has been growing since the end of last season, but now, after an overtime win over Minnesota (more on the Vikings later), the Lions are 3-0 for the first time since 1980. It was the first time in team history that Detroit came back from a 20-point halftime deficit, according to Elias, and it showed that the Lions aren't afraid of a big deficit or playing on the road.

"It's real positive for us," Calvin Johnson said afterward. "It just goes to show that we're not going to lay down. We saw that in their first two games. They got relaxed after they had a big lead in the first half. We felt that. As we started to put some points up, we were getting in their head."

Curtis Painter might be a better option: Kerry Collins has been ineffective in three starts for the Colts, completing 49 percent of his passes for 481 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Painter came into the game against Pittsburgh on Sunday night and fumbled when hit by James Harrison, then regrouped to lead the Colts on a 10-play, 80-yard drive that tied the game 20-20.

The Colts lost, but Jim Caldwell should have seen enough to contemplate a quarterback change.

John Madden might never have become John Madden: In a new biography on Madden, Bryan Burwell explains that Madden began studying the game of football as a rookie in Philadelphia in 1959. Madden, a 21st-round draft pick making $7,000 for the season, blew out his knee during a preseason scrimmage and quickly realized that his playing career was over. In the catacombs of the old Franklin Field, Madden would rehab his knee, then sit in the back of the locker room and watch Norm Van Brocklin break down film on a projector.

"Madden tried to be as unobtrusive as possible; he was the proverbial fly on the wall," Burwell wrote in "Madden, A Biography." "Eventually, though, Van Brocklin began to notice that the big redheaded rookie was always lurking in the shadows. One morning, he surprised Madden. 'Hey, Red,' Van Brocklin said, motioning with his arms toward the burly kid. 'Come up here and watch it with me.' He didn't have to ask Madden twice."

Without Van Brocklin, the Madden who coached the Oakland Raiders and taught a generation of viewers how the game is played might never have been.

SLEEPING IN THE OFFICE

Issues that will keep coaches awake this week:

[+] EnlargeMcNabb
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesDonovan McNabb continues to struggle in Minnesota. Is it time for Christian Ponder?

Donovan McNabb could be done: There can't be excuses anymore. Yes, McNabb is with his third team in three years. Yes, he is playing for a first-year head coach who didn't exactly distinguish himself Sunday.

But McNabb had a chance to beat Detroit. He had Bernard Berrian streaking toward the end zone after beating his defender. Berrian would have scored to break a 20-20 tie, but McNabb overthrew him. The Vikings had to settle for a field goal, and they lost in overtime.

McNabb, a 13-year veteran, does not have the luxury of time. He needed to be an immediate difference-maker. He needed to make that throw to Berrian. Instead, he has lost a halftime lead in all three of his games this season. At some point very soon, Leslie Frazier will have to decide whether Christian Ponder could do better.

Tom Brady threw four picks: Brady matched his interception total from last year. This is far from a catastrophe, but every play gives opponents something to work with. Brady made mistakes. Bad news for Bill Belichick, good news for everyone else.

RANT AND RAVE

A player who will be under review today:

[+] EnlargeVick
Hunter Martin/Getty ImagesDoes Michael Vick get hit more than other quarterbacks? The stats say no.

Michael Vick's complaint: Vick was upset, and understandably so. First a concussion, then a badly bruised hand that was originally described as broken. Clearly opponents are trying to take him out.

But Vick is not getting hit more than other quarterbacks. According to ESPN's Stats & Information video analysis, entering Week 3, Vick, Sam Bradford and Chad Henne each had been hit six times while throwing. Add in that Vick is fair game when he chooses to scramble outside the pocket -- and not slide -- and yes, he is getting hit a lot. But ignored by officials? No. He has benefited from one roughing-the-passer call already this season.

"Everybody saw the game," Vick said after the Eagles lost to the Giants. "I was on the ground constantly, all of the time. Every time I throw the ball in all my highlights and just watching film in general, every time I throw the ball I'm on the ground, getting hit in the head, and I don't know why. I don't get the 15-yard flags like everybody else does, but hey, I'm not going to complain about it."

Vick needs to notice that his team is in jeopardy of collapsing. Its defense under first-year coordinator Juan Castillo has major issues at linebacker and in the secondary. Against the Giants, the offense sputtered in the red zone. Instead of complaining about non-calls, Vick should have tried to rally his teammates. Leaders lead.

TWEET THIS

Notable tweets from around the league:

"At least we still winning will get this fixed very soon" -- @ChrisJohnson28, after gaining 21 yards on 13 carries in Tennessee's 17-14 win over Denver, bringing his season total to 98 yards on 46 carries with no touchdowns.

"Is this ugly or what?" -- @RealJoeNamath, after the Oakland Raiders scored two touchdowns in less than a minute to go up 31-14 on the New York Jets en route to a 34-24 win.

"Getting cursed @, bottles thrown @ our buses, and middle fingers by kids, teens, adults, elders. Philly fans are the best! #NYG Stand UP!" -- @SpittyP, otherwise known as New York rookie linebacker Spencer Paysinger, on his welcome to the NFC East.

Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.