2014 Bears outlook: Running backs

2014 Bears outlook: Running backs
February 10, 2014, 10:00 am
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This is the seventh in a series looking back at the Bears' 2013 season, by position. Bears Insider John "Moon" Mullin is breaking down where each position group succeeded and failed this past season, where it needs to get better and how the personnel may look different next season after free agency.

Overview: The Pro Bowl seasons of receivers Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall did not entirely overshadow the year of Matt Forte, also selected for the Pro Bowl after the best all-around season of his career. Coach Marc Trestman did not explicitly seek a run-pass balance in his offense and called runs (does not include scrambles by quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Josh McCown) accounted for just 36.3 percent of Bears plays.

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But the role of the running back advanced and Forte moved into second place in franchise history for rushing yards, yards from scrimmage, average yards from scrimmage per game and games with 150 combined yards. As important in the overall Bears fabric, “I saw Matt Forte being a better leader,” said GM Phil Emery.

2013: The offense may not have tilted as much toward the run as it has in the time of Lovie Smith but Forte remained the central figure in the offense other than Cutler. He was handed or thrown the ball 383 times, more than Jeffery (166) and Marshall (160) combined.

No. 1 backs in Trestman offenses over the previous 10 NFL years averaged 65.4 pass receptions and Forte topped that with 74.

Oddly perhaps, the Bears were 3-2 in games when Forte rushed for 100 or more yards. They were 14-1 in those games through his first five NFL seasons. The problem wasn’t Forte; the defense allowed 406 combined rushing yards in those two losses (at Minnesota, Green Bay).

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The offense did not fare as well in short-yardage situations through too much of the season as Michael Bush’s effectiveness declined. Bush averaged a career-low 3.1 yards per carry.

Bush carried 63 times and delivered just 10 first downs (16 percent) despite the proportion of carries in short-yardage situations. By comparison, Forte picked up first downs on 26 percent of his carries.

Looking ahead: Bush’s future in Chicago is in significant doubt without a significant pay cut. He was the latest in the Bears’ search for a No. 2 to Forte when he was signed in 2012 to replace Marion Barber who was signed to replace Chester Taylor who was signed to replace Kahlil Bell, who was signed to replace Kevin Jones, and so on back through the Garrett Wolfes and Adrian Petersons. With a base salary of $2.8 million, Bush is too expensive for the production realized.

Forte is signed through 2015 and likely to see an increased role in the passing game under Trestman and Aaron Kromer. He had lapses last season but is generally excellent in pass protection, making him a designer three-down back. Charlie Garner caught 91 under Trestman with the 2002 Oakland Raiders and that is clearly within Forte’s reach.

Strategies: The Bears kept Michael Ford on the roster all season but never used him on offense, only on special teams. He is about the same size as Forte, however, and the ideal would be a change-of-pace back, bigger or smaller.

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Bush at 29 does not fit as a part of the future despite positive comments from Trestman at points last season. Whether Ford is the answer at No. 2 remains for next preseason but the depth chart is expected to be more than open to newcomers through this offseason.

2014 Position Outlook Series

Part 1: Defensive Line 

Part 2: Quarterback

Part 3: Linebackers

Part 4: Receivers

Part 5: Offensive Line

Part 6: Defensive backs

Part 7: Running backs