Sick bay: Cutler good, Forte fine, Knox optimistic

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Sick bay: Cutler good, Forte fine, Knox optimistic

The 2011 season may stand as the ultimate 'might-have-been' for coach Lovie Smith. A five-game win streak had the Bears at 7-3 before season-ending injuries to Jay Cutler and Matt Forte in the span of six quarters.

For all of the criticism leveled at the organization for not knowing Caleb Hanie was bad, Smith is more interested in what the Bears are with Cutler and Forte than what they arent without them.

I think, just that in itself I think most of the teams that didnt go to the playoffs, we have an excuse for why we didnt make it there, but that was a pretty good football team, Smith said. I didnt think I thought wed be able to handle that situation better, but we didnt play with two pretty good football players and I just cant wait to get them back on the field and go through an entire season with them.

Unless Forte goes the unlikely route of sitting out the season in protest over a franchise tag, Smith should have that chance. We dont see anything major as far as injuries that were going to have to deal with coming up, Smith said.

Cutlers thumb injury was healing to the point where he was a possibility for the playoffs had the Bears reached them. Forte was recovered enough to play in the Pro Bowl.

Johnny Knoxs gruesome back injury left him and anyone who saw it frightened and then relieved. His exact return plan is uncertain but the Bears are encouraged.

Johnnys rehabbing every day, making a lot of progress and I cant wait to get him back out on the football field, Smith said.

Smith said Brian Urlacher is in perfect health after his final-game knee injury. And as far as age, Smith finds the 'your-guys-are-really-old' doomsayers amusing to a point.

In time when he cant play anymore football, five, six years, you media and I both will probably be long gone in retirement then and Brian will still be playing, Smith said.

Tackle Gabe Carimi was dubbed the Bears best offensive lineman when he went down with a knee injury in game two. Surgery was delayed until December but the hope is that he will be healed by training camp.

I dont know exactly when Gabe will be ready right now off the top of my head, Smith said. I just know I see him every day working and everything is going as planned and theres no reason to think Were excited about Gabe Carimi will bring. We talk adding pieces and I look at him as a free agent were adding to the mix. Hes a first-round draft pick who barely played for us last year.

Bears establishing smash-mouth core with Jordan Howard

Bears establishing smash-mouth core with Jordan Howard

Eric Kush was in some pain after the Bears win over the San Francisco 49ers. But it was a “good” pain, particularly since part of it was inflicted by a teammate.

The teammate was running back Jordan Howard, and the Bears left guard was learning along with his linemates that when Howard is coming, “he’s a-comin’,” Kush said.

“Oh man, sometimes you’re, ‘[groan-groan-groan], and he’ll hit you right in the back, you fall and try to take your guy down with you and stick him in the snow so you’re not the only one getting soaking wet and cold. But Jordan’s a lot fun and we try to kick some butt for him.”

The rookie running back has become more than simply a draft nugget from the fifth round of this year’s draft. Howard has established himself as an integral part of a winning formula of complimentary football, the concept long favored by John Fox, Lovie Smith and coaches who operate from the foundation of a premier running game, impact defense and solid special teams.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

The Bears’ three wins have come this season in the only games in which Howard has been given 20-plus carries: 23 vs. Detroit, 26 vs. Minnesota, 32 vs. San Francisco. Add to those the 3 pass receptions against the Lions and the 4 against the Vikings and the true centerpiece of the 2016 Bears offense is more than a little apparent.

For obvious reasons beyond simply the rushing numbers.

“Especially pass protection,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “I think he's taken a big jump that way. When you're young in this league, those are the things that can get grey for you. You run the football, he's obviously a talented player there, but in pass pro, he's made his biggest growth.”

As a corollary to Howard, San Francisco was only the second game this season in which the Bears called fewer than 30 pass plays (the only other time was at Green Bay, when the Bears only ran a total of 45 plays, 27 of them pass plays). In that respect, the snow was viewed as an ally by some in the locker room who have been unhappy at the run:pass balance, which was just 36-percent-run coming into the 49ers game.

“It was one of these games where, with the weather, we couldn’t pass the ball like we normally do —  30 times — so we had to keep it on the ground,” said one member of the offense.

Howard’s breakout game as an NFL ball carrier came against the Lions (23 carries, 111 rushing yards, 3 receptions). The Bears, looking for a breakout of their own in the form of a first two-game win streak in more than a year, are expected to keep it simple — and in Howard’s hands.

“I always expected a lot out of myself,” Howard said. “I didn’t really think that things would happen maybe this soon or this fast. I’m definitely grateful for it.”

Bears looking into Teryl Austin’s past for clues on how Lions will scheme vs. Matt Barkley

Bears looking into Teryl Austin’s past for clues on how Lions will scheme vs. Matt Barkley

The adage “play the man, not the board” seems somehow appropriate for what the Bears are doing to prepare for the Detroit Lions behind quarterback Matt Barkley.

“The man” is Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, and the Bears have been scouting him as well as his defenses, beyond just Bears games, beyond this season and last, taking in his 2014 Detroit season when Austin prepared defenses for Jay Cutler and Jimmy Clausen.

How did Austin scheme for rookie Carson Wentz when the Lions played (and beat) the Philadelphia Eagles? How did he structure is defense to stop a rookie Teddy Bridgewater when Detroit played Minnesota? (Not very well, apparently, since the Vikings won both games and scored 54 points combined in the two games).

While the John Fox Bears staff went against Austin’s Lions defense twice last year, Cutler was the Bears quarterback. When the Bears beat Austin and the Lions two months ago, it was with Brian Hoyer.

Now the Bears quarterback is Matt Barkley, who has fewer NFL games played (seven) than Cutler has NFL seasons (11), Hoyer (eight), too, for that matter.

“Different defensive coordinators attack young quarterbacks differently,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “Some guys blitz, some guys play a bunch of zone. This group on defense there, they have a really good defensive coordinator, they're really smart, they do a bunch of stuff. On the back end, they run all the coverages.

“As a game, we'll have to make adjustments as the game goes and see what their plan to come out is early.”

Coaches and players may talk about how they prepare for a scheme irrespective of which opposing quarterback, running back, linebacker or whatever they will be facing. But in fact, preparations start with who is orchestrating the opponent’s offense or defense – play the man, not the board.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

A risk can be out-thinking yourself trying to anticipate what a coordinator will do. The first point, Loggains said, is to start with your own strengths.

“We definitely look at that,” Loggains said. “As you go in the league long and longer, you face these guys, you see them in crossover games. We always know how a guy attacks a rookie quarterback or attacks a young quarterback, a veteran, or, in Matt's case, a guy who hasn't played as much.”

Evaluations of Barkley’s performance will broaden, particularly now that he is on tape for defensive coordinators to scheme for and scout. And while they are watching Barkley, the Bears are watching them.