Gameday Blog: Forte completely took over

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Gameday Blog: Forte completely took over

Sunday, Oct. 2, 2011Posted: 11:45 a.m. Updated: 7:20 p.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com Bears Insider Follow @CSNMoonMullin

The story of Sunday, besides the Bears getting a desperately needed victory, was Matt Forte. Period.

The running back made a statement for his inclusion in any discussion of elite backs with a career-high 205 rushing yards in 25 attempts. His 17-yard run for in the second quarter was the Bears first rushing touchdown of the season.

The rushing total was the ninth 100-yard game of Fortes career, all Bears wins, and the team total of 224 yards were the most for the Bears since 242 against Green Bay in Sept. 1988.

Forte joins Walter Payton (275, 205) and Gale Sayers (205) as the only backs in franchise history to run for 200 yards in a game. His total for the day moved him past Thomas Jones (3,493) and into fifth place on the Bears all-time list with 3,560 rushing yards. Sayers 4,956 may have to wait until next year. Then again.

It reminded me of my senior year at Tulane, every weekend getting 200 yards, Forte said. All the credit goes to the offensive line. The holes were huge. Even towards the end of the game, we kept pounding them and pounding them. The offensive line just wore the defense out.

Running the ball on 13 of the first 14 plays was a good start on the wearing-out process. Jay Cutler did not throw a pass in the first quarter and threw just four in the second as the Bears called 12 running plays to five pass plays.

Touchdowns by the defense on D.J. Moores interception and special teams on Devin Hesters punt return put the Carolina offense back on the field, causing time of possession to be skewed. The Panthers ran 36 plays in the first half to the Bears 17.

Running the ball was the plan, coach Lovie Smith said. We dont just go out there and make up stuff.

QB or not QB

Call it a tale of two Qs. QBs, that is.

Cam Newton had the numbers. Jay Cutler has the win.

The rookie quarterback passed for 374 yards, threw for on TD and rushed for two others. But the Heisman Trophy winner and the Carolina Panthers may want to change something.

This marked the third time in Newtons four NFL games that hes passed for more than 370 yards. The Panthers have lost all three and Newton was in no mood to talk stats.

For a person to tell me you cant win them all, thats a losers mentality, said Newton, who completed 27-of-46 passes, wasnt sacked and threw one interception. To some degree, I feel like Ive let some teammates down.

Meanwhile, Cutlers 46.7 was the lowest passer rating of his career in a victory, the first time hes had a sub-50.0 mark and seen his team win. His 17 attempts, one for an interception, matched his career low for a full game, tying his total in the 2009 Bears game against St. Louis.

That game, in which he completed just 8 passes, also was a win.

Those games happen, Cutler said. You have to manage the ballgame.

Record setter

No one was more surprised that the Panthers punted the ball anywhere near Devin Hester than Devin Hester. Indeed, special teams coach Dave Toub, who worked with Carolina coach Ron Rivera with the Philadelphia Eagles, was convinced that Hester wouldnt see many returnable punts.

It was a shock, Hester admitted.

Hester then turned the shock on Carolina, bringing a second-quarter punt back 69 yards for a touchdown that was the 11th punt-return TD of his career, most in NFL history and breaking his tie with Eric Metcalf, who set his mark with 351 returns while Hester has done his over the span of 182.

It was a great call by Coach Toub, Hester said. You could tell the punter had a bad hit on the ball. He didnt get much air time on it. At that time, I knew I could buy a little more time and set up the defenders coming back.

Being another part of NFL history, which Hester already was because of his TD total for all kick returns, set last season at 14, feels very, very good, especially after a win.

It feels great, Hester said. To be labeled the greatest person at a position is a great honor. Once again, I have to give credit to my teammates.

Being defensive

Players told CSNChicago.com that for all of Newtons astonishing athletic abilities, no attempt was made to spy on the young quarterback. In the past, the Bears have used typically a linebacker, whether Lance Briggs or Brian Urlacher, to pay personal attention to a Daunte Culpepper, Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb or other particularly mobile quarterback.

This time, there was none of that. The Bears stayed with their basic 4-3 front, moving D.J. Moore in at nickel back to match Carolina personnel changes, but one sentiment was that the front four were capable of sufficient pressure (they werent) and that to over-commit to Newton was to ignore receiving threats Steve Smith and tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey.

Newton ran eight times for 34 yards and was not sacked.

A little support, please?

Quarterback Jay Cutler was sacked once in 18 pass plays and only hit 3 times, according to press box stats. He completed just 9-of-17 passes, had one intercepted and one dropped, but seemed to be blaming his offensive line for rhythm problems in the pass game.

With the changes up front, its kind of hard to get in rhythm passing, Cutler said. Once we get those guys kind of stable and get Gabe Carimi, injured right tackle back, and get everything situated up there, well get there.

Its hard to be in a rhythm four games into it, to have an identity. Were still figuring it out.

That is difficult to understand. Cutlers completion percentage over the last three games is 49.5 percent despite his relatively smash-free Sunday. His completion percentage on the season is 54.2.

When Cutler was sacked just 11 times in 2008, his Pro Bowl season, his passer rating was 86.0.

When he was sacked 52 times last year and hit dozens more times, his passer rating was 86.3.

Cam Newton does not appear to be having as much difficulty figuring it out through four games, albeit three of them losses. The rookie has completed 59.8 percent of his passes.

Offensive lineing

Offensive lineman Lance Louis may want to talk to GM Jerry Angelo about a little overtime pay.

Louis didnt start, for the second straight game, but played three different positions right guard, right tackle and tight end.

I just go where they tell me, Louis said, laughing. Thats a first for me.

Louis did not start doing a little work at right tackle, which he played in college, until Thursday of last week, making his effort and contributions even more notable.

The shuffling on the offensive line continued Sunday, and that wont be the last of it. Frank Omiyale got the start at right tackle for his second straight game but likely his last. He was benched to start the second half and Louis, benched in favor of Chris Spencer at right guard, replaced Omiyale at right tackle after Omiyale was beaten badly for the one sack of Jay Cutler in the first half.

Omiyale did appear in the second half, as a tackle in a third-and-1 situation in the fourth quarter with Louis moving to tight end. The play, a bizarre run fake by Jay Cutler, was a swing pass to Matt Forte that came up just short. The same personnel package stayed in on fourth down as Forte converted with a four-yard run.

We put Lance Louis over three at right tackle and he filled in nice, Jay Cutler said. Hes got to be one of the MVPs of the game along with Matt Forte. Just his ability to go out there and play tackle. He hasnt done it on the right side and after that first series, played a heck of a game for us.
"Devin Hester, you are ridiculous!"
Play-by-play man Jeff Joniaks famous call was warranted in the second quarter when Devin Hester, after returning a kickoff 73 yards to set up a touchdown, went 69 yards with a punt return for a score. It was the 11th of Hesters career and set an NFL record for punt return TDs.
Steve Smith, YOU are ridiculous!

Carolina Panthers wideout Steve Smith destroyed the Bears with 218 yards in the teams 2005 meeting in the divisional playoff. With help from breakdowns in the secondary, Smith had 132 yards Sunday with 2 minutes to play in the first half.

Oops

Greg Olsen didnt make his return to Soldier Field memorable initially. The former Bears No. 1 draft choice (2007) was guilty of a false start on the Panthers first trip to the line of scrimmage. He followed that with a holding penalty down in the red zone to nullify what would have been a first and goal.

Making the call

Belatedly, heres the take on how Bears-Carolina Panthers will play out:

The Panthers are not good at stopping either the run or the pass. Theyre 25th in rushing yards allowed and 14th vs. the pass. Arizona and Green Bay both put points on the Carolina defense and the Bears will as well.

How they do that, however, has proved problematic. The biggest question surrounding this team coming into the 2011 season was whether or not the change in game-planning that worked so well over the last nine games of 2010 would remain the rule of the land under Mike Martz. It hasnt.

The Bears have not blocked well enough to run the ball effectively and the line hasnt given coach Mike Tice ammunition to press for more smash-mouthing as he did last year. The offense will put the ball up in the air (Martz will never stop doing that in profusion) but the coherence between passing to set up the run is simply too compelling.

This will not be easy. The Panthers have a mission statement in the form of wanting to give coach Ron Rivera a game ball as a substitute for a Bear pelt. And Carolina believes it is very, very good now that it has a quarterback instead of the mish-mash of Jimmy Clausen and Matt Moore.

But the Bears have just come through the most difficult starting three games in the NFL. Being 1-2 should disabuse them of any overconfidence notion, and they are simply a better team than their guests.

And so.

Bears 24 Carolina 20

For starters

As CSNChicago noted last week, Johnny Knox has won back the starting job he had taken from him in training camp. Roy Williams opened his second straight game on the bench Sunday after catching zero of four passes last week, although two misses were completely the responsibility of quarterback Jay Cutler.

Knox led the Bears in receiving yards in 2010 but made too many route and other mistakes and was jolted early in camp with a demotion in favor of Williams, signed to a one-year contract for 1.25 million last offseason. But Knox has responded with nine catches, tied with Dane Sanzenbacher for tops among receivers (Matt Forte has 22).

And Knox is an established deep threat opposite another one in Devin Hester. Youve got guys that can take the top off your defense with Hester and Johnny Knox, said Atlanta coach Mike Smith.

Williams has had virtually no impact, down with a groin injury suffered late in the Atlanta game that had him inactive against New Orleans. He has had two costly drops and has not shown any of the expected connectivity with Cutler, not being in top condition in training camp and missing time due to the injury.

For starters II

Another shift appears to have happened on the offensive line where starting right guard Lance Louis, active last week but a DNP, was again sitting out the first snap as Chris Spencer operated at the position Louis held through all four preseason games and the Atlanta and New Orleans games.

Whether that change is permanent remains to be seen. Spencers better position is center, and Roberto Garzas spot has been right guard for most of his career. Garza settled in at center during Olin Kreutzs absence and exit, developed a rapport with Cutler and the Bears are leaving Spencer and him in place. For now.

For starters III

Veteran strong safety Chris Harris hamstring injury, which recurred this past week after one day of practice, sent the Bears to work with their fourth different starting safety tandem in four games. Brandon Meriweather moved in at free safety, a job he is expected to hold for the rest of this season and possibly beyond if the Bears can work out an extension with the two-time Pro Bowler.

Major Wright, who has had occasional fits and starts in his first year with the No. 1 defense, slid over to strong safety. How the Bears shuffle once Harris is able to play looms as a possible statement about their long-range plans for Harris, a free agent after 2011 and who has not had significant overtures yet from the Bears.

Rostering

Defensive end Corey Wootton, whose training camp was eye-opening before he needed surgery on an injured right knee, was active for the first time this season. Woottons very active style has been an anticipated enhancement for the pass rush.

To make game-day room for Wootton, rookie Mario Addison was deactivated along with defensive tackle Stephen Paea, Harris, quarterback Nathan Enderle, receiver Earl Bennett (chest), tackle Gabe Carimi (knee) and tight end Matt Spaeth (calf).

Significantly, the Panthers were forced to make starting cornerback Chris Gamble inactive with the after-effects of a concussion. Right tackle Jeff Otah, questionable with a back problem, was able to make the starting lineup.

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

Are Bears better than Texans, Broncos, Dolphins and others? Pro Football Focus says yes

Are Bears better than Texans, Broncos, Dolphins and others? Pro Football Focus says yes

Pro Football Focus has more than its share of both supporters and detractors of how it goes about grading NFL players. They break down every snap for every player, and while there are general agreements on what's seen by naked, untrained eyes who don't put the time and investment into its system that PFF does, there are other evaluations that seem to come out of the blue. While there's occasional guesswork on a player's particular assignment on a given play within its scheme, those of us who've watched and studied nuances of the game, or those who've played it, can usually identify how many jobs were done correctly.

Tuesday, PFF released its rankings of all 32 NFL rosters but in essence focused on the quality of each team's starting lineup, listing the Bears — are you sitting down? — 18th in the league. That's ahead of the likes of the Ravens, Saints, Texans, Dolphins, a Jaguars franchise that's had tons of high draft picks in recent years, as well as the Broncos and Lions (whom they rank 28th). The top five are the Falcons, Patriots, Titans, Packers and Steelers (the Bears play three of those teams in September alone). Among other Bears opponents, they rank the Panthers 10th, Vikings 12th, Buccaneers 13th and Eagles 15th.

[BEARS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Their evaluation is based on each player's final score from last season, "elite" and "good" being the top two levels, followed by "average" and "below average" to "poor." The only Bear earning elite status was inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman. Another nine Bears finished with good grades: Jordan Howard, Zach Miller, Josh Sitton, Cody Whitehair, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Danny Trevathan, Adrian Amos and Quintin Demps (who earned his grade in Houston).

Those earning average grades were Cam Meredith, Kendall Wright, Kyle Long, Charles Leno, Jr., Pernell McPhee and Prince Amukamara. Below average: Mike Glennon (in mop-up duty in Tampa Bay), Kevin White, Bobby Massie, Leonard Floyd and Jaye Howard. The only Bear earning a poor grade among projected starters was tight end Dion Sims (with Miami). The other potential flaw is that PFF lists Kyle Fuller (no grade) and Bryce Callahan (average) as starters when Marcus Cooper and Cre'Von LeBlanc likely have the inside track to start at cornerback and nickel back, respectively.

How did the Bears get to 18th, above three playoff teams and another that won the Super Bowl two years ago? Well, all of those other teams have more elite players at certain positions, but it's offset by a number of spots occupied by more players with poor or below average grades. The Broncos (25th) for instance, had four elite players, just another four falling under the good grade, but five players listed as poor.

Jordan Howard wants to lead Bears... and lead the league

Jordan Howard wants to lead Bears... and lead the league

So Jordan Howard finished second in the NFL in rushing in his rookie season, despite just a dozen carries in the first three games. The fifth-round pick joined the man who beat him out for the rushing title, Ezekiel Elliott, as one of just five rookies in history to average five or more yards per carry on over 250 carries. And he set the Bears' rookie rushing record with his 1,313 yards while becoming just the fourth in franchise history to rush for that many yards in a season.

Sounds pretty hard to top, like we might be set up for the dreaded sophomore slump.

But...

"Things are a lot different this year because I know what to expect," Howard said during the team's minicamp two weeks ago. "I know all the plays and things like that. I’m not out there thinking, so I can just play free and fast.

"I definitely feel like a veteran 'cause I know what to expect and can help the young guys on the plays that they're not understanding. I’m just more comfortable and want to be a leader."

One of the other things we learned about Howard last year is he's low-key, a man of few words. So the Indiana product by way of UAB will make his points verbally when needed, but his actions will speak louder.

"He was a rookie a year ago and didn't even go in trying to be a leader, telling a five-year guy what was up," said head coach John Fox. "I think with time, and obviously with production like he had, I think it's a role he can fall in to. We're in a performance-based business and even in that locker room, what they do on Sundays gives them some credibility."

One of the concerns about Howard coming out of college was durability, but he answered the bell once he became the starter in week four against Detroit. And he probably wasn't used nearly as much as he should have. The good news about that is he was subject to less wear and tear, averaging just 18 carries per game from that Lions game on.

But besides taking more of a leadership role, Howard wanted to work on his speed without sacrificing the strong base that, paired with keen vision and work by the offensive line, allowed him to hit holes quickly and charge toward the second level of opposing defenses.

"Just improving on the little things – my conditioning, my weight, catching passes. And looking for ways to finish runs better," says Howard. "I feel like I’m in much better shape than I was at this time last year, a little more toned-up."

"It's just training," said Fox. "When you get to that it's more like track speed than football speed and I think he proved pretty worthy of that a year ago as a rookie. Y'know we all can improve on things, and that's the expectation. He's trained hard.

"This time of year last year he wasn’t even practicing," Fox remembered. "I like where we are, we’ve brought in more competition, and he’s better for it. He’s kind of gotten used to an NFL season, he’s come back ready to roll, but he still has work to do before we get to training camp."  

Oh, and the 22-year-old has a couple of other goals he didn't mind sharing, besides being a leader and getting a little faster.

"First off, make the playoffs. Be the leading rusher, and just help the team in any way I can and stay consistent."