The Jenga tower is wobbling, and in a year where everything is different for the Chicago Bears, it’s only fitting that they now turn to Matt Forte, the one constant through it all, to keep the tower from crashing.
That seems to be popular narrative, anyway. Let Forte shoulder the load. Feed him the rock. Then feed him again.
But consider the Bears' Week 9 opponent, the Green Bay Packers. They’ve got a stout run defense; the 84 yards and 3.7 yards per carry they give up rank fourth and sixth respectively.
On the other hand, they’re even worse than the Bears at rushing the passer, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). In turn, they struggle against the pass.
So it may be more sensible for the Bears to disregard the Forte narrative entirely. Throw the ball instead. Chuck it down the field and let Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall be the part-human part-falcon they’ve shown they can be.
But that notion just doesn’t want to digest. Backup quarterbacks can’t be trusted to keep the Jenga pieces in place for very long. They have a habit of conjuring remarkable performances out of even the worst defenses.
Thus, Forte will be called upon, but the Bears should forget the notion that it’s all about getting him touches. After all, 30 touches at a two-yard clip is actually a detriment to an offense. What the Bears need is quality production.
What can they do?
How can they minimize their no-gains and one-yard losses? How can they find consistent gains on the ground?
Well, as it turns out, there are quite a few ways.
No. 1: Ditch the 3-wide look with Earl Bennett
What this means is that he has turned into a non-contributor, a decoy—the odd man out.
It’s time for the Bears to start swapping him out more often for someone who can provide a bigger boost to the offense.
Two options stand out.
First is offensive tackle Eben Britton, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ second-round pick in 2009. Line him up next to right tackle Jordan Mills. It’s the we’re-not-putzing-around version of keeping a tight end or running back in pass protection. As you can see in the GIF, Britton, No. 62, has already shown he can be an effective blocker.
The second option is swapping Bennett for backup tight end Dante Rosario. Pro Football Focus rates him as one of the Bears’ best blockers, and since he is serviceable as a pass catcher, it wouldn’t limit the offense as much as Britton’s addition would.
In either case, the substitution better equips the Bears to run the ball effectively.
No. 2: Pull Kyle Long to the left side and run it wide
Rookie offensive guard Kyle Long has received high praise this year, and for good reason. In addition to providing solid pass protection, he is the team’s most effective run blocker. And with rare athleticism for a 300-pounder, he’s shown the mobility to be an effective pulling guard.
To play to their strengths, the Bears need to make a concerted effort to run plays where their best two run blockers, Long and left tackle Jermon Bushrod, can lead at the point of attack. Running off tackle with Long pulling is a prime way to do this.
There’s an added benefit to running outside the tackles. In Marshall and Jeffery, both giants compared to the cornerbacks who cover them, the Bears have two of the best blocking wide receivers in the game.
Getting Forte in space, where he can use his agility and elusiveness is most effective, should be a priority for the Bears.
No. 3: Run at Mike Neal
Pro Football Focus rates Packers' outside linebacker Mike Neal as the team's worst run stopper. In six out of seven games he’s actually had a negative impact in the run game. That alone is enough to warrant this approach. But the fact that he’s coming off a shoulder injury that limited his action in Week 8 solidifies this as a strong option for the Bears.
No. 4: Feature the Alshon Jeffery end-around
The Bears want a strong ground game to help out Josh McCown, but their rushing attempts don’t have to come solely from Forte. The wide receiver reverse with Jeffery has proven to be an effective option. Six times this year the Bears have run the play, resulting in gains of 38, -8, 27, 15, 11 and 5.
The play is effective in part because it catches the defense off guard. Admittedly, overuse of it would reduce the play’s effectiveness. But they haven’t saturated that market yet, so it should be a weapon they utilize at least twice against the Packers.
No. 5: Encourage McCown to run
McCown proved against the Washington Redskins that he can make plays with his legs. His runs of 11, 13 and 10 yards were key components of his successful performance.
Against the Redskins, though, there was concern that if he went down with an injury, no one on the roster could fill in. Come Sunday, that concern needs to be left at home.
For one, the Bears have backups now. But more important, at this juncture of the season, they simply can’t afford to play conservatively.
The coaching staff should encourage McCown to tuck and run whenever he has the chance. In general, quarterback scrambles are one of the best risk-to-reward plays in the NFL. They almost always yield positive yardage, and they rarely result in a turnover.
If McCown can add 30 yards on the ground, it’ll be a sizeable boost to an offense in need of just that.