Commentary

Giving the runaround

Forte's statistics shouldn't hide need for improvement

Originally Published: October 4, 2009
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- When Bears head coach Lovie Smith said on Sunday that running back Matt Forte averaged more than 10 yards a carry in the team's 48-24 victory over Detroit, you could almost feel the cynicism in the room.

That's a little like saying the average height of a basketball team made up of fifth graders and Yao Ming is 6-foot.

This is not to say that Forte did not have a good game. He did. On a "bad knee," according to center Olin Kreutz, Forte totaled 121 yards on 12 carries, but two of those runs were 61 and 37 yards. Take those away, and Forte ran for 23 yards on 10 carries, an average of 2.3 yards per carry.

[+] EnlargeMatt Forte
Jerry Lai/US PresswireChicago Bears' running back Matt Forte broke off some impressive runs, but the Bears' running game still needs to get better.

Is it fair to take away those carries? Of course not. Forte's first, the 61-yarder, was a career long and came on his first carry of the game to immediately erase the momentum of a Detroit touchdown and avert potential disaster. Bears guard Roberto Garza pulled left, Forte patiently waited for his opening, then exploded through it, galloping downfield until being pushed out of bounds on the Detroit 5-yard line.

After Forte was stopped for no gain on the next play and Jay Cutler missed Greg Olsen in the end zone, the Bears scored on a 5-yard scramble by Cutler in which he "helicoptered" at the goal line.

Forte's second long run came in the fourth quarter and salted the game away as he scored around the left end to answer a Lions field goal and put the Bears ahead 41-24.

"The defensive end crashed down," Forte described, "and my fullback [Jason McKie], actually got up on the safety and once I saw him coming, I made a move to where he could get the block and then after that, I just ran to the end zone."

Forte made it sound almost easy, which, based on the previous three weeks, we know is not the case. And based on Kreutz's newsflash, it is that much more impressive.

"I don't know if a lot of people know that Matt is playing with a bad knee, but he's still out there playing hard and he still broke a couple runs today," Kreutz said.

Forte entered Sunday's game averaging 2.5 yards per carry and 150 yards total in three games, which had him ranked 29th in the league. This came after a rookie season in which he averaged 3.7 yards per carry and finished seventh in the league in rushing yards with 1,238.

Over the past several weeks, Bears players and coaches have acknowledged that the running game has not been what they want it to be. To deduce now that it is all better after two big gains against a defensive line missing half its starters would not be quite right either.

Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner struck the right note when he reasoned, "We scored 48 points doing a lot of good things and I don't think we even came close to playing as well as we're capable of playing and as well as we will play."

They will tell you that the line is still jelling after only four games, and no question it is with three new starters. With two more sacks allowed on Sunday, Cutler has now been dropped eight times this season, which should keep the Bears in the bottom half of the league in that category.

They will also tell you that what Forte did against the Lions is more than just OK.

"If you look at all the good running teams, that's what we've been missing," Kreutz said. "You go 1, 2 [yards], then you pop one. Then you go 1 yard, 2 yards, and you pop another one. That's where your high averages come from. That's the running game in the NFL. And hopefully you're up at the end of the game and you can run the ball some more."

The Bears still ran only 20 times, three on Cutler scrambles and only 12 by their feature back. Cutler attempted 28 passes, completing 18. At this point in the season, they're more of a passing team. They're also 3-1, scored 48 points and have a legitimately great quarterback for the first time in forever. Maybe they think if they keep insisting they're a running team, it will magically happen.

And Forte's 2.3-yard average on his other 10 carries is still a worrisome indicator of his run blocking, given what we saw last season.

"No one gets 5 yards on every play," Kreutz continued. "You see a 5-yard average in the NFL and it's usually 1, 1, 1, 20. … It's part of the game. You're wearing on them. You can always improve on a 1-yard carry, that's obvious. But we know that's going to happen. And we stick our helmet in there and we come back to the sideline and we call the same play again. And we stick our helmet in there and we call a play and they're overplaying the other play and that's where we get the pops."

OK, as long as they continue to get the pops against the better teams on their schedule, rather than insisting all is fine.

"We've felt good about it," Cutler said when the running game was brought up Sunday. "It was you [the media] that made a big deal about it. We've seen defenses that were geared to stopping the run and opening things up on the outside. It's a long season and we know that Matt is going to give us a lot of production."

Forte said he simply needs to be patient with his line and "they need to be patient with me."

That's being very generous on his part.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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