Forte thrived in season's second half

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Matt Forte admitted he needed last week’s bye to rest aching muscles.

It’s a far cry from where he was on Nov. 1; an afterthought in a Mike Martz playbook with seemingly all of the running plays torn out.

“It’s pretty obvious we need to establish the run to help out the passing game and cut down on turnovers,” Forte said after the Bears called more than twice the passes (79) as runs (27) in back-to-back losses to the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins prior to the bye week.

Since making that comment, Forte seems to have taken on all the work he can handle, which is precisely the way he prefers things headed into Sunday’s rematch with the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC divisional playoffs. Over the final six weeks of the regular season, Forte ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing average (5.8 yards per carry) and third in yards from scrimmage (718).

Surprisingly, Forte churned out 717 of his season-total 1,069 yards over the last nine weeks of the regular season, leading Bears coaches Lovie Smith and Martz to often ask in recent weeks: How many running backs are playing better?

“We’ve run the ball more, blocked effectively, and I think we really put our minds to establishing the running game in each game, and having a balanced offense,” Forte said. “That’s what helped me out.”

Developing timing due to increased opportunities and good health also play roles. Forte said he’s as healthy at this time of the year as ever during his three years, which might be attributable to his relative inactivity over the first seven games.

Earlier in the season before the team emphasized the run, Forte said he was merely “doing what our offense was called to do,” in a “pass-heavy” attack. The running back focused on blocking, and exploiting matchups with linebackers and safeties in the passing game, which is part of the reason why he finished the season with a career-high 547 yards receiving. Forte’s 10.7 yards per catch ranks No. 3 in the NFL among running backs.

“I think coach Martz already knew what I could do [as a runner],” Forte said. “I don’t think I had to prove I could run the football or anything like that. I just think he had to see once we got the line squared and figured out what we were going to do that we couldn’t just throw the ball the whole time. We just had to figure that out.”

Once they did, the Bears took significant steps, offensively, which allowed the unit to cut down on sacks, turnovers, and increase time of possession to prevent putting the defense into unnecessary binds. Forte’s production as a runner has also bolstered the play-action passing game.

“We’ve really gotten our run game going of late with Matt, and that can’t do anything but help, especially in the playoffs,” tight end Greg Olsen said.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll agreed, citing the team’s balance on offense as one of the most important factors in its improvement, while safety Lawyer Milloy called Forte “outstanding.”

Although the official statistics from the Week 6 game list the Bears as running the ball 14 times, the team actually called just 12 rushing plays (two runs came on Cutler scrambles).

That’s not the approach the team wants to take against the Seahawks. Quarterback Jay Cutler joked Wednesday about throwing the ball 60 times Sunday if necessary, but the reality is the Bears need to run to keep alive their hopes for a return trip to the Super Bowl.

“I don’t think we have a choice,” Forte said. “We can’t go out like last time and throw the ball 40 or 50 times and only run 10 times. If we can run the ball on them and control the clock, it’s only going to help us out in the long run.”