Bears' offense suddenly has options

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- If you tried real hard, you could almost hear Mike Martz's teeth grinding as the offensive coordinator watched game tape at Halas Hall on Monday. Surely you could imagine it as Martz had to sit through 42 rushing attempts in the Bears' 23-6 victory over Carolina.

Obviously, Martz had to be thrilled with the win, coming as it did despite the absence of starting quarterback Jay Cutler and with four interceptions by his replacement, Todd Collins. Throw in the fact it followed an ugly loss against the Giants and came on the road against an NFC team, and the Bears would have taken a 2-0 victory in overtime.

But 42 rushing attempts?

Since Lovie Smith took over as head coach in 2004, 42 rushes in one game trails only the 44 against Green Bay on Dec. 23, 2007. And the 218 yards on the ground was the most by a Bears team in 20 years.

After the debacle against the Giants, Martz's playbook was being burned in effigy, and Bears fans were begging for the good ol' homogenized, grind-it-out, dull affair we have come to loathe. And the offensive line responded, granted against the Panthers' five blocks of putty doubling as a defensive line, by firing straight ahead as it has been taught to do.

There's nothing better for an offensive lineman than to run block effectively, wearing down a defense little by little -- or in the Bears' case chunk by chunk -- so that by the third and fourth quarters, the opponent is backpedaling out of habit. Nothing quite so demoralizing, Smith agreed.

"It's tough, it's hard," he said. "It's one thing to give up yards when you're passing. But when you can just pound a team running the football ..."

The question is what now? What happens when Cutler returns from the concussion that kept him out Sunday.
Naturally, we won't know about Cutler's availability until later in the week.

"There's nothing else for me to tell you about Jay," Smith said after saying that Cutler was being evaluated daily and that the Bears were hopeful.

Will Martz's zest for his offense -- as well as his ego when it comes to Cutler running it -- allow him to pull back on the reins when necessary? Of course the Seahawks, the Bears' next opponent, are 31st against the pass as of Monday and second against the run. But the Redskins, who come up after Seattle, are 30th against the pass and 19th against the run.

And what will Martz do if Cutler faces heavy pressure again? Did he even consider "protecting" Cutler against the Giants?

Smith, who you know would rather play it more conservatively but has delegated offensive control to his coordinator, stopped short Sunday of publicly embracing the ground game, which he surely pushed after the loss to the Giants.

"I'm not saying we're getting off the bus running the ball or anything -- I'm just going to stay away from those comments -- but today we needed to and we were able to," he said.

Pressed further Monday on whether it isn't sometimes necessary to play ball-control offense, Smith still wouldn't commit.

"Each week we look at what we think we need to do to win the football game," he said. "Going into this one, we felt like we needed to run the ball more.

"But I don't think we'll end up running the ball over 40 times each game. I don't think we're to that point. But if you get into a game and something's working, of course you always stay with it. It's good for our team to see that if we have to run the football that many times, we can."

While the 4-1 Bears are still just 23rd in the league in rushing and have been spotty at best this season, Matt Forte (166 yards on 22 carries, including touchdown runs of 18 and 68 yards against Carolina) and Chester Taylor (18 carries, 43 yards) are worth the gamble to at least even things out a little more.

Somehow I don't see Martz doing it, however. Not when he doesn't even trust them to punch it over from the 1-yard line, a foreboding place this season. Once the Bears reached 17 points Sunday, it was as if the offense was closed down for the day.

Tight end Brandon Manumaleuna had his best game blocking this season, but the Bears still miss veteran Desmond Clark, inactive for the second straight week.

With Collins at quarterback, a mistake that is expected to be rectified when Caleb Hanie is moved to No. 2, running is a no-brainer. But even with Cutler, you hope balance doesn't go back to being a completely foreign concept.

"We just needed a win," Greg Olsen said. "However it happened, whether we threw it 40 times, run 40, however it worked out, we just needed to come out of there with a win."

When Cutler returns, it will be bombs away. But you know where Forte stands.

"I've always had faith in the running game," he said. "You just have to put your mind to it and do it. We did that this week and hopefully continue to do that in future games."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.