Calling all deep threats

Bears receiver Johnny Knox has been placed on injured reserve and Devin Hester is dealing with a number of hobbling leg injuries. Who then can the offense rely on to stretch the field?

As if the Bears' vertical passing game weren't challenged enough by the loss of quarterback Jay Cutler a month ago, it is now without deep threat Johnny Knox for the remainder of the season, and Devin Hester's availability is iffy.

Knox had surgery Monday morning to stabilize a vertebra in his lower back that was injured when he was bent backward in a collision with Seahawks defensive end Anthony Hargrove.

"It was a brutal hit that he took," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "But just looking to the future, it looks bright for him to play and to get back out there (next year), so we're encouraged by that."

That was the extent of the good news emanating from Halas Hall on Monday, while the question of who would start at quarterback was left open for debate.

"Right now, Caleb Hanie is our starting quarterback," Smith said when asked who would lead the Bears Sunday in Green Bay against the Packers. But he added, "None of those decisions have been made. With any of our positions, we evaluate the video, which we're doing right now, and on Wednesday, you'll have an idea."

It's difficult to imagine the passing offense getting any worse, since it has generated less than 90 net yards in each of the past three games.

Backup Josh McCown says he's ready to run the offense after less than four weeks with team, but having spent the 2006 season with the Lions in offensive coordinator Mike Martz's scheme.

Rookie Nathan Enderle appears to be strictly an emergency option.

"This isn't a tryout period," Smith said when asked if he'd like to see the fifth-round draft pick get a shot. "We're trying to win a football game. So the guys that give us the best opportunity to do that will be on the field."

After the Bears decide who will play quarterback against the Packers, it will be interesting to see if the lucky winner has anyone to throw it to down the field.

Knox has the highest average per catch (19.6) in the NFL, and he was the Bears' best downfield threat, even though he had just two touchdown catches this season. Hester has been in and out of the lineup for weeks with ankle injuries and illness, and he was even replaced on some punt returns Sunday.

Even when healthy, Hester has had virtually no role in the offense, often playing just a handful of snaps, as he did Sunday. In four of the last six games, he has failed to make a single catch, and in those six games, he has a total of four receptions for 47 yards.

So who's going to stretch the opposing defenses, which are already overplaying the run with extra players in the box?

"Fair question," Smith said. "We've lost some of our firepower out there with Devin, the best returner in the history of the game. He knows how to make you miss, he stretches the field -- it's on record. Johnny has (also) had that role for us. So we're missing those guys. But, when you're down a few players, you have to adjust what you do and find other ways to move the ball down the field. You just don't have to do it going vertical always, and that's what we have to do."

--If there is a ray of hope in the Bears' moribund offense, it's the play of running back Kahlil Bell.

While sharing time with Marion Barber in the two games since Matt Forte went down with a sprained knee, Bell has rushed for 105 yards on 24 carries and a 4.4-yard average. In each game, Bell has been the Bears' top receiver with five catches, picking up an additional 67 yards.

In the same two games, Barber has rushed 38 times for 141 yards, a 3.7-yard average, and caught two passes for 32 yards.

Bell rushed for 220 yards on 40 carries (5.5 average) as an undrafted rookie in 2009, but was inactive for all 16 games last season. Prior to this season, he had just one catch in the NFL, and he caught just 29 passes in four years at UCLA.

"It's funny because I've never really been thrown to before in any part of my career," the 5-11, 219-pound Bell said. "So no one has ever really known I could catch, except my mom. My mom used to take me out, and she would tell me: 'Run 10 yards and turn around, and as soon as you turn around the ball is going to be on you.'

"As a little kid, you just want to catch the ball. (So) I turn around, and the ball hit me in the nose and I had a nosebleed for five hours. That's my story behind how I learned to catch. But my goal has always been to be an every-down back in the NFL, and that's being able to block, run and catch the ball."

It wouldn't be a surprise if Bell plays a bigger role than Barber in the offense this week.

--Caleb Hanie has completed more than 50 percent of his passes in just one of four starts and has been intercepted nine times and sacked 14 times. In the past three games, the Bears have averaged just 87.7 passing yards per game.

Hanie did not receive a vote of confidence Monday from coach Lovie Smith.

"Right now, we're disappointed in our quarterback play," Smith said. "It hasn't been as good as we would like it to be, but you can say that about other positions. A lot of times, with the backup quarterback, you don't know what you have until he has to play. We have been in the position this year where we have seen quite a bit of our backup quarterback, and the play hasn't been what we need it to be."


--WR Johnny Knox (back) is finished for the season after undergoing surgery Monday to stabilize a vertebra in his lower back, which was injured in a collision with Seattle DE Anthony Hargrove on Sunday. He was placed on injured reserve Monday.

--S Chris Conte was placed on injured reserve Monday because of a foot and ankle injury.

--WR Dane Sanzenbacher had two catches for 26 yards Sunday after getting blanked in the previous six games, during which he rarely saw the field.

--WR Earl Bennett had one catch for 20 yards, but it was his longest gain in four weeks. In the three previous games he had a total of two catches for 10 yards.

--DE Israel Idonije scored his first NFL touchdown when he recovered a fumble in the end zone that was caused by Julius Peppers' sack of Tarvaris Jackson.

--QB Caleb Hanie has a passer rating of 41.8, but he is averaging 7.5 yards per carry, with 98 yards on 13 attempts.


PASSING OFFENSE: F -- QB Caleb Hanie may be getting worse the more he plays. He threw three interceptions Sunday for the third time in four starts, and the Bears had less than 90 net passing yards for the third straight week under the direction of Hanie, who clearly is in over his head. The only reliable deep threat, Johnny Knox, was injured less than four minutes into the game, and Devin Hester was again a non-factor in limited snaps. Roy Williams played a lot but did very little, catching his only pass, a nine-yarder, in the fourth quarter. RB Kahlil Bell led the Bears with five catches and 43 receiving yards.

RUSHING OFFENSE: C-plus -- Considering the Bears can't throw the ball proficiently enough to keep defenses honest, their 132 rushing yards on 31 attempts was a decent outing, even though 34 of the yards came on five scrambles by Caleb Hanie. Kahlil Bell showed better vision and make-you-miss ability than Marion Barber, whose longest gain on 11 carries was six yards, but at least he didn't do anything stupid this week.

PASS DEFENSE: C-minus -- Allowing Tarvaris Jackson (94.4 passer rating) to complete a 33-yard pass to Golden Tate and a 43-yarder to Ben Obomanu on back-to-back plays early in the third quarter set up the game-tying TD, which was the beginning of the end for the Bears. Julius Peppers stripped Jackson in the end zone, and Israel Idonije recovered for a defensive TD, but that was the Bears' only sack of the day and the only takeaway. Four different Seahawks caught passes of more than 20 yards.

RUSH DEFENSE: B -- No complaints here, as Marshawn Lynch was held to 42 yards on 20 carries and a 2.1-yard average. The Seahawks ran 33 times but managed just 60 yards for a 1.8-yard average, as LB Brian Urlacher, DT Matt Toeaina and DE's Israel Idonije and Julius Peppers stifled the run game all day, although Lynch scored on two short runs.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C-minus -- Just to ensure that the loss could be considered a total team effort, the Bears' special teams uncharacteristically allowed a 36-yard punt return by Leon Washington. Devin Hester continued his slump as a returner, although he was playing hurt, and he was replaced on punt returns by Earl Bennett for a while. But injuries don't explain why Hester continues to let catchable balls fall to the ground untouched. Corey Graham, a key contributor in all phases, was flagged for jumping off a teammate's back in an effort to block a field-goal attempt. That allowed the Seahawks to score a TD rather than settling for three points.

COACHING: D -- If Mike Martz is so smart, why can't he figure out a way to complete more than five passes a week to wide receivers or get more than 90 net passing yards in a game, which hasn't happened in three weeks? Maybe this team didn't quit in the second half, when it was outscored 31-0 at home by a mediocre Seattle team, but it didn't look like it was playing very hard.

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