Bears Mid-Season Report: Skill Positions

In Part II if our Bears Mid-Season Report series, we analyze the play of the offensive skill-position players – running backs, tight ends and wide receivers – through the first eight games of 2014.

The Chicago Bears are an extremely talented team on the offensive side of the ball. With six Pro Bowlers on offense, the Bears should be scoring points by the bunches.

Yet that hasn’t happened, as Chicago’s offense ranks just 14th overall, 18th in rushing, 11th in passing and 20th in points per game. If Mike Tice were still in charge, the Bears would be elated to have those rankings, but under Marc Trestman – who in his first year in 2013 guided the 8th overall offense, the 5th-ranked passing attack and the 2nd-highest scoring team – those results just aren’t going to cut it.

Chicago’s defense is allowing 27.8 points per game, fourth most in the league, so if the Bears trot out an average offense every week, they have little chance of success. Thus the team’s current predicament: a 3-5 record and three games back of the Detroit Lions in the NFC North.

With that in mind, let’s break down Chicago’s skill-position players to find out what’s working and where improvements are necessary.

RUNNING BACK

The question I’ve heard most from Bears fans all year: “What is wrong with Jay Cutler?”

For that, I have no answer.

The question I’ve heard second most from Bears fans this year: “Why don’t they give Matt Forte the ball more?”

In reality, Forte is not being underused, it just seems that way. His 130 carries are sixth most in the league, and just 10 fewer (1.25 per game) than he had through eight contests last year.

On top of that, Forte’s use as a receiver has increased dramatically this year. He currently has 58 catches, which are second most in the league behind only Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown (60 catches). Forte is on pace for 116 receptions this season, which would shatter the previous NFL record for single-season catches by a running back (Larry Center’s 101 in 1995).

Forte’s 562 rushing yards are fourth most in the NFL, as are his 1,052 yards from scrimmage. With 562 rushing yards and 490 receiving yards, Forte is nearly on pace to become only the third player in NFL history with 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. Roger Craig in 1985 and Marshall Faulk in 1999 are the only other running backs to accomplish such a feat.

While it might feel like Forte is being underused, he’s actually the engine that is driving Chicago’s offense. Barring injury, Forte is on pace to shatter multiple Bears and NFL records this year, and earn his third trip to the Pro Bowl.

Rookie backup Ka’Deem Carey has been used sparingly the first half of the season. He’s been on the field for 60 total snaps, carrying the ball just 28 times for 130 yards. Yet, when given his opportunities, Carey has looked very good, particularly between the tackles. His 4.6 yards per carry are better than Forte’s 4.3 average and is one of the highest averages of any rookie running back.

Carey won’t factor heavily into Chicago’s offense as long as Forte is healthy, yet the future looks bright for the fourth rounder out of Arizona.

WIDE RECEIVER

The Bears have Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and that’s it. Beyond those two, no receiver on the roster has more than seven catches.

Jeffery currently has 38 catches for 568 yards and three touchdowns. That puts him on pace for 76 catches, 1,136 yards and six TDs, which is slightly behind his Pro-Bowl production from last year (89 catches, 1,421 and seven TDs). He dealt with a hamstring injury early in the season, which has contributed to the small regression. Overall, though, Jeffery has been the same sure-handed receiver this year as he’s been the past two seasons.

With Marshall, things aren’t as simple. Currently, he has just 38 catches for 384 yards and five touchdowns. That puts him on pace for 76 receptions and 768 yards, which would be his lowest single-season totals since his rookie year in 2006. Remember, this a player who broke franchise records just two years ago with 118 catches and 1,508 receiving yards, so he’s obviously under-performing at a severe level.

Marshall is 30-years-old, an age at which NFL receivers typically stay productive. Even average receivers don’t tend to drop off until about 31 or 32, and Marshall is far from average. Age isn’t a concern. What is a concern is the health of his ankle, which he injured in Week 1.

Three weeks ago, Marshall said it was an injury that would have kept a normal receiver out a month, yet he played through it. He declared himself healthy but, based on how easily Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis wrapped him like a burrito last week, it’s clear Marshall isn’t his old self.

“I don’t know exactly where Brandon is in terms of full recovery. He says he is,” GM Phil Emery said this week. “I think he’s a little frustrated. I think that frustration all leads back to his injury. I think the guy was phenomenally tough to work through it. I mean he didn’t practice for two weeks and he played in games back-to-back without practice. And he came out there and performed to his best. Without him, we don’t beat San Francisco. I think he’s that type of player. He’s a difference maker. We have to continue to get him more involved and find ways to help him get open.”

The bye week came at a good time for Marshall, who hasn’t been able to consistently create separation out of his breaks, elevate for high passes or compete for 50/50 balls. As result, he’s become increasingly frustrated both on and off the field.

If he comes out of the bye week healthy and turns into the Marshall of old during the second half of the season, Chicago’s passing attack has a good chance of turning this season around. Marshall is crucial to the success of this team, so an explosive second half will be necessary if the Bears have any hope of pushing for a playoff spot.

The offense should get a big boost with the addition of third receiver Marquess Wilson, who is slated to return to practice next week.

TIGHT END

Martellus Bennett has emerged this year as one of the top play-making tight ends in the NFL. He set career highs last year in receptions (65), receiving yards (759) and touchdowns (five), yet through just eight games this year he already has 47 catches for 517 yards and five scores.

He’s on pace for 94 catches, which would break Mike Ditka’s previous single-season high for a tight end (75 in 1964). Bennett is also on pace for 1,034 receiving yards and 10 TDs, which would be second all-time to Ditka.

Bennett has picked up the slack and, along with Forte, carried the offense while Marshall and Jeffery were injured. Bennett is one of the hardest players in the league to bring down and is currently second in the NFL amongst tight ends in yards after catch (246).

Bennett has exceeded expectations this season as a pass catcher and has been solid as a blocker, as usual. He’ll very likely earn his first trip to the Pro Bowl this year.

Backup tight end Dante Rosario has logged 156 snaps this year, catching nine passes for 70 yards. He’s also served as a part-time fullback in power run sets – replacing Tony Fiammetta, who was waived in Week 2 – and has performed very well as a lead blocker.

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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.

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