Gage Takes Benching to Heart

Justin Gage's roller-coaster ride of a season is on the upswing again, as he gets another chance to prove he belongs in the Bears starting lineup at 3:15 Sunday against the reeling Saints at Baton Rouge, La.

The three-year veteran started the first three games of the season, but his performance was underwhelming - two catches for 31 yards - and he was replaced by rookie Mark Bradley. It got worse for Gage after that. He went three straight games without a catch and was inactive for the Ravens game.

Sunday against the Lions, Gage was back on the game day roster, and he stepped up with two catches for 47 yards after Bradley suffered a season-ending torn ACL in his right knee. It remains to be seen if being benched two Sundays ago provides the wake-up call that will spur Gage to become a productive complement to Pro Bowl wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad.

Gage said he got the point.

"It was real tough just sitting up there and watching the guys you come to work with every day going out on the field and playing and competing," he said. "Not having the opportunity to be out there makes you re-evaluate what you're doing and makes you change a lot of things around and look at the program from a wider perspective and see what you can do to get better.

"That was really like a reality-check week for me, like I need to come in and start doing more of this, this and this and work on these things. It was something that really changed my perspective."

Since being drafted in the fifth round out of Missouri in 2003, Gage has only showed glimpses of big-time talent. As a rookie, he averaged a team-best 19.9 yards on 17 catches, scored two TDs and displayed a knack for coming down with jump balls deep down the field. But he was not one of offensive coordinator Terry Shea's favorites last season, and his numbers shrank to 12 receptions, 156 yards and no scores.

This is his second chance in Ron Turner's offense, and Gage may not get many more. His mission is simple, according to wide receivers coach Darryl Drake.

"Just be consistent," Drake said. "When you get the opportunity, make the catch; make the play. It's that simple. He's been somewhat consistent, but there are a couple opportunities that got away from him."

Gage dropped a 3rd-and-4 pass late in the third quarter against the Lions, but three of his four catches this season are for more than 20 yards. With burners Bradley and Bernard Berrian out of action, the Bears are desperate for big-play receivers. Gage isn't a speed receiver, but he has the ability to stretch the field.

"When you're not the fastest guy in the world, you have to have great technique, and that's what it's all about with him," Drake said. "As long as he continues to have great technique when the ball comes his way he'll make those catches. But he has to make the tough catch; not just the easy ones."

Gage needs to establish a rapport with rookie quarterback Kyle Orton, who has relied on Muhammad all season and was just getting comfortable with Bradley. That didn't occur in Gage's first stint as a starter, but he seemed to make a smooth transition back into the passing game last Sunday.

"He's a big target," Orton said of the 6-foot-4, 212-pound Gage. "He runs good routes. That (22-yard) post he caught when we were down, pinned back (at the three-yard line), was a big play. He's playing well and he'll be fine."

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