"Any time you get a balanced attack, it's got to put defensive coordinators in a bind," said quarterback Rex Grossman, the triggerman of the aerial assault. "Any time you can throw the ball and run the ball, they can't guess what's coming. Play-action passes work even better, draw plays, it just opens up the playbook a little bit. You can pass the ball and stretch the field. That's what we've been able to do the last couple games, and it's exciting for us as an offense."
Last year the Bears' passing offense was No. 31 in the 32-team NFL. This year, Grossman's passer rating of 128.7 is the best in the league, and the 2-0 Bears are No. 5 in passing yards heading into Sunday's NFC North battle for first place at Minnesota against the Vikings, who are also 2-0.
Grossman threw for a career-best 262 yards in the opening-day victory over the Packers, and then he exceeded that with 289 yards against the Lions. Now, not only are opponents uncertain of where to focus their defense, they're not sure where the ball's going when Grossman puts it up.
Tight ends have caught 12 of his 38 completions and three of his five touchdown passes. Wide receiver Bernard Berrian has TD catches of more than 40 yards in each of the first two games, and go-to wideout Muhsin Muhammad has 10 catches, but so does tight end Desmond Clark. Fullback Jason McKie is tied for third on the team with six receptions, two more than he had all of last season.
"That's a big part of what this offense is about: spreading the ball around and having some versatility," offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "It's being able to run the ball and also go to different people in the passing game."
The Bears' run game has been limited to a brisk walk so far, averaging just 2.8 yards per carry, 28th in the NFL, with a total of 198 yards, which is 17th in the league. In 2005, the Bears were No. 8 in rushing yards and No. 7 in average gain per rush. Opponents so far have chosen to focus on the Bears' running game while gambling that the inexperienced Grossman and unproven passing game would not beat them.
"Teams will gang up on our run," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "I'm going to say it again: ‘We get off the plane running the football,' and teams know that. In order to stop the run, you have to leave your (cornerbacks) on an island at times, and we've been able to make them pay for that."
"The majority of the time we're still getting at least eight guys in the box with an extra guy to stop the run."
Once opponents respect Grossman's ability to beat them by throwing the ball, defenses will loosen up and the running game should open up. That could hurt the Bears' passing game, but Grossman's receivers say it will be hard for opponents to know who to focus on the way the ball has been spread around.
"Rex is playing great right now," Clark said. "He's distributing the ball all around the field, and as long as we keep doing that, it's going to be hard for a defense to pinpoint who they want to roll their coverage to. Right now they can't roll it to anybody."
The passing game struggles of last season and even during the 2006 preseason seem like the distant past, even though it's been just two weeks.
"Everybody on our team knew what Rex was capable of doing," said backup tight end John Gilmore, who caught two touchdown passes from Grossman last week. "In the preseason, everyone was talking about the quarterback competition, and he was dealing with a lot of that. But he went out there and played ball his first game. He played ball this last game, and I think progressively you're going to see Rex become a lot more confident.
"I can't wait to go to Minnesota, just to see how much more he improves. That guy is a pretty good quarterback. He's something special."
"I think that it was a precaution," the four-year veteran said. "I could have played. I was physically able to play. I just think that's something they don't know (enough about) — there's not a ton of information about it. You always want to err on the side of caution when it's your brain."
Hillenmeyer has a brain worth protecting. In addition to leading the nation in tackles as a senior at Vanderbilt, he was one of just six Division I-A football players named a National Scholar-Athlete and was a first-team Academic All-American. He graduated with a double major (economics and human and organizational development) and a 3.8 grade-point average.
Hillenmeyer said he probably could have played last week if not for the type of injury he had, the potential dangers of which were brought repeatedly to his attention.
"I've got my mom and girlfriend sending me 50 articles off the Internet about it, all the long-term effects of concussions," he said. "But that's not something that I'm thinking about. I know the doctors wouldn't let me play if they thought there was any greater risk of me getting another one today than with anybody else out there."
Hillenmeyer was injured taking on a block in the Packers game opening day.
"I'm not going to think about it too much," the Bears' quarterback said. "When I got hurt there, I wore a full cleat like you would wear on grass. I've changed my methods. I'm going to wear kind of a flat-bottomed shoe and go from there."
That game was Grossman's best as a pro until this season. He completed 21 of 31 passes for 248 yards and a passer rating of 91.9.
"I don't want to get too high on it because it's real easy to fall right back down," he said. "I'm just trying to stay with my head on straight."
"Tommie has as much talent as any of the defensive linemen out there," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "He's active, plays hard, and other offenses have to know exactly where he is. He was disruptive."
BY THE NUMBERS: QB Rex Grossman had 4 TD passes last week, the same number he had in his three previous seasons combined, when injuries limited him to eight games and seven starts.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It was the toughest catch I ever made." — WR Bernard Berrian on his diving 41-yard TD grab on the goal line last week.