By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) The running game is not what it used to be.
That’s been known for the better part of a decade, and a Week 1 stat bears this out. In the first week of the NFL season, the 32 teams rushed for 2,964 yards. That was the lowest Week 1 total in the past 12 years.
So, if you have a running back and his name is not Adrian Peterson, you’re probably not going to run over your opponent. What you have to do to take advantage of modern offensive trends is to get the ball to your running back in the open field.
You do this by throwing it to him, and the Bears are taking advantage of this better than they ever have with Matt Forte. He will get quite a bit competition this year from LeSean McCoy of Philadelphia, but Forte is a the kind of dual threat who can take the burden off quarterback Jay Cutler and wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
Cutler now knows he doesn’t have to throw the ball into a tight window to Marshall or any other receiver because he can find Forte in his check-down role. It’s a simple throw that nearly every quarterback – not including Christian Ponder – can make with ease.
The previous coaching regime took advantage of Forte’s receiving ability, but not to the extent that Marc Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer are doing through the first two weeks of the season.
Forte has caught 15 passes for 112 yards, meaning has already caught more than one-third the number of passes (44) he caught in Mike Tice’s offense last year.
Forte is a valuable weapon, perhaps the team’s best offensive player. The Bears are of the opinion that when Forte gets the ball in his hands, they have a better chance to win.
He is averaging 27 touches per game as the Bears prepare for the wounded Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 3. If the Bears are going to defeat the Steelers, they need to get the ball in Forte’s hands 25-to-30 a game.
Based on the first two weeks, it seems likely that the Bears are interested in getting the ball to Forte even more frequently. He had 19 rushes and four catches vs. the defensively proficient Bengals in Week 1. That defensive front line included Geno Atkins and Domata Peko, one of the top run-stuffing duos in the league.
Forte’s workload went up against the Vikings last week. He ran the same 19 times, but this time Cutler threw the ball to him 11 times. He caught the ball each time he was targeted.
That’s the kind of performance that Trestman and Kromer are going to bank on this week and for the foreseeable future. Forte excels at catching the ball on the move and spinning out of tackles so he can avoid the hardest hits.
That allows him to gain extra yardage after the catch.
Forte is not Marshall Faulk, a Hall of Famer who was one of the top dual threats in the game’s history. He is not Walter Payton either, because he lacks Payton’s ability to deliver a telling blow with a shoulder or a ferocious forearm.
But he has one thing in common with those two greats. He is not going to limit himself and opt out of the game. He is thriving right now and he wants the ball in his hands.
In addition to his receiving totals, he has rushed for 138 yards. That’s an average of 3.5 yards per carry, a figure that clearly can be bettered in the coming weeks. Forte has averaged 4.2 yards per carry throughout his career.
Forte is not going to maintain his current pace as a receiver. If he did, he would catch 120 passes this year, and that would nearly double his previous career high of 63 receptions that was established in his rookie season of 2008.
A running back who catches the ball consistently is a significant problem for the defense. They will first attempt to stop him with linebacker coverage. If that doesn’t work, a safety will have to get involved.
Once that happens, that opens things up for the receivers. Brandon Marshall may find himself with a lot more single coverage, while Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett should be able to get open on nearly every play.
Trestman knows how valuable a running back who can catch passes is to an offense. He used the concept in the Canadian Football League and he also coached Charlie Garner with the Oakland Raiders in 2002 when Garner caught 91 passes for 941 yards while carrying the ball 182 times for 962 yards.
The Raiders went 11-5 that season and won the AFC Championship. They lost to the Tampa Bay Bucs in the Super Bowl, but they were formidable until that game. Trestman was the Raiders’ offensive coordinator and quarterback coach.
That’s the kind of season that Forte hopes to put together in 2013. Based on his start, he has every chance to get there.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.