Last season, running back Matt Forte led the Chicago Bears in receptions with 63. Second on the squad was tight end Greg Olson with 54, followed by speed merchant Devon Hester with 51. Before I go on, how anemic was the Bears passing offense last year!?! Sheesh. I digress. Forte led all running backs last year with those 63 receptions, besting good friend Maurice Jones-Drew by a single reception.
In Sunday's 21-15 loss to the Packers, the Bears only threw to Forte just once. It was during the 2nd quarter and Chicago was knocking on the door inside the Green Bay 10. Cutler was picked off and never looked to dump it off to his sure-handed running back again. Forte had plenty of carries in the 2nd half but never was able to take some pressure off Cutler and the wide receivers as a viable pass-catching threat. I didn't watch this game so I can't comment on whether or not Green Bay designed a scheme that minimized Forte's potential impact in the passing game. It's kind of hard to do that though in the first place, so my guess is no.
Here's my take. In Jay Cutler's first game, I imagine he was pressing a bit too much to try to make big plays to the outside and over the middle of the field to his tight end and wide receivers. The check down to the running back isn't very sexy. That's a common trap for young quarterbacks to fall in to - not taking what might be given to them underneath while waiting for opportunities down the field. Hell, it took the greatest quarterback to ever play - Peyton Manning - a number of years before he finally disciplined himself to not force things.
I'd bet that Cutler gets reminded all week about dumping the ball off to Forte early in the game. For several reasons. Firstly, without Troy Polamalu out there making incredible tackles in open space and taking angles away from guys before they get a head of steam going, it's more likely that the Bears can muster some positive yardage (3-6+ yards) with short passes. Just think back to last week and the tackle of Chris Johnson near the goal-line of the Titan's first drive and you will realize that no other player on the Steelers roster can make open field tackles quiet like Troy Polamalu. With the Steelers most explosive player scratched from this one, the Bears should resist the temptation to try to burn the backup with the deep ball and instead challenge them to make play after play against shifty playmakers like Forte in open space. It only takes one whiff by a defender to yield dividends.
Secondly, Cutler needs to get his head right early on in this contest. The Bears are playing at home rather than in the hostile confines of Lambeau Field, so that should help. But if he struggles early and the crowd begins to groan..well, given what we know about Cutler's ability to remain even keeled mentally, I'd imagine that the Bears coaching staff will do everything possible to make sure he has some positive moments out there before they ask him to shoulder too much responsibility.
Finally, if Cutler and the Bears offense are able to get things going - even just a bit - early on by softening the Steelers pass rush with some screens and other passes to Forte, that may very well get Pittsburgh's reserve safetys to make a crucial error over-committing later on in the game. We saw Anthony Smith doing it against the Patriots. And though he deserves credit for what he has and continues to contribute to this football team, we all know that Tyrone Carter doesn't take the best angles or possess top-notch athleticism at this stage in his career.
If Chicago can find the right balance of patience, diverse play calling and success methodically taking what the Steelers defense gives them early in the game, they could very well strike big later in the game when physical fatigue slowly begins to set in. Physical fatigue leads to mental mistakes and Ryan Mundy, William Gay and Tyrone Carter ain't a bad group of defensive backs to take your chances against when the stakes are high.
Am I concerned about this Sunday's game? Yup. At least on defense. That's largely because I think they will look to get the ball in Forte's hands in the passing game rather than trying to pound the rock with him on the ground or give Cutler the green light to sling it around the perimeter and deep over the middle early in the game. I do think the Steelers offense can lead this team to victory on Sunday, even if the defense were to allow 17-24 points. It's too early in the season to make bold declarations about any units in the NFL, but my hunch is that the Steelers offense - particularly the passing game - is going to be extremely formidable all year, particularly against mediocre pass defenses. Chicago's would qualify.
So if I had to guess, I'd say ignore all the chirping by the announcers about how this one is going to be a low-scoring affair. I don't see it with Pittsburgh's top defensive back being out, and coupled with Lawrence Timmons likely out the Bears will have a lot more space in the middle of the field than usual. Additionally, I also just wrote a few days ago that that I didn't feel Chicago's defense was as good as advertised the past two seasons. I think the Bears' defense will be better down the road - both later this year and in future years - due to them paying more attention to that side of the ball. But it can't and won't happen overnight. And with the slew of injuries Pittsburgh must contend with, combined with the fact that Chicago's playing at home in what should be gorgeous conditions, I have a hard time seeing how this game is a low-scoring affair. That's if Big Ben makes good decisions with the football. And that's if the Bears look to get the ball in to the hands of second year sensation Matt Forte in other ways besides just handing the ball off to him.