Martz's offense searching for ideal mix of runs, passes
Teetering on the balance wheel
November 5, 2010
BY SEAN JENSEN firstname.lastname@example.org
In the late 19th century, football coaches dialed up basic run after basic run, relying on a smash-mouth style that resulted in more than a dozen fatalities. To curb the on-field violence, the forward pass was introduced in 1906.
In 1920, when the NFL began and was known as the American Professional Football Association, the Bears franchise (known as the Decatur Staleys) prided itself on playing a ground-and-pound brand of football, one that continued for generations.
» Click to enlarge image
http://media1.suntimes.com/multimedi...5.imageContent Mike Martz and Lovie Smith agree that the Bears need to get the running game in gear.
http://media1.suntimes.com/multimedi...5.imageContent Jay Cutler (6) knows it's key to get Matt Forte (right) up and running.
(Tamara Bell/Sun Times Media)
That's why there was skepticism when Mike Martz -- orchestrator of the pass-heavy Greatest Show on Turf -- was hired by the Bears to run the offense. Although he had some pieces with potential (namely quarterback Jay Cutler, receivers Devin Hester and Johnny Knox and tight end Greg Olsen), Martz had at his disposal two 1,000-yard running backs in Matt Forte and Chester Taylor.
But the Bears' offense is ranked 29th in the NFL, and everyone -- from Martz to Cutler to rookie right tackle J'Marcus Webb -- is enduring endless criticism about its subpar play.
One of the recurring themes shouldn't come as a surprise: The Bears aren't running the ball enough.
But Martz Math tells a different story.
Through seven games, the Bears have attempted 156 runs and 215 passes. That's 42 percent runs and 58 percent passes.
Remarkably, that's above Martz's career run-play average (39.6) for offenses in which he was the coordinator or head coach.
Still, several times this season, Martz has insisted he would emphasize the run more, only to overwhelmingly call on passing plays.
He made the same point Wednesday.
''Absolutely, we do need to run the ball more,'' Martz said. ''As that game [against the Washington Redskins] went on, we were way more effective [running the ball] in the second half than we were earlier.
''It'll afford us an opportunity to do that, and we will. Absolutely.''
No better time than the present
After attempting a season-high 42 runs against the Carolina Panthers, the Bears ran the ball only 30 times in the two games since, with Forte and Taylor combining for 25 carries.
Against the Redskins, the two running backs combined to average nearly 4.7 yards per carry. But in the fourth quarter, with the Bears trailing 17-14, Martz called just one run, a seven-yard scamper by Forte. Meanwhile, Cutler lost one fumble and tossed two interceptions.
The Panthers were a team susceptible to offenses that can run the ball, and the Bears took advantage, averaging 5.2 yards per run, mainly thanks to a 68-yard touchdown run by Forte in the first quarter.
But the Buffalo Bills are especially bad. On average this season, NFL teams are giving up 112 rushing yards a game and 4.2 yards per run. The Bills are giving up 188.7 yards per game and five yards per run.
''It's a pretty big worry,'' Bills coach Chan Gailey said of his team's run defense. ''You can't win football games if you can't stop the run, so we've got to remedy that problem as soon as possible.
''I've said that for about four weeks and we haven't gotten there, so we've got to change some things to stop the run game.''
Gailey said his players are not remaining in their gaps, an indication that they're being out-muscled by opponents.
''When you lose one gap,'' Gailey said, ''good running backs find it.''
But the only thing harder for the Bears' running backs to find than carries are running lanes. By and large, the offensive line hasn't provided Forte and Taylor the daylight to rip off meaty chunks of yardage.
Given his penchant for passing, Martz might not have the patience to keep running the ball anyway.
Although he has had running backs such as Marshall Faulk, Steven Jackson and Frank Gore in the past, Martz has never engineered an offense that ran the ball more than 44 percent of the time.
And that came in 1999, when the St. Louis Rams were breaking in then-journeyman quarterback Kurt Warner -- who had replaced veteran Trent Green -- and counting on Faulk to drive the offense. Warner quickly asserted himself in the offense, and the Rams frustrated opponents on the ground and through the air. They ranked first in points and yards and were 15th in run attempts and 19th in pass attempts.
In the 10 seasons since, the Rams have ranked in the bottom eight in run attempts, including last three times, and they have ranked in the top five in pass attempts.
So what is the ideal balance?
Ever since he hired Martz -- his former head coach with the Rams -- coach Lovie Smith said the Bears would not abandon the run.
But Smith also stressed that balance is not ''50-50.''
''Balance, to me, is taking what a defense is giving you at the time. That may mean leaning on the run a little bit more than the pass, at times,'' he said. ''You have to get into each game and kind of see what direction you need to go.''
Still, Smith conceded that the Bears ''need to lean on our run a little bit more.''
''That's saying we're getting Matt Forte and Chester Taylor more involved,'' Smith said.
Getting them the ball, however, might not be just handing the ball to them.
''To me, balance means getting all your playmakers involved,'' Smith said, ''and a couple of our's are our running backs.''
Taylor will temper his excitement.
''All we can do is wait and see and take their word for it,'' Taylor said. ''We've got to just wait until the game time to see if that's going to really happen.''
Offensive line coach Mike Tice also has repeatedly said linemen, in general, are better moving forward than backward, a point veteran guard Roberto Garza reinforced.
''That's what [linemen] like to do, run the ball,'' Garza said.
Tice's unit has been dogged by injury and inconsistency, but the return of Garza -- who missed two games after undergoing a knee scope -- might finally give the group some stability.
But Tice was diplomatic two weeks ago when asked if he wants the offense to run the ball more.
''I don't expect us to be a run-first team,'' Tice said. ''We can't win the Super Bowl being a run-first team. It's hard to do. But, whatever's called, we've got to block.
''That's the bottom line.''
On Wednesday, Cutler and Martz both seemed to recognize the importance of running the ball more.
''We're trying to stay equal in both areas, not lean on one side,'' Martz said, ''because you're going to need to lean on one side or the other to win a game, eventually.''
Cutler was even more pointed in his comments.
''You look at the past in the NFL, and if you can't run the ball, especially down the stretch, you're going to struggle,'' he said. ''Defenses get better and better throughout the season after watching film and seeing what you're going to do.
''Mike is aware of that. The running backs are aware of that. The offensive line is aware of that. We've just got to get it done.''