One NFL scout thinks Bears running back Marion Barber will have a big impact this season. Nuccio DiNuzzo/Tribune photo
By Brad Biggs, Chicago Tribune reporter 11:10 p.m. CDT, August 16, 2011
BOURBONNAIS — The most hyped free-agent acquisition in training camp has been Roy Williams, but one scout at the first exhibition suggested Marion Barber will have a bigger impact for the Bears this year.
He wasn't taking a swipe at the wide receiver as much as he was noting the fit Barber can be. If his 45-yard effort against the Bills was reflective of how effective he will be, the Bears could have a better 1-2 combination than when Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson shared the backfield.
The key will be for offensive coordinator Mike Martz to pick up where he left off last season. It took some lumps in the first seven games and a come-to-Jesus meeting during the off week for the Bears to figure out what worked and what playbook pages needed to be shredded.
In the final nine games, the offense had more pass attempts than rushes just twice — both losses. Matt Forte took off, finishing with a career-high 1,069 yards. In six of the first seven games, he had 14 carries or less, making you wonder what could have been had the Bears been committed to the ground from the start.
"There is no telling," Forte said.
Coach Lovie Smith hasn't talked about getting off the bus running recently, but that might be the best plan of action. A series of factors add up before you evaluate last season.
The offensive line is clearly better run blocking now than it was at this point a year ago. Mike Tice said in that aspect the new lineup is a half-year ahead of last year's unit. The Bears rushed for 164 yards against the Bills while allowing nine sacks.
The personnel additions and subtractions look to fit a power running game better. Barber and new 6-foot-7, 260-pound tight end Matt Spaeth fit the mold. You can debate Greg Olsen's willingness to block all you want, he wasn't a plus in the run game. Now, 6-7, 267-pound Kellen Davis will have a bigger role.
"It enables you to do a lot of things," tight ends coach Mike DeBord said. "They're so big, they can get on the defensive ends to get outside and they're big where you can run the ball inside. It really enables you to run the ball both ways. We wanted to get a little bit better inside at the point of attack."
How's it all going to work? Pass protection for Jay Cutler must improve. There's no way around it. But if you examine what moves the front office has made, there are more than enough clues to determine the plan now, at least, is for a bigger emphasis on the ground game. Wide receivers will factor more in the passing game with Olsen gone, but the ground game is where it's at.
"That was our identity at the end and that is when we started playing well, when we were running the football," center Roberto Garza said. "Matt and Marion are great runners and with the big tight ends that we have and the line we'll be able to run the football. Obviously, we have to protect Jay as well."
Forte remains confident it will mesh for him and he noted the strength of his position as a whole.
"We can really do a lot of different things in the run game and I think they excel at run blocking because, you know, Chicago Bears football is running the ball," he said. "Being able to pound a defense the entire game takes a lot out of the defense and helps out the passing game as well.
"Coach Martz was just getting here and trying to get everything under his belt at the start of last season. Really, he was just trying to evaluate the talent and how we react to in-game situations. He knew we had a really good quarterback and some receivers. As far as the running game, I don't think he was as confident as we got in it later on in the season."
I hear the players and the assistant coaches talking the talk but will passaholic Martz get with it and walk the walk in his gameplans and his playcalling?
There's no question that several of the offseason moves point in that direction. Signing Spaeth and promoting Kellen Davis to get bigger at TE. Signing Barber and beginning to use Bell and Unga in the running game. Signing Hurd who is a great blocking WR and drafting Carimi. All of these things point towards a greatly improved running game and one that will take some of the burden off of Forte as an every down back but it all comes down to whether or not Mike Martz will actually take advantage of those things.
With a line as inexperienced as we'll put on the field Martz should have a ton of play action passes in his gameplans and he should also allow Cutler more freedom to throw from outside the pocket on designed rollouts, something he's always been very good at. The fact that he's slimmed down by about 15lbs seems to indicate that he's preparing to be even more mobile this year than he has ever been before. A strong running game and a mobile QB are the only things that will save his offense from destruction until this line learns how to pass block effectively.
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