Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Mike Martz’s offense has evolved throughout the season, albeit at more of a Brandon Manumaleuna pace than a Johnny Knox pace.
After an erratic, pass-heavy start, the Bears have leaned on the run more, converted more third downs, generated more first downs and scored more points. Over the last five games, they have averaged 28 points.
But there was a glaring, missing facet, the signature of offensive coordinator Martz: a deep passing attack.
‘‘We’re one of the fastest units in the NFL, and when we get an opportunity like that — man to man — we want to see what we’re capable of doing,’’ receiver Devin Hester said. ‘‘We found out a little bit, and now we’re going to feed off it, and the next time an opportunity like that presents itself, we’re going to take advantage of it.’’
The New York Jets did Sunday what every other Bears opponent would not: They attacked the speedy receivers at the line of scrimmage, and they dared quarterback Jay Cutler to beat single coverage by arguably the league’s best group of cornerbacks, headlined by Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie.
The results against the NFL’s fourth-rated defense was stunning. The Bears completed a season-high five passes of 20 yards or more against the Jets, three for touchdowns. Contrast that with the seven passes of 20 yards or more the Bears had in the three previous games and the five touchdowns of 20 yards or more the offense had in the other 14 games.
‘‘It’s always been there — we just haven’t had the opportunity,’’ Martz said. ‘‘Our thing is, we were successful when we needed to do it, and that’s the only thing I cared about.’’
Asked if the fun was fleeting, given Sunday’s success, Martz said, ‘‘It was reassuring to see the progress because there’s a lot of formations involved that we hadn’t been able to do as much of.’’
Hester might not want to hold his breath about the next opportunity. According to an NFC personnel director, there isn’t another team in the conference that plays defense like the Jets. But the Green Bay Packers, the Bears’ opponent Sunday in the regular-season finale, are one team capable of playing that brand, and they’ve done so more in recent games.
In the first meeting this season — a 20-17 Bears win at Soldier Field on Sept. 27 — the Packers mostly played a cover-2 defense. The Bears managed four passing plays of 20 yards or more, including three by Knox.
Will the Packers dare to be more aggressive Sunday?
They certainly aren’t tipping their hand, but coach Mike McCarthy acknowledged the maturation of the Bears’ offense.
‘‘They’re definitely evolving,’’ he said. ‘‘We played them so early in the season. Now we’ve had an opportunity to watch them play of late. They’ve definitely hit their stride.
‘‘The big plays they had in last week’s game against the Jets were impressive. They definitely look a lot more comfortable, and they’re more aggressive in their scheme.’’
Despite concerns about Cutler testing Revis, who’s widely considered the best cover cornerback in the NFL, the Bears didn’t completely avoid him. On the Bears’ fourth snap, Cutler completed a 14-yard pass to Hester, who was covered by Revis. And one of Knox’s touchdowns came against Cromartie — a one-time Pro Bowl selection who is tall and fast.
‘‘We played against some pretty good corners, and guys just made the plays when they had to,’’ Bears receivers coach Darryl Drake said. ‘‘It’s nice for us, from a confidence standpoint, that we can do that.
‘‘They’ve always been confident. But what’s happened is, the media and the public — because they hadn’t seen it — didn’t know. I’ve said all along that the guys are capable. But we’ve still got a long ways to go.’’
The Packers may not have the corners the Jets do, but they aren’t as dependent on blitzes, boasting a better defensive line and pass rush.
The Packers’ defense is ranked 10th overall in the NFL, but they’ve given up 48 points in the last two games. Dogged by injuries, they still have some elite players, most notably linebacker Clay Matthews, who’s tied for third in the NFL with 12½ sacks.
‘‘They’ve lost some guys defensively, which is always tough,’’ Cutler said. ‘‘They’re going to show you a lot of different looks and bring some pressure, but they’re going to be smart about it. That’s why they’re tough.’’