Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Marshall Faulk was the star running back in coach Mike Martz’s ‘‘Greatest Show on Turf’’ in St. Louis, putting up staggering numbers with his runs and catches.
‘‘That’s the easy stuff,’’ said Faulk, now an analyst for NFL Network who has watched Martz’s progress as the Bears’ offensive coordinator. ‘‘Those things come naturally. But [pass protection] is very complex. You almost get scared to have the quarterback’s health in your hands.’’
Told of Faulk’s comments, Bears running back Matt Forte nodded.
‘‘There’s a lot of protections,’’ Forte said, ‘‘and something we didn’t really do last year was scan.’’
Under former Bears coordinator Ron Turner, running backs might have been responsible for a part of the field. Under Martz, they have to ‘‘scan’’ the entire field to identify a blitzer. If none comes, the running back may have to quickly find space to provide an option for the quarterback and become the ‘‘hot read.’’
Martz’s playbook is known for being voluminous, packed with more plays and formations than most NFL offenses. Faulk said the expectation on the running back is enormous, calling on him to be a runner, a receiver and blocker, sometimes on the same play.
‘‘The running back has to study as much as the quarterback if you want to be effective,’’ said Faulk, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection and the 2000 NFL MVP. ‘‘I could tell when [Forte] wasn’t studying as much.’’
Martz likes to highlight and use the running back to create mismatches and confuse a defense. Sometimes he’ll split him out wide as a receiver or motion him into the slot. But often he calls on the running back to be the quarterback’s last line of defense.
‘‘We did some scanning [with Turner], but obviously not as much as we do now,’’ Bears running backs coach Tim Spencer said. ‘‘It requires the guy to see the field and know where the center is taking the protection. Some guys are able to handle it, and some guys aren’t.’’
But knowledge is only half of it, Spencer said.
‘‘When they get there, it’s important to show up and get the job done,’’ he said.
Forte wasn’t called on to be a blocker much at Tulane. But Spencer said he has improved steadily in that role since his rookie season in 2008.
Forte said veteran running back Chester Taylor has helped him.
‘‘Sometimes you don’t see things when you’re playing, and he does,’’ Forte said.
But most of it is just wanting to deliver, Forte said. He takes pride in performing another key — albeit less glamorous — part of his job.
‘‘Anytime someone wants to challenge you, you’ve got to be ready,’’ he said. ‘‘You don’t want to get beat on a blitz, and he hits the quarterback, and then it’s your fault.’’
So does he enjoy absorbing hard-charging linebackers and safeties?
‘‘It’s football,’’ Forte said. ‘‘That’s why you got all that gear.’’
Against the Green Bay Packers in the regular-season finale Sunday, quarterback Jay Cutler was sacked six times, his highest total since October. With the Packers blitzing a lot, particularly in the second half, the Bears’ pass protection faced arguably its toughest test of the season. There were mistakes, but Forte wasn’t responsible for any of the sacks.
On one play in the second quarter, he checked on three different defenders, then headed up the field to give Cutler another receiver. After Cutler avoided a sack, he completed a pass to Forte, who gained 27 yards.
Later in the quarter, on third down, Forte chipped Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk, but linebacker Erik Walden beat left tackle Frank Omiyale. In the third quarter, on third-and-9, Forte went from Cutler’s right side to his left to pick up a blitzing player.
Faulk said he has noticed Forte maturing in Martz’s offense, and he projects greater things.
‘‘Once he gets that confidence in this system, you’ll see him stop thinking,’’ Faulk said. ‘‘There are times he’s thinking and not playing. I’ve watched him grow into this offense.’’
Martz isn’t complaining.
Asked about Forte on Wednesday, Martz said, ‘‘I think in the last five games, I don’t know if there’s a back playing any better than he is. He’s really going. He has always been really good, been very impressive, but about five weeks ago, something happened.’’