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Investment in Bears’ run game has paid off

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Howie Long figured Mike Martz was trying to relocate his offense 290 miles — from St. Louis to Chicago.

When the former Rams head coach accepted the job to become the Bears’ offensive coordinator, Martz did what was natural to him: He dialed up passes and de-emphasized runs.

‘‘You’re trying to recapture what you had in St. Louis, which was amazing,’’ said Long, a pregame analyst for Fox NFL Sunday. ‘‘But he had to make adjustments in what his expectations were.’’

It was like fitting a square peg into a round hole. The Bears’ offensive line didn’t have continuity, having been shuffled several times, and couldn’t provide quarterback Jay Cutler with the time for seven-step drops. Cutler and top receivers Devin Hester and Johnny Knox clearly needed time to adjust to the new timing-based scheme.

But Long said everything changed after the bye, when Martz came to a realization.

‘‘Defenses didn’t respect the way [the Bears] ran the football,’’ said Long, a Hall of Fame defensive end. ‘‘But they started to find balance vs. Buffalo. That was a turning point.

‘‘Leading up to that point, there was a disproportionate number of throws. [That led to] protection issues, turnovers, Cutler under siege.’’

Bears running backs coach Tim Spencer described it as the team making a ‘‘commitment to invest in the running game.’’

That, of course, meant handing the ball off more to Matt Forte.

His best outing of the season was his 22-carry, 166-yard game against the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 10. And here’s an alarming pattern: In the Bears’ five losses, Forte averaged 11 carries for 38 yards and scored only one touchdown.

For the season, he’s averaging 14 carries per game. Spencer said the ideal number would be closer to 20, not to mention five catches.

Forte is 13th in the NFL in carries with 237 — 100 fewer than the Houston Texans’ Arian Foster, who led the league in rushing this season with 1,616 yards.

Bears coach Lovie Smith said he’s not surprised by Forte’s re-emergence this season, noting that he didn’t feel as good last season as he did this one.

‘‘He’s been a good football player since he came here,’’ Smith said. ‘‘Of course, he’s outstanding now, and everyone is noticing him. But I’ve seen the same guy just about every day I’ve been here.’’

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Long said the Bears’ offensive line is starting to come together. And while it lacks a superstar, he pointed to another prominent offensive line to make his point that units today don’t necessarily have to be household names.

‘‘Look at Atlanta, their offensive line,’’ Long said. ‘‘Is there an Orlando Pace, an Anthony Munoz or a Joe Thomas? No.’’

Instead, Long pointed to the Falcons’ continuity.

‘‘You’ve got five fingers moving as one and reacting and understanding what the person next to them is going to do’’ Long said.

Long praised offensive line coach Mike Tice and said he has noticed the Bears’ unit playing better off one another. At the start of the season, the offensive line ‘‘looked somewhat dysfunctional,’’ he said.

‘‘At that position, as much as any in football, it’s about continuity and comfort in the person next to you,’’ Long said. ‘‘If the left guard sees one thing and the left tackle sees another, guess what? The quarterback is going to end up on the ground.’’

Long said one of the Bears’ biggest problems early in the season was even more basic: not identifying the right person to block.

Butkus praises Urlacher

On Thursday, Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher was named NFC defensive player of the month for December. He had 49 of his team-high 146 tackles in the month and also had 1½ sacks, a forced fumble and three passes defended.

I recently asked Bears legend Dick Butkus if Urlacher is the greatest middle linebacker in team history.

“He very well could be,” he said.

Butkus said he enjoys watching Urlacher, the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis and the San Francisco 49ers’ Patrick Willis play his old position.

“Ray Lewis is damn good,” Butkus said. “And [Willis] is a two-time Butkus winner.”

Butkus said he wouldn’t have any problem if Urlacher surpasses him in team annals.

“He could be the best,” Butkus said. “I don’t know why they keep bringing up me. This was 38 years ago that I played.”

Thrills in the chill

When the temperature drops, Bears running back Matt Forte gets hotter. In the four Bears games in which the temperature was 40 degrees or colder this season, Forte averaged 5.4 yards per carry, according to STATS. He had 60 carries for 321 yards in those four games, generating a first down on 25 percent of those plays. He also had 11 runs of 10 or more yards in those games.

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