Tim Spencer turned to walk into the Bears locker room and held up two fingers.
Surely, the running backs coach was referencing the career-high 205-yard rushing game Matt Forte had just completed, emphatic proof that, yes, this offense can move the ball on the ground.
The Bears pounded their way to a 34-29 victory over the Panthers on Sunday at Soldier Field, improving to 2-2 and just maybe discovering their identity along the way.
The offense goes through Forte, and after two weeks in which the run was a nuisance to offensive coordinator Mike Martz, he embraced it. Thirty of the 49 offensive plays went to Forte (25 rushes, 5 pass targets) as he tied Walter Payton and Gale Sayers for the No. 2 single-game rushing effort in team history with 205 yards.
The Bears needed every last yard from Forte. His 40-yard dash as the offense worked to run out the clock set up a 3-yard touchdown run by Marion Barber with 1:23 to play. Sunday was the regular-season debut for the free-agent pickup, who had missed the previous three weeks with a calf injury. He celebrated by trying a backflip and landing on his helmet.
The late touchdown was necessary because the Panthers marched downfield to score on a three-yard pass from rookie Cam Newton to former Bears tight end Greg Olsen with four seconds remaining. The Panthers rolled up 543 yards of offense, the most ever surrendered by a Lovie Smith defense and the most the franchise has allowed since the Los Angeles Rams piled up 583 on Dec. 26, 1982.
Newton was as exciting as advertised, completing 27 of 46 passes for 374 yards and the one touchdown. An ill-advised first-quarter throw was deflected to nickel back D.J. Moore, who returned it 20 yards for a touchdown.
Newton also ran for two scores, and the Panthers rushed for 169 yards as DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for 134. Bears nemesis Steve Smith caught eight passes for 181 yards.
But the Bears combated the fireworks with two things that have been recipes for success under Smith — the running game and special teams. Devin Hester returned a punt 69 yards for a touchdown, the 11th punt return score of his career, breaking a tie with Eric Metcalf for the most in NFL history. Julius Peppers blocked a 34-yard field goal try by Olindo Mare in the third quarter four plays after Panthers tight end Jeremy Shockey was called for offensive pass interference on what would have been a 22-yard touchdown catch. He pushed an off-balance Charles Tillman to the ground.
"I have no idea," Shockey said. "I asked them (to explain) and they don't tell me (anything). They should be held accountable as well."
In the fourth quarter, Mare was short on a 52-yard field goal after Charles Godfrey intercepted Jay Cutler to set the Panthers up on the Bears' 29.
Those miscues by Ron Rivera's young team proved to be the difference, but the Bears asserted themselves from the start. After calling only 20 runs total in the last two games, Martz called runs on the first nine Sunday.
"It was the same guys that normally call the game," coach Lovie Smith said when asked if he was dialing up the running plays. "They've done a great job and did a great job today."
The Bears were a downhill running team in the early going, and despite switching up things on the right side of the line with right guard Chris Spencer missing time with a right hand injury and Lance Louis replacing Frank Omiyale at right tackle, Forte also got going on the edges.
"All the credit goes to the offensive line," said Forte, who was thoroughly credited by the linemen. "The holes were huge out there. Even toward the end of the game we just kept pounding them and pounding them. The offensive line wore the defense out."
Cutler completed 9 of 17 passes for 102 yards but was predictably thrilled to see Forte unleashed on an opponent.
"It makes my job really easy," he said. "Matt's having a field day out there, (and) it really gives us some opportunities to take some shots downfield. We didn't really do it today, but in the future hopefully we'll be able to."
The future comes next Monday at Detroit when the Bears will tangle with the Lions, who are off to their first 4-0 start since 1980. Everyone will be waiting to see what the future brings in the way of a running game.
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