It's not just Matt Forte whose touches and productivity have dropped this season as Brandon Marshall has become the focal point of the Bears' offense.
Just about every skill-position player has seen his role and his numbers decrease. That isn't necessarily a negative, and at this point it remains to be seen if the 2012 Brandon Marshall Offense will be better or worse than the 2011 edition.
Through seven games, this year's team is averaging 18 fewer total yards per game and 27 fewer passing yards but 5.4 more rushing yards than last year's team at the same point. The Bears are worse in allowing interceptions, ranking 25th this year as opposed to 13th in 2011, but they're much better at converting third downs (16th this year; 28th in 2011).
But everyone involved, Marshall included, would like to see a more balanced attack for the remainder of the season -- starting today against the Titans.
"It's really important," Marshall said. "I think getting Earl (Bennett) back is definitely going to help us open up some things for all the guys. We definitely need to get him involved, and he's healthy now, so I'm expecting to see a lot of Earl."
Bennett missed two games earlier in the season with a hand injury. In the five games he's played, he has 12 catches for 156 yards, a 13.0-yard average and zero touchdowns. Last season he missed five games early in the season with a serious chest injury. But in his first five games of 2011, Bennett had 17 catches for 271 yards, a 16.0-yard average and 1 touchdown.
Marshall's 50 receptions and 675 yards are more than the totals of the next three Bears combined. Every other wide receiver on the roster combined has a total of 38 catches and 504 yards. Marshall's on pace for a 114-catch season with 1,543 yards, which is great, but the Bears want more balance.
"When you have a definite No. 1 (receiver), you want to make sure you get (him) his reps, his plays and his passes, which we're doing," coach Lovie Smith said. "But we definitely want to get others involved, getting our second receiver to step up, getting our tight end involved."
Through seven games, Devin Hester has 11 catches for 157 yards (14.3 average) and 1 touchdown. Through seven games last season, Hester had 21 receptions for 308 yards (14.7) and 1 TD.
Tight end Kellen Davis is the only skill--position player whose numbers are up this season. He has 10 catches for 144 yards, compared to 8-for-107 last season, and his average per catch is up from 13.4 to 14.4. This season and last he had 2 TDs through seven games.
As a first-time play-caller, first-year offensive coordinator Mike Tice is still feeling his way. That, and an attack that has sputtered badly at times, have resulted in a Marshall-heavy offense.
"Right now we're still trying to make sure we get the guys in the position to do what they do well," Tice said. "We have to get Matt (Forte) involved more, but you can't be three-and-out. When you are, you can't get anyone involved."
Forte picked up 70 yards against the Panthers on his 15 carries and added 24 yards on 5 catches. Approaching the halfway mark, he has rushed for 436 yards on 95 carries (4.6 average) and caught 18 passes for 134 yards (7.4 average).
All those numbers lag behind last year's at the same juncture, especially those in the passing game. Through seven games in 2011, Forte had 124 carries for 672 yards (5.4 average) and 38 catches for 419 yards (11.0 average).
"It's about having a rhythm," Forte said. "If you have a bunch of three-and-outs, that's not having a rhythm. We need to keep drives going."
Cutler, whose numbers are also down from last year, foresaw a dip in Forte's numbers early on. But there is potentially an upside down the road.
"I said in training camp I didn't think Matt was going to get the touches that he got last year," Cutler said. "There are not enough balls to go around. But we want to keep him fresher than he was last year toward the end. That's why we put (Michael Bush) in there, and with the receivers we have, there are a lot of balls to go around. So Matt is not going to get the receptions he had last year. That's just how it's going to be this year.
"But obviously, we want to get the ball to Matt as much as possible, especially with all the two high (safeties) we're seeing. We need to get him going a little more."
Tice agrees, and he was not satisfied with the 20 touches Forte got last week. So, while Marshall will continue to be the go-to guy, expect Forte and the other guys to do more to get the Bears' offense going.