It seemed Sunday as if the Bears might run out of offensive linemen, not an ideal situation with quarterback Jay Cutler playing for the first time since suffering a concussion two weeks earlier.
Early in the third quarter, benched right tackle Gabe Carimi was pressed into service at right guard, a position he had never played, because the Bears’ best offensive lineman, Lance Louis, went down with a knee injury.
Backup Edwin Williams already was playing left guard because of a second-quarter knee injury to Chris Spencer.
It was Spencer’s first start in 10 weeks after Chilo Rachal played himself out of the lineup and then left the team and was removed from the 53-man roster.
Right tackle Jonathan Scott was starting his first game as a Bear at right tackle in place of Carimi.
The patchwork job held better than Krazy Glue, and Cutler played one of his more efficient games.
With no linemen available other than the five on the field, the offense survived and even thrived at times in a crucial 28-10 victory over the NFC North rival Vikings.
The victory snapped a two-game losing streak and improved the Bears to 8-3. Minnesota, which could have moved into a tie with the Bears, fell to 6-5.
“Who’s my guard?” Cutler asked after Louis went down after a vicious shot from Jared Allen after the Vikings’ only interception of the game on a ball that deflected off Brandon Marshall’s hand. Carimi raised his hand.
“I asked (offensive coordinator) Mike Tice, and I was being serious — who’s coming in at guard?” Cutler said. “I knew Gabe had never played guard. I didn’t know what we were going to do. (Tice) said, ‘Gabe is going to play guard.’
“Any guy who has a lot of desire like him is going to go in there and give his best effort.”
Carimi and Williams both played well enough for the Bears to hold on, even with the additional losses of running back Matt Forte (ankle), wide receiver Devin Hester (concussion) and cornerback Charles Tillman (ankle).
“Losing two (O-line) starters is tough to overcome,” said 12-year veteran center Roberto Garza, who was often able to offer Carimi some coaching as they walked from the huddle to the line of scrimmage.
“Ed and Gabe did a (heck) of a job. It’s a tribute to the job Coach Tice is doing with us. Those guys played more than half the game at positions they hadn’t played at all during the week.”
The offensive performance represented a huge turnaround, coming as it did on the heels of the Bears’ worst offensive performance of the season a week earlier.
“It was a redemption game from the standpoint of physicality and playing together cohesively,” said Scott, who helped hold the Vikings to just 1 sack. “It’s definitely a step forward.
“But we can’t be on a high horse right now because we still have (five) ballgames to play and we need to continue to get better. During this stretch is when you show the caliber of a true championship team. I think we’re on the right path to do that.”
With Cutler back, the Bears at least have a chance. Maybe he and the Bears’ offense just needed a little time apart.
After 2 disappointing losses in which the offense scored a total of 13 points playing without Cutler for the final six quarters, the Bears’ attack functioned better than it had for most of the past month.
Cutler completed 15 of his first 17 passes to help stake the home team to a 25-3 halftime lead. He finished with an 86.5 passer rating, completing 23 of 31 passes for 188 yards, including a 13-yard TD to tight end Matt Spaeth.
“Not every team has a guy like we have in our quarterback position,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “When plays break down, you have a guy that can scramble around and make a play.”
Three times Cutler avoided sacks and scrambled, picking up 9 yards.
Another time he moved around in the pocket long enough to target Marshall in the end zone, drawing a pass interference penalty that set up Michael Bush’s second 1-yard TD run.
Once while being tackled, Cutler shoveled a pass to Matt Forte that picked up 4 yards.
Cutler’s all-around play, Marshall’s 12 catches for 92 yards, and Tice’s commitment to the run (39 attempts, 113 yards) all helped get a wheezing offense back up to speed.
Nothing illustrated the offense’s proficiency Sunday more than that 14-play, 80-yard TD march that consumed 7:59 of the second quarter and pushed the Bears’ lead to 18-3.
It had been six weeks since the Bears’ offense constructed a drive that utilized as much time, covered as much yardage and featured as many plays.
It wasn’t artistic, but it was functional. Cutler completed 4 of 5 passes for 27 yards, Forte run four times for 14 yards, and Bush picked up 15 yards on 5 carries.
“When we stay committed to the run and we block well,” Cutler said, “we’re going to be successful.”
As long as Cutler stays healthy and they don’t run out of offensive linemen.
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