LAKE FOREST – Clay Matthews created headaches for the Bears’ offensive line.
DeMarcus Ware could cause nightmares.
The biggest question leading into the Bears’ game against the Dallas Cowboys on Monday might not be whether Matt Forte’s sprained ankle is healed (he practiced Wednesday) or whether Michael Bush’s shoulder is banged up (he practiced, too).
It’s whether 11 players on offense can stop one 255-pound man on defense.
That would be Ware, who this season became the second-fastest player in NFL history to register 100 career sacks. He accomplished the feat in 113 games – two fewer than Bruce Smith, 17 fewer than Richard Dent and 41 fewer than Julius Peppers.
As the Cowboys’ “jack linebacker,” Ware plays a similar position in a similar 3-4 defense as Matthews does with the Green Bay Packers. Matthews feasted on the Bears’ offensive line in Week 2 for 3˝ sacks, seven tackles and a pass defense.
Most of Matthews’ damage came against Bears left tackle J’Marcus Webb, who became a reluctant topic of debate after Jay Cutler bumped him on the sidelines. Ware could switch sides before any given play, which means that both Webb and right tackle Gabe Carimi will need to be aware of where No. 94 lines up.
“He’s athletic,” said Carimi, a second-year player who has watched game film of Ware but never has played against him. “He’s just really, really athletic and strong.”
Bears coach Lovie Smith said Ware was built like a prototypical pass rusher.
“He has, starting off with his unbelievable God-given talent, and he plays hard,” Smith said. “Skill wise, that’s what you’re looking for on the outside.
“He has size, but it’s not like he’s a 300- pound guy, but he gives offensive tackles a lot of trouble with his quickness and his power, and he’s been productive. Our guys get a chance to go against special guys each day, too, to get them ready, but it will be a challenge for our offensive line.”
Smith has learned that lesson from experience. In two previous games against Ware, the Bears have struggled to keep him away from their starting quarterback.
In 2010, Ware registered three tackles, two quarterback hits and a pass defense but the Bears won anyway. Ware stuffed Matt Forte for a 2-yard loss on one play, and he sacked Cutler for an 8-yard loss on another play that was negated by a penalty.
Three seasons earlier at Soldier Field, Ware dominated a Bears’ offensive line that included John Tait and Fred Miller on the edges. Ware’s final stats – six tackles, two sacks, three quarterback hits – helped to explain a 34-10 win by the Cowboys and a miserable 27.5 passer rating from ex-Bears quarterback Rex Grossman.
Bears center Roberto Garza is the only remaining starter from that 2007 offensive line. He described Ware as an elite pass rusher but expressed confidence in his teammates, who already have faced Matthews, Dwight Freeney and Chris Long.
“We know what the challenge is, and we know we have to play better,” Garza said. “We took a step this past week, but there’s still a lot of things we have to work on.”
Bears bits: Forte returned to practice in shorts and shoulder pads Wednesday and said he expected to play Monday. “I’ve had ankle injuries before and know how to work with them,” Forte said. … Bears players were hopeful that the NFL and its referees could agree to a labor deal before Week 4. “We need to get the regular refs back,” tight end Kellen Davis said.