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Bears, Titans seek payoff at RB

Bears running back Matt Forte is tackled from behind after hauling in a Jay Cuttler pass against the Panthers on Sunday at Soldier Field. The Bears won, 23-22.
Bears running back Matt Forte is tackled from behind after hauling in a Jay Cuttler pass against the Panthers on Sunday at Soldier Field. The Bears won, 23-22.

LAKE FOREST – Matt Forte and Chris Johnson offer contrasting styles on the field.

Forte is a broad-shouldered, powerful runner who stands 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighs 218 pounds. Johnson is smaller than Forte at 5-11 and 191 pounds, and he relies on his sprinter speed to elude defenders instead of bowl them over.

Despite their differences, both players have earned Pro Bowl selections. Both have grumbled about their contracts until they received the eight-figure guarantees they sought. And both are trying to prove to their teams they were worth the multimillion-dollar investments.

Consider what Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher had to say about Johnson on Thursday.

“He’s getting back to his form now,” Urlacher said. “They’re trying to run the ball more.”

Or consider how Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice sized up Forte this week.

“Matt is rolling right now,” Tice said. “We’ve got to get him involved more.”

Maybe both runners aren’t so different, after all.

The two players will go head to head Sunday when the Bears (6-1) visit the Tennessee Titans (3-4) at LP Field in Nashville. The Bears want to extend their winning streak to six games, while the Titans have won two of the past three but remain in third place in the AFC South.

To win, both teams could use a boost from their highly paid running backs.

It’s too soon to label Forte’s recent four-year, $32 million contract extension as a bad deal by the Bears, but his production has dipped compared with recent years. He has averaged 95 yards from scrimmage per game in 2012 (72.7 yards rushing, 22.3 yards receiving) after averaging 123.9 yards from scrimmage in 2011 (83.1 yards rushing, 40.8 yards receiving).

The Bears’ play-calling on offense has been partly responsible for Forte’s drop in production. Forte garnered 15 carries in Week 8 and has averaged 15.8 carries per game this season.

“When you have a special player like that, of course we need to get him the ball more,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “And we’ll try that. But you can say that about a few of our players.”

Meanwhile, the Titans are hoping that Johnson’s recent resurgence is part of a greater trend.

Critics blasted Johnson after his quiet start to last season. After holding out for all of 2011 training camp, Johnson signed a four-year extension worth $53.5 million, and he responded with career lows in rushing yards per game (65.4), yards per carry (4.0) and touchdowns (4).

Johnson’s slump served as a red flag for teams negotiating long-term deals with running backs. The Bears re-signed Forte anyway, although it’s possible that they cited Johnson’s post-contract struggles as a negotiating tactic to keep the cost down as much as possible.

However, in the past few weeks, Johnson has offered glimpses of his previous dominance. He carried the ball 25 times for 141 yards in Week 4 against the Houston Texans, and he topped those numbers with 18 carries for 195 yards in Week 7 against the Buffalo Bills.

Those performances caught the eyes of Bears’ defenders as they prepared for Sunday’s game.

“Chris Johnson is a home-run hitter,” Bears linebacker Lance Briggs said. “Any time he gets some daylight, he’s a threat to score a touchdown right now.”

One simple strategy might help to keep Johnson and the Titans’ offense off of the field.

Give the ball to Forte. Let him earn his money.

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