In what was their most impressive and well-rounded effort of the season in a 27-13 victory over the Vikings, the 6-3 Bears ran the ball well enough to set up some big play-action passes by Jay Cutler. They also got a vintage Devin Hester performance on special teams and another stout effort from the defense that forced a flock of Brett Favre turnovers.
Good defense and great Hester returns are expected, but a viable running game could make the Bears' playoff hopes come true as they face a short turnaround before Thursday night's game in South Florida against the Dolphins.
The Bears had given up a league-worst 31 sacks through eight weeks, but they have allowed just one in each of the past two games. Part of the solution was running the ball 38 times against the Vikings and 31 times a week earlier against the Bills.
"It's fun to be able to go after some people and run the football," said Roberto Garza, whose return to right guard two weeks ago after arthroscopic knee surgery has helped solidify the line. "Our running backs did a great job of hitting those holes and is playing exceptionally well. He's doing a great job of getting rid of the ball, moving in the pocket when we kind of break down a little bit, and he's creating those big plays."
It's been almost two years since Hester was the Bears' regular kickoff returner, as he focused more on playing wide receiver.
But they considered Sunday's game against the Vikings pivotal in their quest to make the playoffs. It was obvious Hester hasn't lost his touch, with 100 yards on two attempts.
His 42-yard punt return down the sideline included three broken tackles but also some key blocks, especially one by Rashied Davis.
With Hester handling both kickoff and punt returns, his snaps at wide receiver have diminished, but he's still tied for fourth on the team with 24 receptions and there are no plans to phase him out.
WR Johnny Knox
With Hester being used more in the return game, Johnny Knox has gotten more snaps at wide receiver, as he has claimed the No. 1 spot. Knox has made his extra snaps pay off. He leads the team with 32 catches and 617 receiving yards, including five catches for 90 yards on Sunday, and he came in with the fifth-highest yards per catch in the league at 19.5.
But the Bears aren't writing Hester out of the offense.
"We're just trying to get everybody involved, Johnny as much as anything," coach Lovie Smith said. "Just spreading some of the plays around a little bit, keeping everybody fresh. Believe me, [Hester] will get his touches one way or another."
BY THE NUMBERS
Hester came into the game leading the NFL in punt-return average at 15.9 yards, including two touchdowns. They were his first after a two-year drought following the 11 kick-return TDs he had in his first two NFL seasons, when it seemed as if every time he touched the ball he was a threat to score.
It seems like that now.
"That's definitely our mindset and his, too," Smith said. "You can kind of feel now every time he goes back there, he's thinking about going the distance."
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
CB D.J. Moore, who barely touched the field last year as a rookie, picked off his team-best fourth pass of the season Sunday. ... TE Greg Olsen had three catches for 31 yards, including a 17-yard TD grab, his team-best fourth of the season. ... Cutler was sacked just once for the second game in a row after being dropped 27 times in his first five and a half games. Cutler had three TD passes and two interceptions, but one came on a ball that hit Knox between the numbers and bounced off for a pick. ... RB Matt Forte had 21 carries for 69 yards, just the second time this season he has had more than 20 attempts and just the second time he has topped 50 yards. ... TE Kellen Davis' 19-yard TD reception was his first catch of the season.
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