If you haven't been paying attention to the NFC North, the Bears have awakened from their early season slumber and are quietly in position to make a run at a playoff berth.
While most observers would point to the Bears' play on defense and special teams for being the key to their sudden surge, it has been the emergence of a vastly improved offense that has keyed their recent success.
One of the biggest reasons has been the play and leadership of Matt Forte. Even though Bears management doesn't seem convinced, refusing to pay Forte like an elite runner, it is hard to have a discussion about top NFL running backs without including his name. Forte is the first running back since 2004 to amass 1,000 yards from scrimmage in seven games, and his ability to impact the game as a runner and receiver is the foundation of the Bears' offense.
Forte has recorded two 1,000-yard seasons and finished with at least 50 receptions in each of his three years with the team. While those numbers have certainly earned him recognition as one of the most valuable offensive players in the league, it has been his emergence as a big-time runner that has helped the Bears find their offensive identity.
Forte ranks only behind Adrian Peterson in the NFC in rushing yards, and his 21 runs of 10-plus yards are the second most in the league. He also boasts a 5.4-yards-per-carry average that is tied for the second-highest average for runners with a minimum of 100 attempts.
Forte's increased production over the past four weeks, however, has been an integral part of the Bears' reemergence as a contender in the NFC. He has rushed for 100-plus yards in three contests, and his only sub-prime performance (17 attempts for 87 yards against Minnesota) was cut short due to a lopsided score.
What makes his output most impressive is the fact that he has accomplished it in a very non-descript manner. Forte's gliding running style seemingly lulls defenders to sleep, and his smooth gait is enhanced by his remarkable vision and cutback skills. He has a knack for finding creases on the backside and flashes some explosiveness getting to the second level. He routinely makes defenders miss in space, which leads to big runs on the perimeter.
As a result, the Bears are getting better production from their offense and Forte is starting to finally get his due as one of the top runners in the league.
The change in offensive coordinator Mike Martz's philosophy has also helped with Forte's emergence. After spending the first three games of the season attempting to air it out behind Jay Cutler, Martz has adopted a more conservative approach in recent weeks.
He has curtailed the dependency on the passing game (71.5 percent passing plays during first three games) and put more of the onus on Forte and ground attack. In their past four games, the Bears have utilized a more balanced game plan that has resulted in 52 percent passing plays and 48 percent running. As a result, the Bears have avoided the negative plays (sacks and turnovers) that led to their 1-2 start.
More importantly, they have put the ball in the hands of their best playmaker on a consistent basis. Forte has received 20-plus carries in three of the past four games and generated at least 100-plus yards in those games.
The key to improved output has been Martz's willingness to feed Forte early and often. The Bears have given their star runner 12.7 carries in the opening half during their four-game run, and the added opportunities have helped him get into a rhythm.
With the ground game gaining traction, Cutler has been able to operate effectively in the pocket using play-action fakes to set up deep throws. As a result, the Bears have been able to generate points from their aerial attack and present an offense that is more diverse and difficult to contain.
The Bears' much-maligned offensive line also has started to come together after a sluggish start. The unit, which features J'Marcus Webb, Chris Williams, Robert Garza, Chris Spencer and Lance Louis, appeared to struggle out of the gate following an abbreviated training camp. The frontline often appeared out of sync following the snap and the lack of continuity resulted in defenders slipping through cracks to make plays in the backfield. As a result, the Bears allowed 14 sacks during the first three games and ranked near the bottom of the league in rushing offense.
However, the unit has played much better over the past four weeks. Part of their success can be attributed to the five-man ensemble extensively playing together without reshuffling personnel. Offensive line coach Mike Tice has seemingly settled on his lineup, and allowing the group to work through the kinks as a unit has helped them develop the trust and communication needed to thrive. Interestingly, Tice will face a difficult decision when Gabe Carimi returns from injury following the bye week. The rookie started at right tackle to open the season, but the improvement of the unit might dissuade the veteran coach from tinkering with the chemistry at this point.
Also, don't underestimate the altered playcalling on the improved play of Chicago's offensive line. The strength of their current personnel upfront is their collective size, strength and power. By allowing their big guys to come off aggressively in the running game, the offensive line is able to pound on their defenders, which eventually takes a toll and slows down the pass rush. As a result, Cutler is able to throw from a cleaner pocket and bigger plays are generated from the passing game.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks