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Bears finally find a running game thanks to line, Jordan Howard

Football doesn’t have to be art. It’s a brutal sport, and Chicago, raised on that truth, will gladly settle for cave paintings. Not pretty is pretty much what Sunday was.

The most elemental brand of the game involves large men blocking for a running back. On Sunday, an offensive line of large, edgy people and a young bruiser named Jordan Howard brought us back to a time when running backs roamed Soldier Field. And roamed freely enough.

Howard gained 111 yards on 23 carries in a 17-14, badly needed Bears’ victory. It’s what the team should have been doing in its 0-3 start and maybe what it wanted to do but couldn’t. But the offensive line finally located some cohesion, and a fifth-round pick making his first NFL start took advantage of the holes. On the occasions when what was offered looked like keyholes, he made something out of it anyway.

“Jordan Howard did a great job,’’ guard Kyle Long said. “I think when we do our jobs upfront as an offensive line, we couldn’t care who’s back there. It all comes down to us doing our job and executing. Credit Jordan for running really, really hard.’’

Bears running back Jordan Howard (24) runs the ball against Lions outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy during the first half Sunday. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

It was hard to tell if the Bears had improved dramatically or if Detroit is just awful, though forced to make a choice, I’d go with rancid Lion meat. And yet, it doesn’t matter when you’re looking for a victory, any victory.

Bears fans had been clamoring for more Howard the past few weeks, the way they had clamored for Jeremy Langford toward the end of last season and into training camp. But Langford hasn’t shown the ability to stay on his feet, sort of an important trait for a running back. Whether Howard will become the latest flavor of the day remains to be seen, but keep in mind that he has been a hard runner wherever he has been – first at Alabama-Birmingham and then, when UAB shut down its football program, at Indiana.

“The thing about him is always yards (after) contact,’’ tight end Zach Miller said. “He keeps his feet turning, always leaning forward, gaining extra yards. All those things matter.’’

“You’ve got to stay on your blocks because that guy can break some tackles,’’ Miller added.

Under his jersey, Howard wears a ragged, sleeveless T-shirt featuring a photo of his father, who died of pulmonary fibrosis when the boy was 12. He wore it every game in late grade school, high school and college. Now the pros. He also carries something else with him – the certainty that he’s better than a fifth-round pick, better than the 150th player taken overall.

“I always knew that I might not be the fastest, but I can get the job done,’’ he said. “I’ve always believed in myself because if you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will.’’

Joique Bell, the former Lions running back whom the Bears signed last week, helped Howard prepare for Detroit. It was obvious but needed knowledge – the linebackers’ tendencies, the way the Lions were going to try to strip the ball from him, etc. But that doesn’t explain what Howard did Sunday, becoming the first Bear rookie since Matt Forte to run for 100 yards or more in his first start. Forte had 123 yards in his first game in 2008.

“It’s not like you can just walk in off the street and rush for 100 yards in your first start,’’ Bell said. “He definitely has a lot of talent, and he’s still learning. That’s the great thing about it. If he keeps doing what he’s doing and keeps learning, the sky’s the limit.’’

Two things were obvious from the start Sunday. One, the Bears were going to run the ball. And, two, Brian Hoyer, subbing again for injured Jay Cutler, wasn’t going to make a mistake. He rarely tried to force a pass between Lions defenders. That’s how you complete 28 of 36 passes and don’t throw an interception. That’s how you end up with a passer rating of 120.1.

Now the Bears are 1-3, and with games against Indianapolis and Jacksonville next, there will certainly be talk of getting to .500. That’s what happens when you beat the Lions and have two more struggling teams served up to you. I’d preach caution, but given fan enthusiasm, I know I’d be whispering into a hurricane.

The Bears have Jordan Howard, even if no one is sure yet what that means.

“The defense is going to get tired of tackling him,’’ wide receiver Eddie Royal said.

There was a mob of media members around Howard after the game, a new experience for him. He didn’t seem bothered by it.

“It’s kind of new to me, but I’m taking it in stride,’’ he said.

Just like his runs, though this time without a defender being dragged along.