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With improving D, Bears’ offense in catch-up mode

With Jay Cutler, Alshon Jeffery, Matt Forte and four starters on the offensive line returning led by Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long, the Bears’ offense was expected to carry more than its share of the load while the defense underwent a total reconstruction under Vic Fangio.

It’s slowly becoming the other way around. Fangio’s defense, undergoing the difficult task of a simultaneous teardown and rebuild, has taken the first steps toward respectability after a near-total meltdown in 2014. Outside linebacker Pernell McPhee looks like a developing playmaker who could make those around him better. Jarvis Jenkins, who had two sacks in 42 games with the Redskins, has three sacks in four games with Fangio.

Starting cornerback Alan Ball did not play because of an injury and the Bears actually got better — cornerback Tracy Porter did a solid job shadowing Raiders rookie wide receiver Amari Cooper, who had four receptions for 49 yards and beat Sherrick McManus for his 26-yard touchdown. Rookie nose tackle Eddie Goldman — getting more snaps with Jeremiah Ratliff missing the first four games —  “had his best game so far,” against the Raiders, according to Fangio. The Bears didn’t wilt after Antrel Rolle left the game with an ankle injury.

(Maybe that’s just what it looks like when you play the Raiders — a middle-of-the-pack offensive team. But the Bears have many more Raiders offenses left on their schedule than Packers. In fact, of the Bears’ remaining 12 opponents, only the sixth-ranked Packers are in the top 10 in scoring after four weeks and 10 of the 12 are 21st or lower.)

It remains to be seen just how high the ceiling is for a defense still in the throes of an arduous transition. But at some point, the offense is going to have to get healthy and get with it. None of the starting offensive linemen was in his current position in training camp. Jeffery has played one game. Eddie Royal is questionable for Sunday. Jay Cutler still is recovering from a hamstring injury.

The injuries have been a particular problem for the Bears for a good reason — they’re truly committed to running the ball. The Bears have had 27 or more carries in each of their first four games — they exceeded that only three times under Marc Trestman last year.

“I really want to run the ball well. And it’s hard when you’ve got new guys in there,” guard Matt Slauson said, “because a  new tackle has to get used to how I play, Me and Bush [left tackle Jermon Bushrod, out with a concussion] have worked together so  long, Bush knows how I’m going to block a guy on a backside scoop block on a zone. So he fits in perfectly.

“In pass protection, it is a little easier, because everybody knows how to set back and pass block. As long as everybody communicates, everything’s good. But the running game is when it gets a little bit rough. So there is frustration there, because we want to run the ball well as an offensive line — that’s a feather in our hat. We owe it to Matt [Forte] to get him loose because he is such a horse. But it’ll come. Everybody’s working really hard at it.”

Long was even more emphatic. “We’re good. Offensively we’re set,” he said when asked about injuries hampering the offense’s ability to make the same progress as the defense. “We’re ready to roll no matter who’s in there; no matter the situation we have a game plan. We’re going to run the ball, pound the ball — that’s what we’ve been about regardless of the situation. When Jay’s in the game it gives us an opportunity.”

This is where Adam Gase’s run-first approach is an advantage over Trestman’s dependance on Cutler and the passing game. If the Bears can find a way to run the ball now, they’ll always have that sound base as (if?) they get healthier.

“Injuries are common in the NFL,” Forte said. “If you’re a really good team, you’re able to overcome that and as you get guys back, you get better and better.”