Hub Arkush: Battle of backs will be settled in preseason finale
One of the more critical spots in Bears coach Marc Trestman's offense that has received little attention to this point is the No. 3 running back spot. While there is absolutely no doubt what the roles of Matt Forte and Michael Bush will be this season, what happens if one or both get dinged?
Of course the Bears hope that won't happen, but reality says at some point it will. Forte moves into his sixth season in the NFL and Bush his seventh, the point where all NFL backs have to start checking how much tread is left on the tires.
Both have been durable throughout their pro careers, although Bush did spend his rookie season on injured reserve. Forte missed just week three last season after sitting out the final four games of 2011, and Bush missed the last three games of 2012 after playing a portion of the season with a bum shoulder.
Not only does Trestman's West Coast scheme require 1,100 to 1,200 rushing yards out of its lead back, West Coast backs are usually the second- or third-leading receivers on the team. It's a great recipe for Forte to have his best season, and Bush appears to be the perfect backup. But who's up next if either is unable to go?
Essentially, this has become a two-horse race between third-year veteran, Armando Allen out of Notre Dame and an undrafted rookie free agent out of LSU, Michael Ford. Harvey Unga would love to be part of the equation, but he has trailed these two all preseason and is now sidelined with bruised ribs.
Allen appeared ready to put this job away before fumbling in the preseason opener at Carolina and then tweaking a hamstring and missing significant time in practice.
The two things that separate Allen from Ford are that at 5-foot-8, 190 pounds he is a different type player than Forte, Bush or Ford, a scatback who could offer a nice change of pace as a third-down back even when Forte and Bush are healthy. And with 119 receptions out of the backfield in college, he is Notre Dame's all-time leading receiver at running back. The kid's got West Coast back written all over him.
But with Allen sidelined last week against the Chargers, Ford attempted to make a statement, and that he did as a kickoff returner, bringing back three for 160 yards, including one for 100 yards that stopped 4 yards short of the goal line. Unfortunately, given 15 carries from scrimmage, Ford managed just 29 yards.
Which brings us back to just 11 days and two preseason games for either Allen or Ford to earn a job. With the potential need to carry extra bodies at quarterback, offensive line, linebacker and defensive back, there appears to be no way both can stick, although one factor that could favor Allen is Ford could land on the practice squad, while Allen cannot.
I asked them if the competition created extra pressure on their game performances
"Every game and every practice is pressure on everyone when you're trying to make the team, so it's no difference for us," Allen said.
Ford said, "To me it's not really a fight, I can only focus on what I can focus on and get better at what I do, and where the chips fall, they fall."
Both players agree the veterans have been their biggest asset.
"They're amazing to be around," Ford said. "Forte's a great guy. Bush is a great guy. They teach me everything – the ins and outs of the game, how to practice, how to study, how to get ready for games."
This is the hardest part of the NFL preseason. Both of these backs appear to be fine young men, but one is about to have his dream come true, while the other's will be shattered. The vets will get most of the time Friday against the Oakland Raiders, so keep an eye on the preseason finale Aug. 29 against the Cleveland Browns when this battle will be settled.
• Hub Arkush covers the Bears for Shaw Media and HubArkush.com. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.