While the rest of the Bears were celebrating a touchdown with 1:32 to play on Sunday at Soldier Field, Matt Forte rolled onto his back in the end zone. The running back had scored, but he landed on the ball after his twisting catch of a 28-yard strike from Jay Cutler. The TD knocked the wind out of the Lions—who couldn't rally from the 19--14 hole it put them in—and out of Forte, too.
Forte's performance was breathtaking throughout Chicago's season-opening win. The third-year pro caught seven passes for 151 yards, rushed seven times for 50 yards and scored both Bears touchdowns; the first came in the second quarter, when he caught a screen from Cutler and raced 89 yards. Forte's heroics helped the Bears avoid a defeat that would have been equal parts embarrassing and devastating: The Lions had dropped 20 consecutive road games coming in and lost their starting quarterback, Matthew Stafford, to a sprained right shoulder late in the second quarter.
In the locker room afterward, Forte stripped away a towel to reveal a large red welt where the ball had dented his chest. The discoloration was as ugly as his performance in 2009. Forte partially tore his left hamstring before last season during workouts; then—just as his leg was beginning to feel fully healthy—he sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee on Sept. 27.
The injuries robbed Forte of his speed and his first step, but he never publicly disclosed them or missed a game. That led critics to assume that his diminished production—he rushed for 929 yards and had four total touchdowns a year after scoring 12—was due to overuse in 2008, when he set franchise rookie records for yards rushing (1,238) and yards from scrimmage (1,715) while leading the team with 63 receptions. The reality was much different. "I couldn't really make the cuts that I wanted to make because I was basically playing on one leg," Forte says. "But I knew what I could do when healthy. When I see myself on film this year compared to last, I don't even look like the same person."
Good health isn't the only thing that has Forte smiling this season. When new offensive coordinator and former Rams head coach Mike Martz created the Bears' playbook during the off-season, he included video cut-ups of the stars of his high-powered St. Louis offense, which led the league in scoring each year from 1999 through 2001. As the 6'2", 218-pound Forte studied this summer, watching footage of former Rams running back Marshall Faulk flash on his computer screen, he would envision himself in the three-time All-Pro's cleats. Forte recalls thinking, If I could get that same look, be one-on-one with a linebacker or safety, there would be a chance to make those big plays.
He got one of those looks on the game-winning score on Sunday, when linebacker Julian Peterson took a bad angle in coverage, allowing Forte to get free on a go route down the left sideline. But while Martz's offense can create opportunities for a multipurpose threat like Forte, the coach is notorious for being as demanding of his running backs as he is of his quarterbacks. Chicago backup running back Chester Taylor describes Martz as "bipolar" in the meeting room: "He'll be cool one minute, then mean the next. But he wants to win. He wants things done right."
Faulk, now an NFL Network analyst who played for Martz for seven years in St. Louis, says Martz expects his running backs and quarterback to see and think the same things, because his offense is predicated on timing and the ball being released before receivers are out of their breaks. And when they're not running routes, Martz requires his backs to be especially mindful of pass protection. In many offenses running backs are responsible only for pass rushers on their side of the field, but Martz often has his backs cross the pocket to pick up blitzers from the opposite side. Says Faulk, "That's the fastest way to get your butt in the doghouse with him or get off the field: blowing assignments in pass protection."
So far Forte, who made several key blocks to protect Cutler on Sunday, has thrived under the pressure Martz puts on players at his position. The protection from Forte and Taylor helped allow Cutler to complete 23 of 35 passes for 372 yards and two scores, with one interception. The quarterback had trouble with his timing on occasion, holding the ball longer than he should have, but he showed promise in his first start for Martz. It helped, too, to have an outlet like Forte, whose speed and size present matchup problems for defenses in passing situations. "I thought Matt was a good back before I got here," Martz says, "but he's got some special qualities." Breathtaking, even.
Now on SI.com
Get more analysis and opinion from Jim Trotter, Don Banks and Peter King at SI.com/nfl