Upon further review: Challenges ahead

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Crushing defeats allow dissention to seep into the cracks of a team’s foundation, similar to what occurred Sunday in the minutes following Chicago’s 17-14 loss to the Washington Redskins.

At least one player privately questioned whether Jay Cutler -- who played a direct role in five of the team’s turnovers -- would be held to the same standards of accountability as the rest of the team, leaving open the possibility the quarterback could be losing the support of teammates.

Yet Bears’ coach Lovie Smith squashed the notion Monday, stressing the organization wins and loses as a team.

“Well, I can understand why you would ask that question. But you guys had a chance to talk to our team,” Smith said. “What I would say is that [what] they would say is, ‘No, [Cutler isn’t in danger of losing the team].’ Jay, of course, would like to have some of those throws back. There are so many things all of us would like to do differently. But our team is just that: a team. We lost as a team yesterday. Everybody had an opportunity to make plays. Maybe some had more opportunities. But we’ll tighten those things up, and everyone around -- and everyone involved -- will do a little bit more to correct some of those things.”

The bye week seems the perfect time to do that. Having dropped three of their last four outings, the Bears -- which once led the NFC North comfortably at 4-1 -- find themselves, as Smith said, evaluating “everything we’re doing from personnel to scheme to try to tighten up on some things that have caused us to lose.”

Chicago's schedule intensifies after the bye, with contests against the Vikings, Dolphins, and Eagles, in addition to a month-long stretch to end the year with second meetings against the Vikings and Packers, and outings versus the Patriots and Jets.

We take a look at some of the team’s most daunting challenges likely to be addressed during the bye as the Bears prepare for a Nov. 7 matchup with the Buffalo Bills in Toronto:

Offensive line

Although the line fared better in the second half (one sack) against the Redskins after giving up three in the first half, expect the Bears to continuing moving around the pieces up front. In fact, the club -- depending on how it decides to deploy the personnel -- may opt for its fifth starting five in eight games.

“We’ll take our bye week and as an O-line we’ll try to get to know each other better and improve on little things,” said center Olin Kreutz.

Remember, the Bears started the season with a starting unit comprised of left tackle Chris Williams, left guard Roberto Garza, Kreutz, right guard Lance Louis, and right tackle Frank Omiyale before injuries broke up the group. Because Garza underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on Oct. 15, the club utilized Omiyale and Chris Williams at left tackle and guard, respectively, in the last two games, while lining up Edwin Williams and rookie J’Marcus Webb on the right side.

Edwin Williams left Sunday’s game because of tightness in his back, and was replaced by Louis.

Kreutz described some of the chaos that ensued on the sidelines Sunday in between possessions after the second-year guard left the game.

“A lot of swearing, but mostly [us] trying to just figure out what the guy next to us was doing. ‘Why did you do that?’ Just stuff like that,” Kreutz said. “You’re trying to get to know the guy you’re playing next to. Edwin went down in the first drive [and] Lance came in. That was a whole other piece we put in. [We’re] just trying to get to learn each other and play together.”

The Bears expect Garza to return in time for the Nov. 7 game at Buffalo, along with Edwin Williams. But Smith hasn’t given any indication as to what the club’s plans are in terms of the starters.

“I think the bye week is coming at a great time, period,” Smith said. “There was a period of time there [against the Redskins], overall, that the offensive line made improvements and did some things better. We’re disappointed with some things, but I think we’ve been able to identify them, and now it’s what we’ll do this week.”

Either way, it’s imperative the club cuts down the sack numbers (31 overall, including 27 sacks of Cutler), in addition to the hits teams are delivering to Cutler. The quarterback took responsibility for his five turnovers against the Redskins, but it’s difficult to ask Cutler to consistently fire accurate passes with constant pressure in his face.

“It was a lot better this week,” Chris Williams said. “But we still have to get it done, you know.”

Communication between QB and WRs

Cutler pointed out “itty-bitty things here and there” as hindrances to efficient communication with the club’s young receivers, who shared some of the blame in the interceptions against the Redskins.

“As far as who’s at fault with the interceptions, we all have to take part of that. Jay would tell you some of them were on him. Receivers can help out on some of the routes,” Smith said. “Some of our calls can help out too. It’s kind of all of the above a little bit with it.”

Offensive coordinator Mike Martz, meanwhile, once said to “put it in granite” that Chicago’s receivers would be the strength of the offense. Such hasn’t been the case thus far, which is alarming, considering the offensive system relies heavily on precision that can only be achieved by Cutler and the receivers almost knowing one another’s thoughts on the field.

But how do Cutler and the receivers get to that point? Smith couldn’t offer up a clear answer.

“In our offense, that’s very important, and that has been the case,” Smith said. “But again, these are all things -- if you turned on the TV at any time last night, I heard the guys saying some of the same things -- sometimes you’re just not quite on target, whether it be a quarterback with a receiver, whatever. Yesterday, we weren’t on in critical situations. If you don’t get it taken care of, you lose the football game the way we did.”

From our vantage point, most of the communication issues fall on Johnny Knox, the club’s most targeted receiver, and Devin Hester. Interestingly, Cutler seems to possess a better rapport with tight end Greg Olsen, Earl Bennett and Devin Aromashodu, who aren’t normally the quarterback’s No. 1 targets in a given route.

Bennett and Knox entered Sunday’s game as two of the NFL’s best in terms of catch percentage (94.7 percent and 94.1 percent, respectively), according to ESPN Stats and Information, with only one drop apiece. Hester (81.3 percent), meanwhile, had dropped three passes going into Sunday’s contest.

So trust in the receivers’ consistency wouldn’t appear to be at issue as much as their ability to read coverages and adjust routes accordingly. Most of the communication problems stem from Cutler and the receivers reading coverages differently, and in many cases the receivers have been the ones making the correct reads.

“We’ve got to focus on ourselves,” Olsen said. “We pretty much need to do everything better. We need to take however many practices we have this week and make the most of them. We can’t just go through the motions. We have to get better.”

Play calling

Smith called for balance on offense after the Bears lost to Seattle on Oct. 17 with a pass-run ratio of 39 to 12, yet Martz responded by calling 40 passes and 15 runs against the Redskins.

So much for balance.

Still, the club needs to achieve some level of it moving forward to prevent the offense from becoming one-dimensional, which in many ways leads to more punishment for Cutler because without the threat of the running game, opponents tend to remain in pass-rush mode for long stretches.

Running backs Matt Forte and Chester Taylor averaged 4.1 and 6.7 yards, respectively, in the loss to the Redskins. So it appears the duo could’ve been productive, had Martz provided the opportunity.

“You’re reluctant to do some of things when we’re trying to keep things a little simpler at times [for the offensive line],” Martz said last week. “That’s the wrong thing to do. We need to do what we do and just go play.”

Martz said the club needed to run the ball more against the Redskins, yet it didn’t happen. Twice in the game, the Bears opted to call runs designed for Hester instead of the backs, resulting in the receiver rushing for just five yards.

“I know there’s a rhyme and reason for everything we do. It’s not my job [to question it],” Kreutz said. “I play center. I just execute what’s called. The play calling had nothing to do with us winning or losing. It was just our execution, our ability to not block people, our ability to not hold onto the ball, just stuff like that [which] loses games.”

Third-down conversions

The Bears rank last in the league in third-down efficiency (17.9 percent), finishing 2 for 10 against the Redskins. Prior to Cutler converting a third-and-2 from the Redskins’ 33 in the third quarter on a pass to Devin Hester for a 7-yard gain, the quarterback had led the team on a streak of 28 consecutive third downs without a conversion.

Interestingly, Martz pinned the club’s neglect to the running game to its inability to convert third downs, which means there could be somewhat of a symbiotic relationship between two of the Bears’ most pronounced shortcomings.

“When you’re converting on third down, you’re more apt to run the ball,” he said. “When you’re not, when you’re struggling on third downs, you feel like you’ve got to make something happen on first and second downs -- at least I do. We’ve got to fix our third-down issues and mix our runs in there. That’s really the crux of it.”

The problem the Bears continue to encounter is the fact there’s not an easy practice fix for their third-down futility. The club can’t simulate on the practice field the wrinkles it will see against most opponents. So Chicago’s best option is to significantly shore up all the minor details, which could translate into major results.

“That’s where we are right now,” Smith said. “There are a lot of things we would like to do differently, a lot of things I would like to do differently.”

Goal-line production

Instead of breaking their curse of ineptitude with Cutler’s quarterback sneak that should’ve been ruled a touchdown in the third quarter, the Bears moved to 0 for 10 on attempts at punching it in from an opponent’s 1.

So that means the Bears have essentially missed out on 60 points over seven games.

“As you can probably figure out, we’re frustrated after any loss -- especially a loss like that,” Smith said.

But in some ways, the club’s goal line futility can be attributed to Martz’s play calling. The Bears have walked away from goal-to-go situations with field goals or scoreless on seven drives this season, while their opponents have scored touchdowns against them in the same situations 90 percent of the time over 10 drives.

Interestingly, Cutler has a 95.8 passer rating, including two TDs in goal-to-go situations, and he hasn’t been sacked or thrown an interception. But the club has called passes in those situations just six times this season. While it’s fine to show confidence in the rushing attack near the goal line, it’s better to execute what works.

Forte has run the ball six times for 1 yard from inside an opponent’s 3 this season. Despite Taylor being considered the more powerful inside runner, his number hasn’t been called in those situations.

“We have some things we need to tighten up,” Smith said. “We’ve identified them, as you have, too. We’ll work on them to get better. Just keep in mind where we are in the football season. They don’t give out championships in October, alright? You start getting yourself in position to make a run in November, in December. We have to put ourselves in a position to make a run.”

What better place to start than the bye week.