Chicago Bears: Upon Further Review

Upon Further Review: Bears Week 15

December, 16, 2013
CLEVELAND -- An examination of four hot issues from the Chicago Bears38-31 win over the Cleveland Browns:

Cutler’s rust: It would be unrealistic to believe that Jay Cutler could knock off all the rust from a month away from the game in just one outing. So you can expect to see the quarterback exhibit a little rust at times next week at Philadelphia. That’s normal.

“I had some throws that were high,” Cutler said of his two interceptions in the first half.

Cutler will be able to work out the kinks much faster over the next couple of weeks, but he’ll really help himself at practice by taking on tons of repetitions to improve his comfort level. Cutler knows that when the Bears face Philadelphia, he can’t put together a start like he did against Cleveland and think he’ll be able to bounce back easily.

The run defense looked better: But we’ve got to keep it in proper perspective because the Bears were facing a 28th-ranked Cleveland rushing attack that featured players such as Fozzy Whittaker, Edwin Baker and Chris Ogbonnaya. (Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of any of them.) What’s encouraging, however, is the Bears are definitely starting to build some chemistry along the front four, and that’s because the club is finally able to use the same lineup for multiple games. Defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff continues to grow with each game after missing more than a year of football, and middle linebacker Jon Bostic is starting to fly around and make plays. Let’s also remember that there’s a good chance Lance Briggs will return to the lineup to face the Eagles.

Corners shining: Tim Jennings essentially shut down Dez Bryant and Josh Gordon in back-to-back outings. Sure, both players caught touchdown passes. But neither had a huge impact on the game; Jennings limited them to a total of 79 yards on five receptions. That’s what we call balling. On the other side, Zack Bowman, filling in for an injured Charles Tillman, picked off two passes against the Browns and returned one for a touchdown.

Now the Bears need to get their safeties to play at a higher level.

Forte quietly destroying opponents: Matt Forte has rushed for 100 yards or more in three consecutive games, carrying the ball 20 times or more each time. Forte is averaging 5.2 yards per attempt over the past three games and needs just 38 yards over the next two contests to match his career high for rushing yards (1,238). Cutler has said that Forte is the glue that holds together the entire offense. That’s absolutely true.
A review of four hot issues from the Chicago Bears' 23-20 loss to the Minnesota Vikings:

Cutler’s return: Backup quarterback Josh McCown performed well in relief of Jay Cutler, completing 23 of 36 passes for 355 yards and two touchdowns. And while the team will gladly welcome back Cutler, there’s still got to be at least some concern about the potential for the starter returning to the lineup rusty next Monday night against the Dallas Cowboys. Cutler has played in just one game in the past five weeks, and hasn’t played an entire contest since Oct. 10. So in addition to the rust factor, there’s also got to be a little trepidation about the quarterback’s conditioning level. So if the plan for Cutler is to bring him back for the Dec. 9 game, the Bears need to work overtime repping the quarterback to knock off some of the rust while making sure he’s in condition to go all four quarters without any drop off, because fatigue causes mistakes. At this point, the Bears can’t afford many more.

Front four: What a difference a couple of players make on the defensive line. Recent addition Jeremiah Ratliff made his Bears debut, and the team also welcomed the return of defensive tackle Stephen Paea. The Bears started Sunday’s game with Paea and Corey Wootton inside at the tackles with Julius Peppers and Shea McClellin on the outside before bringing in Ratliff with 10:57 left in the first quarter. The addition of Ratliff allowed for some creativity with the lineup. At times, the Bears kicked Peppers inside to play alongside Ratliff with Wootton and McClellin outside at the ends. The Bears scored sacks on each of Minnesota’s first three drives, with two coming from Peppers and another one split behind Paea and nickel corner Isaiah Frey. Peppers finished the game with 2.5 sacks.

Run D: The Bears applied pressure to Christian Ponder on passing downs, but the defense’s futility in stopping the run emerged once again with Adrian Peterson and Cordarrelle Patterson shredding the unit. Peterson gained 60 yards on his first eight carries. With a 33-yard score on his first carry, Patterson became the second receiver to line up in the backfield against the Bears in two weeks and bust a long touchdown run. (St. Louis’ Tavon Austin scored on a 65-yard run on his first attempt of the game last week.) The coaching staff places the blame mostly on missed run fits, but in some cases, players are just being beaten physically by the opponent.

In addition, the staff constantly discusses the need to stop teams from hitting the Bears for large chunks of yardage, yet the defense hasn’t responded. In addition to Patterson’s 33-yard run, Peterson broke a 23-yard gain in the first quarter and finished with 211 yards, averaging 6 yards per attempt.

Jeffery a major factor: Second-year receiver Alshon Jeffery produced his fifth 100-yard outing of the season, hauling in 11 passes for 245 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown that made him the club’s first 1,000-yard receiver of the season. Jeffery finished with two touchdowns on the day.

The Bears fantasized in the past about owning a true pick-your-poison scenario with their receiving corps, and it appears they’ve finally made that a reality with Jeffery and Brandon Marshall. This should be an exciting duo for at least the next couple of years; especially if rookie Marquess Wilson blossoms the way the club expects he will, and provides a threat in the slot.

Upon Further Review: Bears Week 11

November, 18, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the Chicago Bears' 23-20 overtime win against the Baltimore Ravens:

Force takeaways and stay turnover free: Staying on the plus side of the turnover ratio virtually guarantees victory for the Chicago Bears this season. They're 5-0 on the season when they finish with a positive turnover margin, 1-2 with a negative turnover margin and 0-2 this year when the turnover margin is equal. The Bears finished plus-2 against the Baltimore Ravens, including a 24-yard pick-six from defensive end David Bass.

[+] EnlargeChicago's David Bass
Rob Grabowski/USA TODAY SportsDavid Bass celebrates his 24-yard pick-6 against the Baltimore Ravens.
The Bears have won 11 games in a row when they've scored a touchdown on defense. But if the defense can't score, the Bears can do the next best thing, which is to take the ball away and not turn it over on offense. Backup quarterback Josh McCown hasn't thrown an interception in 101 attempts thus far.

Cut out the penalties: By halftime of Sunday's game, the Bears had already topped the season-high six penalties they were flagged during an Oct. 6 loss to the New Orleans Saints, with seven for 61 yards against the Ravens. For the game, the Bears racked up 13 penalties for 111 yards. Bears coach Marc Trestman has established a standard of fairly penalty-free play in Chicago because he knows unnecessary penalties are one of the easiest ways to give away ballgames. It needs to stop.

Youngsters up front keep shining: Bass picked off Joe Flacco and returned the interception 24 yards for a touchdown, while defensive end Cheta Ozougwu posted the first sack of his career by stripping the Baltimore quarterback in the fourth quarter. Ozougwu had just been moved up a day prior from the practice squad to the active roster, and wasted no time making an impact. With all the injuries on the defense, youngsters such as Bass and Ozougwu need to continue to step up.

Keep it up Peppers: Julius Peppers sacked Flacco twice, marking the 24th time (sixth time with the Bears) he's collected at least two sacks in a game. Peppers needs to continue producing and being a disruptive force. Having now recorded three sacks in the past three games to go with an interception and two pass breakups, Peppers is starting to show that he's still got plenty left in the tank. He just needs to do it on a more consistent basis to help this defense finally elevate to a level where it can consistently help out the club's potent offense.

Upon Further Review: Bears Week 9

November, 5, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the Chicago Bears' 27-20 win against the Green Bay Packers:

[+] EnlargeJosh McCown
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsBears QB Josh McCown has seamlessly filled in for the injured Jay Cutler, throwing for three touchdowns and no interceptions in two games.
Offensive line: It has been a long time since Chicago’s offensive line protected this well against the Packers, and the group’s performance provides a glimpse of just how far the Bears have come. Not only did the Bears limit Green Bay’s defense to one sack, the line provided enough push in the ground game to allow the Bears to chew up eight minutes, 58 seconds on an 18-play drive in the fourth quarter with the club clinging to a four-point advantage.

Defensive line: Led by Shea McClellin, who churned out a career-high three sacks, Chicago’s front four finally generated a strong enough pass rush to produce a season-high five sacks. Along the way, the Bears knocked Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers out of the game, and there’s no question that played a significant role in the team’s success. Julius Peppers finally emerged as a disruptive force and tallied a sack and an interception in addition to batting down two balls. It would be easy to say the group pass rushed so well because of injuries to Green Bay’s offensive line. But let’s not lose sight of Chicago’s injury situation along the front four.

Then again: The defensive line bears some responsibility for the team’s horrid showing against the run. That needs to get fixed ASAP. It wasn’t as if Green Bay’s offensive line dominated the Bears up front, either. The gaping holes the Packers ran through on many occasions came as a result of improper run fits from the defensive line and linebackers. In addition, the safeties either took bad angles or tackled poorly, which resulted in extra yardage from the Packers after contact. Eddie Lacy averaged 6.8 yards per carry and gained 150 yards for Green Bay. That’s too much yardage allowed for the Bears to be consistently successful.

What to do with Cutler: Jay Cutler is expected to play Sunday when the Bears host the Detroit Lions in a showdown for sole possession of first place in the NFC North. But if there’s any question as to whether Cutler would be susceptible to reinjuring his torn groin muscle, the Bears shouldn’t hesitate to sit him another week and give Josh McCown another start. In his past two outings, McCown has proven plenty capable of engineering Chicago’s offense at a high level, generating passer ratings of 90.7 and 119.6 with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Upon Further Review: Bears Week 8

October, 28, 2013
A review of four hot issues as the Chicago Bears return from their bye week:

Don't bury yourself: With Detroit and Green Bay coming off victories Sunday, the Bears -- regardless of the injury situation -- can’t afford to lose the next two and bury themselves beneath the division. Given the way things appear to be shaking out so far, it looks as though at least one of the wild cards will come out of the NFC West (Seattle or San Francisco) and one could come from the NFC North. But consecutive losses at Green Bay on Sunday followed by the Lions at Soldier Field would put Chicago in a position where it would be nearly impossible to reach the postseason.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Alex BrandonWith Jay Cutler injured, the Bears need to force more turnovers and make more plays on special teams to keep from falling out of the playoff race.
Takeaways: It’s pretty well established that the Bears can’t stop the run or the pass, but they can alleviate those major deficiencies with their uncanny ability to generate takeaways. So they definitely need to get back to taking the ball away, with quarterback Jay Cutler and linebacker Lance Briggs expected to miss a significant chunk of action. Against the Redskins, the Bears forced only one takeaway, and that’s clearly not sufficient. In each of the past two losses, Chicago generated one turnover or fewer. But in each of the four wins, the club forced at least three. The turnover differential comes into play here, too. When the Bears have finished on the minus side or equal in turnover differential, they’ve lost their past three games.

McCown using supporting cast: QB Josh McCown doesn’t need to step outside of himself and try to be a hero as he fills in for Cutler because he has plenty of playmaking talent around him. The staff can help out with a game plan that features plenty of Matt Forte in the rushing attack to keep the Packers out of pass-rush mode. By establishing the run early, McCown can operate off play-action and hit high-percentage passes that allow the targets to gain their yards after the catch.

Special teams needs to carry heavier load: Devin Hester finally found his groove against the Redskins with an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown. But given the limitations on offense and defense, special teams needs to become a more dynamic facet of Chicago’s game. Adam Podlesh can help the Bears win the field-position battle with long punts, while the coverage units on kickoffs and punts need to limit the yards gained on returns. Robbie Gould missed his first field goal attempt of the season against the Redskins, but it’s unlikely he’ll continue that course.

Upon Further Review: Bears Week 7

October, 21, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the Chicago Bears' 45-41 loss to the Washington Redskins:

Run defense: The Redskins kept the Bears off balance all game with their ability to run the football. Alfred Morris averaged 5 yards per carry, while Robert Griffin III averaged 7.6. By establishing the run, the Redskins kept the Bears on their heels, thus opening up other facets of the game. Typically, the Bears shut down the run, making opponents one dimensional. But Chicago hasn’t been able to accomplish that objective consistently this season. Certainly, injuries along the front four contribute to the problem, but until the Bears solve the issue, teams will continue to gash them on the ground before taking chunks through the air via play action.

[+] EnlargeChicago's Matt Forte
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsMatt Forte rushed for 82 yards and two scores after halftime against the Redskins.
Inconsistency against the pass: Jordan Reed became the third Bears opponent to catch at least nine passes for 134 yards or more. An anemic pass rush from the injury-riddled front plays a role, but up-and-down play at safety between Chris Conte and Major Wright seems to be Chicago’s most pronounced deficiency against the pass. Coming into the season, Conte and Wright seemed destined to become a productive duo at safety for the Bears. Wright has graded out higher than Conte for the majority of the season because of his takeaways and run support, but together, they’ve been more of a liability on the back end than the playmakers the club envisioned. The Bears yielded five completions for gains of 26 yards or more, including 30-, 38- and 45-yarders.

Feeding Forte: They don’t seem to be involving Matt Forte enough early on, and that’s diminished Chicago’s ability to find a rhythm. In six first-half drives, the Bears handed off to Forte just four times, including only once in each of the first two possession. Forte didn’t receive back-to-back attempts until the team’s second drive of the second quarter. By then, Washington held a 17-10 lead. Forte carried four times for nine yards and a score in the first half, yet finished the game with 91 yards and three TDs on 16 attempts. The offense should run through Forte from the onset.

Veterans on the front four: Given the injuries, inexperience and inconsistency on the defensive line, veterans Julius Peppers, Stephen Paea and Corey Wootton need to step up and start carrying the group. Peppers finally showed up on the stat sheet with seven tackles, while Paea and Wootton contributed two tackles apiece. Still, that’s not enough. The team needs even more, especial in the pass-rushing department. One of the best to play the game at his position, Peppers hasn’t contributed a sack since September.

Upon Further Review: Bears Week 5

October, 7, 2013
An examination of four hot issues from the Chicago Bears' 26-18 loss to the New Orleans Saints:

[+] EnlargeMatt Forte
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhA slow start for running back Matt Forte and the Bears' offense spelled doom against the Saints.
Slow starts: The Bears need to stop spotting opponents points early in games through mistakes, lax play, turnovers or simply giving teams short fields to work with because of unproductive drives on offense. Whatever the case, the Bears have trailed at the half now in three of five games before making adjustments in the second half to come from behind to win or at least make a seemingly lopsided loss look respectable. The Bears need to start making effective adjustments more quickly.

Chicago killed itself on the first play from scrimmage when Matt Forte doomed a drive with a fumble for a 10-yard loss, and New Orleans responded with a field goal to put the Bears at a disadvantage early. On Chicago’s next drive, ineptitude in blitz pickup resulted in another fumble that the Saints turned into another field goal. By the time the Bears started playing productive football, they were trailing 13-0 with 5:57 left in the first half. That’s too late.

Injuries to front four: With Henry Melton out for the season and Stephen Paea missing Sunday’s game because of a turf toe injury, the front four suffered another blow when Nate Collins left with a knee injury. That’s two starters and a backup ailing from injuries. Unheralded players such as undrafted rookie Zach Minter and Landon Cohen need to step up, along with players such as defensive end Corey Wootton, who is now being forced to play out of position. The personnel department needs to help in this area, too, by beating the streets for suitable talent to acquire, and that will be a difficult proposition.

Podlesh rebounds: The Bears brought in six punters for workouts Tuesday after Adam Podlesh produced a rancid performance against the Lions in Week 4, finishing with a net average of 28.8 yards. But Podlesh bounced back with a decent outing against the Saints. He finished with a net average of 44.8 yards, including a 54-yard effort in the first half, his best outing since Nov. 19 of last season.

Rush improved, but not enough: With the injuries mounting, it’s likely the pass rush will continue to be an issue for this team. The Bears sacked Drew Brees twice and have registered six sacks over the past three games. But the club needs to apply even more pressure. There’s no way Brees should be allowed enough time to complete nearly 83 percent of his passes.

Upon Further Review: Bears Week 4

September, 30, 2013
An examination of four hot issues from the Chicago Bears40-32 loss to the Detroit Lions:

[+] EnlargeReggie Bush
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsReggie Bush ran (and jumped) over the Bears in the first half Sunday, but Chicago's defense clamped down on him after that.
Run defense: The Bears allowed Reggie Bush to gain 112 yards in the first half, then held him to 27 yards in the second half. With Henry Melton out, the Bears played Stephen Paea at the 3-technique spot and moved Nate Collins to nose tackle. The Bears might want to consider trying Collins at the 3-technique and Paea at nose.

After the game, Paea wore a walking boot due to minor turf toe on his left foot, and maybe that injury diminished Paea’s effectiveness.

“I’ve played some 3 [technique] before, but it’s just a matter of time, repetitions and practice,” Paea said.

Jay Cutler: This could come off as odd, but despite Cutler’s horrid performance (65.6 passer rating with three interceptions, plus a fumble returned for a touchdown), this game might have shown growth on the quarterback’s part.

Detroit scored 17 points off turnovers, and Cutler appeared to be the culprit on every giveaway but one (his first interception). How the quarterback handled himself in the heat of battle and afterward gives reason for optimism. Despite the mistakes, Cutler held up well and nearly brought the Bears back. After the game, Cutler showed accountability for his contribution to the loss and told it how it was, which signals he’ll take the appropriate steps to correct the issues.

“I have to give us a better chance to win. I mean, three picks. It’s hard to come back from that,” Cutler said. “[I] have to play better.”

Third-down conversions: The Bears converted just one of 13 third downs, and no matter how well the defense plays, it’s difficult to overcome that deficiency. It’s not all on Cutler. In the second quarter, Jordan Mills was whistled for a false start on third-and-10. Two series later, Cutler was in a third-and-21 situation after a 9-yard sack on second down. In the third quarter, a 27-yard gain on third down was negated by a Kyle Long penalty. Then, on the next series, Cutler was sacked and fumbled for Nick Fairley’s 4-yard touchdown.

“The big thing was third down,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said. “We did horribly today [on third down], and that starts with me.”

Too much pressure: Cutler was sacked three times and spent most of the day under duress. This team has invested too much into protecting Cutler for this to continue.

"Either we didn't execute on the play or we didn't give Jay enough time to throw the ball," running back Matt Forte said. "Give credit to them for giving a great rush, but we didn't do our part."

Upon Further Review: Bears Week 3

September, 23, 2013
An examination of four hot issues from the Chicago Bears' 40-23 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers:

Front four still not pressuring quarterback: The Bears sacked Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger twice, but they were only able to do that when they manufactured pressure by blitzing linebackers. One hallmark of Chicago’s scheme is the ability to generate pressure with the front four. The Bears did that on occasion, but not enough to where they weren’t putting the secondary in a bind by forcing them to cover receivers too long.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesThe Bears managed to pressure Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday night, but not without blitzing.
“We got good pressure from the pressures we called,” defensive end Julius Peppers said.

But the Bears wouldn’t be forced to make those calls if the front four was pressuring sufficiently.

Too many explosive plays: Going into the game, the Bears had surrendered eight completions of 20 yards or more through the first two games, only to allow the Steelers to more double that in one outing. On the way to throwing for 406 yards and two touchdowns, Roethlisberger completed 10 passes for gains of 20 yards or more, while receiver Antonio Brown caught nine passes for 196 yards and two scores.

In addition to those completions, the Bears surrendered a 25-yard run to Jonathan Dwyer in the second quarter.

That’s too much. Turnovers, obviously, offset some of those gains. Still, the Bears can’t always rely on takeaways to bail them out of trouble.

“Our goal is always to be plus-2 [in turnover ratio], but if you can get three more it’s always a bonus,” cornerback Charles Tillman said.

Overly conservative with lead: Major Wright’s 38-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter gave the Bears a 24-3 lead. But from there, the Bears took a conservative approach that nearly allowed the Steelers to rally.

“It was just that type of game to get up that quickly like that,” quarterback Jay Cutler said. “We were sitting pretty good early on, and we didn’t want to give them anything easy.”

Injuries to key players: Already slowed by a sore knee, Tillman suffered a groin injury that forced him out of action. The Bears also lost defensive tackle Henry Melton for the season with a torn ACL. So that’s two starters on defense. Obviously, the pass rush -- which was already struggling -- will be weakened significantly by the loss of Melton. Then, with the Bears set to take on the Detroit Lions, it’s probably fair to ponder whether Tillman can be effective against receiver Calvin Johnson.

Bears hope for more bye-week improvement

January, 3, 2011
Jay CutlerAP Photo/Mike RoemerThe Bears hoping they learned something from Green Bay's pressure on Jay Cutler on Sunday.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The emotional high Lovie Smith envisioned the Chicago Bears ending the regular season on eluded the team Sunday in a 10-3 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.

That won't prevent the team from hitching a ride on a new one.

The last time Smith put the tighten-things-up phrase on repeat, the Bears responded with a five-game winning streak, anchored by the same dominating defense and amplified by the seemingly continuous evolution of the offense. All that started with a week off in October for critical self evaluation, combined with training-camp style workouts designed for augmenting strengths, eliminating weaknesses and single-minded focus on making the minute details as crisp as possible.

This time around, though, the Bears don't need a five-game tear. Two wins get them to the Super Bowl.

"It's gratifying to have this week where you can sit back. We're all excited about watching others play, trying to figure out exactly who we're going to play this round, and just kind of being a fan of pro football this week," Smith said. "But at the same time, though, [we have] a week to really tighten up on some things. Now [that] we've gone through an entire year, we kind of see some of the things we need to improve. We've been looking at it throughout the course of the year, but now that it's all over you can concentrate a little bit more on certain things."

The last time the Bears received a week off and extra time for preparation and self evaluation, most of the changes the team made manifested themselves on offense.

In the seven games prior to the week off in October, the Bears had given up 31 sacks. But upon return, the re-tooled offensive line surrendered 25 over nine games, including Sunday's six-sack night by the Packers.

"We obviously didn't execute as well as we should have [against the Packers]. But we're gonna learn from it," Bears guard Roberto Garza said. "We're gonna take a week off, recharge, and come back ready for playoff football. [Smith's message after the game was] we're still a good football team; 11-5 is a hell of a year. All of the work is done [for the regular season]. So now it's time for playoff football."

During the first series of major changes on offense devised in October, the Bears shifted their focus with regards to the pass-run ratio. Averaging 22.3 rushing attempts and 88.6 yards through the first seven outings, the team came out of the break averaging 28.7 attempts and 110.7 yards over the last nine contests.

Think the rushing numbers don't matter? In the two games the Bears lost after the bye, they ran the ball 14 and 20 times, which was not only off the team's average during that span, but also its two lowest totals in terms of attempts over the last nine games.

"We see going into the playoffs that you've got to rely on the run," Smith said. "There will be times where you'll have to be able to run the football, and we see that we can do that."

So it's no coincidence that after the Bears made sweeping change offensively, their third-down conversion rate of 17.9 percent in the first seven games improved to 44.1 while the touchdowns per game increased from an average of 1.8 before the bye to 3 for the remainder of the season.

The players expect the team's evolution to continue into the postseason. Over the final nine games of the regular season, it seemed every week questions remained as to whether the offense had reached its full potential.

Continued inconsistency on offense indicates it hasn't.

"You want to look at things things like, ‘What could I have done to help my team win,'" Bears tackle Frank Omiyale said after Sunday's loss at Green Bay. "So that's what we're gonna do when we go back and look at the film: Find ways to win. That's what we get paid to do."

The coaching staff falls into that category, too.

"To have this bye week is important," Smith said, "to rest up as much as anything. At the same time, it'll be good to have a couple of practices, training-camp-type practices getting ready for whoever we end up playing in our first playoff game."

The Bears will face either the Philadelphia Eagles, Seattle Seahawks or New Orleans Saints at noon on Jan. 16 at Soldier Field.

After a brief slide on defense, the unit regained some of its swagger in limiting a high-powered Packers offense to 284 yards (just 60 rushing) and 18 percent on third-down conversions, in addition to sacking Aaron Rodgers twice. Bears linebacker Lance Briggs considered Sunday's game "good preparation going into the playoffs," adding it was encouraging to see the defense perform well against an explosive offense, indicative of what they'll face in the postseason.

"We're looking forward to the game because this is a new season," defensive end Julius Peppers said. "This is what we play for: a chance at the ultimate goal."

Will the Bears reach it?

Their chances are good if the team uses the week off to make the same type of progress they made during the regular-season break in October, and the team's track record certainly indicates them doing so.

"That's why these practices this week are so important, too," Smith said. "Every day you go out on the practice field you can get better. That's what we plan on doing this week."

Upon Further Review: Team mirrors coach

December, 21, 2010
Bears coach Lovie Smith must have pre-programmed his team Monday. When his players gathered in the locker room, melting ice sliding off uniforms after a sizzling performance on a frozen field, they all said the same things in the wake of a 40-14 clobbering of the Minnesota Vikings.

We’ve still got a lot of work to do.

We have a ways to go.

We have to stay focused on the main prize.

[+] EnlargeLovie Smith
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesBears coach Lovie Smith has his team mirroring his even-keeled personality this season.
Like their coach -- who describes his temperament as a “five” on a scale of 1 to 10 -- the Bears have propelled themselves to No. 1 in the NFC North this season for the first time in four years with an even-keeled approach to success and failure.

So it’s not surprise the team basically repeats in postgame press conferences what Smith tells it behind closed doors. But if anything, that single-minded approach between the coach and the 53 men on Chicago’s roster serves as a bonding agent and source of strength for the team that could ultimately lift it to a deep playoff run.

“Chicago is the kind of city that if you’re not doing well, they’ll let you know about it,” linebacker Lance Briggs said. “It’s nice to be successful because Lovie really is a great coach, and I really can’t imagine playing for anyone else. I’ve always enjoyed my time with him and everybody here. Chicago is a great place, and they’re lucky to have him.”

By trying to be him, the Bears -- like Smith -- simultaneously wow and frustrate their supporters from time to time.

Having lost three of four heading into the bye week after starting the season by winning three in a row, Smith and his team drew criticism for what appeared to be a blasÚ attitude and a blind optimism about their prospects, despite what transpired on the field in back-to-back home losses to Seattle and Washington.

At the time, Smith said, “You can’t get too high or too low; a lot of football left to go. [A] 4-3 [record] says, to me, you’re a good football team [and there are] some things you need to tighten up on. We’re right in the thick of the [NFC North] race.”

Little did anyone know the Bears would win it with two games left to play.

“It’s satisfying, but by no means am I completely satisfied with that we have done this year,” said quarterback Jay Cutler, who has thrown for eight touchdowns in his last four outings. “We can be so much better offensively.”

The team has shown certainly shown glimpses.

The Bears generated national buzz after the bye by reeling off five wins in a row, including a 31-26 triumph over a red-hot Philadelphia Eagles team, before falling 36-7 on Dec. 12 to the New England Patriots at Soldier Field.

During the winning streak, Smith refrained from getting overly jazzed about the team’s success, maintaining that outside “opinions really don’t matter a whole lot. We’ve beaten a lot of good teams; no more than that.” The team echoed Smith every day in the locker room.

Everyone did it again after the loss to the Patriots, acknowledging disappointment, but resisting the urge to push the panic button and embodying an even-keeled approach that played a role in the club bouncing back in resounding fashion against the Vikings.

“It’s hard to win in the National Football League. There’s parity in the league, [and] our players realize that,” Smith said. “You also realize how hard you have to work to stay there, and that’s what we’ll continue to do. After you make [the playoffs] the first time, you assume you’ll be back there every year. It doesn’t work like that, so that’s why this is special. The second time around we realize how hard it is to get there.”

Perhaps that explains why the team so easily adopts the coach’s consistent approach in dealing with the good times and bad on the football field. Chicago’s current roster features 16 players from the 2006 Super Bowl team, including seven starters from that defense who are still in the starting lineup.

New addition Julius Peppers shares the deflating experience of losing a Super Bowl with the 16 Bears from the 2006 team. Drafted by Carolina in 2002, Peppers played in the Panthers’ loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVII. Peppers and the Panthers returned to the playoffs twice more, but never made it back to the championship game.

So Peppers, like Smith and the rest of the team, wasn’t overly excited Monday about the Bears clinching the NFC North.

“It feels good to win it, but that is just one of our goals,” Peppers said. “I didn’t come here to lose. This is what I came here for: to win games, win the division, and ultimately win the whole thing. We are going to celebrate, but at the same time we have to stay focused on the main prize.”

Smith couldn’t have said it better.

Upon Further Review: Lovie Smith knew it

November, 29, 2010
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Lovie Smith watched his team trot off the sun-baked practice fields at Olivet Nazarene University in August, placing one hand on a hip, using the other to pull back his Bears ball cap to wipe off beads of sweat.

In a brief moment of pure candor, the coach dropped his guard.

Smith would never admit it now. To do so would come off as, “I told you so”. But the coach knew exactly what he had all along, and explained it that hot day at training camp in Bourbonnais. Asked why he was acting almost giddy during the dog days of camp, despite the team having yet to play in an exhibition outing, constant hammering about the perception he was on the hot seat and the fact his team was coming off a disappointing 7-9 season, Smith smiled and kept it simple.

“If you could just see what I see,” he said.

[+] EnlargeLovie Smith
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhLong before Sunday's big win over the Eagles, Bears coach Lovie Smith knew he had a good team.
It’s undoubtedly right in everyone’s face now, after the club clobbered a hot Eagles team, 31-26, on Sunday for its first four-game winning streak since 2006. Tied with the Saints for the second-best record in the NFC at 8-3, the Bears could legitimately clamor for national respect. Within the walls at Halas Hall, the Bears knew all along what many are just finding out.

This team is for real.

“The way we’ve gotten respect is we’ve been in first place in our division just about all year,” Smith said Monday. “So opinions really don’t matter a whole lot. We put a lot into them, but they really don’t [matter]. Our football team, nothing’s changed for us. We beat a good team yesterday. But we’ve beaten a lot of good teams, just like yesterday. No more than that.”

On the practice field at ONU back in the summer, the coach pointed out why he didn’t put stock in the low national perception of his team at the time. Smith explained he’d seen the defense play at a high level. Eight starters from the 2006 Super Bowl squad – Olin Kreutz, Roberto Garza, Desmond Clark, Tommie Harris, Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, Charles Tillman and Danieal Manning -- remained, and despite them being four years older, the coach sensed urgency in their preparation, dating back to the offseason conditioning program.

The four years of experience, Smith explained that day, imparted wisdom among the vets about the difficulty of making it back to the Super Bowl, and how easily they could finish their careers without ever again ascending to that level. The prospect for such a grim scenario created a sense of hunger and urgency, in addition to a heightened focus among the veterans that Smith could already see rubbing off on some of the younger players in the offseason.

For Smith at the time, the questions came about the offensive line -- which had subjected Jay Cutler to a career high in sacks in 2009 -- and whether the entire unit could transition quickly enough into the system brought over by newly-acquired coordinator Mike Martz. Smith had faith in the team’s young receivers.

But as Smith usually says -- which he also said that day at ONU -- all those things work themselves out.

That appears to be exactly what’s happened, especially since the team’s Oct. 31 bye.

“I just know we go back to the practice field each week. We watch the video. We have the same routine,” Smith said. “The mistakes that are made, we point them out, correct them, try to take another step and try to be honest with the players always as far as what we need to do. They take coaching. Guys have confidence, but you should make improvements this late in the season. You should take care of some of those problems you had earlier in the season.”

The offensive line seemed to be one of the main areas plaguing the Bears, who had lost three of four games heading into the bye, as the club’s entire defense remained steady. Prior to the bye, the unit -- which had lined up with four combinations of starters over seven games -- allowed Cutler to absorb four sacks or more in four of his six starts.

The line moved to its fifth combination of starters after the bye, and has kept it intact for the last four outings, with the unit allowing four sacks or fewer in four consecutive weeks. The better protection seems to translate into better accuracy for Cutler, whose completion percentage has risen in each of the past four contests.

“Jay is as good as it gets in an NFL quarterback,” Kreutz said after Sunday’s game. “As long as you perform around him he’s gonna keep showing what he is. We definitely feel that we’re better and that we can get better. We won today, but if we lose next week, this game doesn’t mean [expletive]. We understand that. We’re nowhere near where we want to be. We don’t want to be satisfied. That’s the last thing you want to be at this time of year. You’ve got to stay hungry. There’s so much more we can do with the talent we have.”

Martz realized that coming out of the bye week, after evaluating over the first seven games the strengths and limitations of the club’s offensive personnel. After pass-heavy game plans in the first seven contests, Martz tweaked the system to cater more toward the rushing attack. The Bears passed more than they ran in six of the first seven games before the bye.

Since then, the Bears have run the ball more than they’ve passed in four straight.

“Since we came out of the bye, we’ve said each week we just need to continue to take another step and get better. I think over these last four weeks, it’s pretty safe to say that we’ve done that,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “From the beginning, we said it wasn’t going to just be a switch turned on and everything was easy. It was a lot of adjustments and new personnel and new scheme and coaches and whatnot, and I think it’s starting to kind of all come together.”

The solidification of the offensive line along and tweaks to the game plans directly correlate with the club’s success. The Bears achieved a red-zone touchdown percentage of 50 or better in only one game (Sept. 19 at Dallas) prior to the bye, and have since scored touchdowns in the red zone at least 50 percent of the time in every game.

The club also improved from 17.9 percent on third-down conversions before the bye to 52.5 percent since.

“We haven’t peaked yet. We’re still rising, as far as what I think we can be,” Smith said. “They take coaching. We’re a good football team; I’ve been saying that quite a bit.”

Ever since training camp.

Upon Further Review: Midseason analysis

November, 8, 2010
Devin HesterAP Photo/Nam Y. HuhIf the Bears are going to make a postseason push, they'll need Devin Hester to take a step up.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Eight games in means it's time to take inventory on where the Bears stand at the halfway point of the season, in addition to what needs to be done across the board for the club to reach the playoffs.

Chicago escaped the Bills 22-19, showing nary a hint Sunday of the playoff-caliber team the coaching staff envisioned at the start of the season. That doesn't mean the Bears aren't capable of developing into that. Bears coach Lovie Smith says the team hasn't peaked.

Certainly, it needs to.

"As we said -- I'm talking about the group within -- we're a good football team, and I think in time we'll prove that more and more," Smith said. "I like our position. We talked about October [as the time for] getting in position. We just finished up the halfway point of our season. But in November, that's when that playoff run begins. For us, we're in pretty good shape."

That appears to be the case, with the Bears -- 5-3 -- in an ideal position to seize back control of the NFC North, with the first-place Green Bay Packers on the shelf this week because of a bye. The club pointed to the importance of gaining momentum with a win after its own bye, which was used to correct several issues.

Still, the club knows it didn't fix everything.

"The bye week wasn't what we expected, but we highlighted some areas -- it was pretty well documented what they were -- and for the most part, we took a little bit of a step," tight end Greg Olsen said. "For this final stretch with the teams we're playing, we have to continue to improve each week. That's going to be our focus when we get back to practice Wednesday, learning from yesterday and getting ready for a huge home game against a division rival."

At the halfway point of the season, we take a quick position-by-position look at the Bears:

Jay Cutler gave the team a Week-1 deadline to master the complicated scheme of offensive coordinator Mike Martz. But clearly multiple extensions were in order. The break-in period for the new offense has come and gone.

It's time now for production, which starts with No. 6.

"Everyone is getting more and more comfortable with the system, and how to line up, and our motions are more crisp, and guys are just getting into a rhythm," Cutler said.

Although he produced a near error-free ballgame -- only one turnover and a passer rating of 97.6 -- against the Bills, Cutler still shows slight hints of distrust in the system, which translates into hesitation at the top of his drop that throws off the timing of the entire offense. Cutler also continues to throw off his back foot, and make a few questionable decisions.

Moving forward, Cutler won't be able to eliminate all the kinks in his game. But he'll need to refine some of them, while playing with more trust in Martz's system for the offense to reach its capabilities.

Running back
The team can point to only one signature game -- Carolina -- all season for running backs Matt Forte and Chester Taylor. Such production won't cut it when the Bears start to rely on the rushing attack in the coming weeks as the temperature starts to drop and affect the passing game.

"We need to run to control the clock, keep the other offense off the field, and help our passing game go," Forte said. "When we get back to Chicago for those home games, it's going to be too cold to throw the ball a lot."

Forte and Taylor have each run for more than 43 yards in the same game only once -- Carolina -- all season. While it's not expected for the duo to put up 100 yards apiece on a weekly basis, Forte and Taylor need to put forth a significant enough of a contribution for the Bears to show real commitment to the rushing attack.

Chicago did that against the Bills -- the league's worst at stopping the run -- but each of the Bears' next three opponents -- Minnesota, Miami and Philadelphia -- rank in the top half of the league in run defense. All but one -- the New York Giants -- of the club's previous eight opponents currently rank 18th or worse against the run.

They can't all force it, but the receivers need to continue to develop chemistry with Cutler because the club faces three teams -- the Vikings, Dolphins, and Eagles -- ranked in the top 15 against the pass. Philadelphia and Green Bay, who the Bears face again Jan. 2, are tied for first and third, respectively, in interceptions.

Communication issues continue to fester between the quarterback and receivers, and there haven't been any signs of them diminishing. Despite the Bills playing a significant amount of man coverage Sunday, the Bears still struggled on occasion.

"They were either going to press us and play on," Cutler explained, "[to] make us beat them through the air a little bit."

Johnny Knox remains on pace for a 1,000-yard season while Olsen, a tight end, has become a more prominent target in the passing game, along with Earl Bennett. The club still needs more production out of No. 1 receiver Devin Hester, who hasn't posted more than 30 yards receiving in seven consecutive games.

Offensive line
For once, the offensive line seems to be one of the club's bright spots.

The Bears rolled out their fifth combination of starters up front against the Bills, and it appears the current group -- comprised of Frank Omiyale, Chris Williams, Olin Kreutz, Roberto Garza, and J'Marcus Webb -- is the one the club wants to focus on developing the rest of the season.

"We're not there yet," Kreutz said. "But we'll keep trying to improve. It's coming. We've been saying as a line all year [that] we'll take the criticism we deserves, but if we improve every week we'll be where we want to be by Week 10, 11, 12. That's when playoff football is played, and that's when we want to be playing our best. That's what we want to get to."

Such a goal isn't unrealistic. Cutler's sack numbers have gradually decreased in his each of his last three outings, from 9 to 6, 4 and 1 on Sunday against the Bills.

Defensive line
Sacks aren't coming in bunches for the Bears, who are tied for 25th in the league with just 12. But don't let the statistics deceive; the Bears are putting plenty of pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Although the club posted just one sack of Fitzpatrick on Sunday, the Bears were credited with hitting him 12 times, led by Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije, who landed 4 and 3 hits, respectively.

"We could have all the sacks in the world and [not be] winning games," said Idonije, who leads the team with five sacks. "On the other hand, we could just get a lot of pressures, win games and have a defense that's ranked high. I'll take the pressures and a team that's winning over having all the statistics, and not the team performance. We're moving in the right direction."

The front four has proven stout against the run, allowing just 83.9 yards per game, which ranks as third in the NFL. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris, who struggled early, also appears to be coming on while Matt Toeaina and Anthony Adams continue their steady play.

The Bears deploy one of the most active and disruptive linebacking groups in the NFL, headlined by Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, who lead the team in tackles. Pisa Tinoisamoa, who beat out Nick Roach for a starting job at camp, has also emerged as a playmaker.

"I wish we weren't 5-3," Urlacher said. "I wish we were 7-1, 6-2, or 8-0, but we're not. We're 5-3, and we've got to keep playing well."

To do that, though, the trio needs to remain healthy. Urlacher fought through a groin injury recently, and Briggs has missed practice time with an ankle injury dating back to the team's Oct. 10 win over Carolina. Injuries have plagued Tinoisamoa in the past, too. But he's remained healthy so far this season, and that needs to continue for the entire group.

Struggles in the secondary allowed the Bills to convert 63 percent on third downs as Fitzpatrick rolled up 294 yards through the air. The Bears currently rank 21st in the league against the pass, but surely the team can live with the yardage if the unit continues to make clutch game-defining plays.

"Some of the [yardage given up] we were doing to ourselves," safety Danieal Manning explained, "maybe out of misalignments, not making tackles."

The Bears rebounded though to turn a fumble recovery by cornerback Charles Tillman and one of Tim Jennings' two interceptions into 15 points against the Bills. Each of the turnovers proved to be game-deciding plays.

Still, Smith wants to see the unit play more consistently in the coming weeks. The group should also get a boost with the return of rookie safety Major Wright, who saw his first action since Week 2 against the Bills, and cornerback Zack Bowman, who has missed the past two games with a sprained foot.

"All players make mistakes," Smith said. "I can think of very few players who have gone through a game without making a mistake. You want their big plays to stand out more than some of those not-so-good plays, I'll say that."

Upon further review: Challenges ahead

October, 25, 2010
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:

[+] EnlargeBears
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireThe Bears used four different offensive lines in their first seven games.
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.”

[+] EnlargeMatt Forte
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireBears running back Matt Forte rushed for 41 yards on 10 carries against the Redskins on Sunday.
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.”

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Scott Boehm/Getty Images Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has the football knocked out of his hands on Sunday for a fumble on the goal line that might have been a touchdown.
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.

Upon Further Review: Bears-Panthers

October, 11, 2010

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- It's healthy skepticism, that natural tendency to focus on negativity.

But to embrace a superficial viewpoint of Chicago's rise to 4-1 diminishes its significance as potential training ground for down the road when the stakes are highest, given all the challenges faced by the team through the first five games, not to mention the creative methods deployed to overcome them.

"It has to help us later on to have won in different ways, and just how you have to. Each game is different," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "If you talk offense, there's going to be some games where we're gonna have to just pass the ball a lot to win the football game. You just look at what you have to do to win the game at that time. Defensively, we played more man than we normally do [Sunday against the Panthers]. During the course of the season, you're going to have to rely on everything."

Through five games, the Bears seem to have already cornered the market in that arena.

Edwin Williams
Bob Donnan/US PresswireEdwin Williams was playing in just his sixth NFL game, but he and J'Marcus Webb were solid against the Panthers.
Against the Panthers, the club overcame a horrid outing by backup quarterback Todd Collins (6.2 passer rating and four interceptions) with stellar play in the rushing game and on special teams to win 23-6. Chicago's wins this season come against teams with a combined record of 5-14, which casts doubt on how good the Bears really are.

What's resonates most, though, is the club has been good enough.

"You want to play hitting on all cylinders," said backup quarterback Caleb Hanie. "But in this league, it's hard to get wins on the road, and we'll take them as we can get them. You can say, ‘ugly victory,' but you can also take the good things out of the game."

Like this: a week after sputtering against the Giants in allowing 10 sacks while rushing for just 59 yards, the Bears -- already missing starting quarterback Jay Cutler and starting left tackle Chris Williams -- bolstered the weakest side of their line with a rookie (J'Marcus Webb) at right tackle, and a right guard (Edwin Williams) who had played in just five career games headed into the contest. The duo didn't exactly inspire talk of the Pro Bowl.

Webb and Edwin Williams merely performed solidly in helping Matt Forte rush for a career-high 166 yards and a pair of touchdowns, as the team combined for 218 yards on the ground.

"It shows how resilient they are," Forte said. "Those two young guys, they weren't out there wide eyed and scared of anybody."

Knowing all week Cutler wouldn't be unavailable for Sunday's contest, the Bears tailored the game plan to help out Collins, who would be making his first start since 2007. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz bucked his own pass-happy reputation to make sure the club spent a good portion of the afternoon operating out of double-tight end formations to bolster the ground game, while taking pressure off Collins.

"All along we've said we're going to do what we have to [in order] to win the game," tight end Greg Olsen said. "Our running game has been spotty in the first couple of weeks, and yesterday was a good opportunity with Jay out and obviously some of those factors playing in there [gave us] a good chance to get the running game going."

Ultimately, when asked to throw, Collins faltered.

Yet the Bears picked up the pieces around him in other areas, which is what they've done throughout the season in several different areas when needed. Whether it's been the leaky offensive line, an anemic ground attack or a front seven that can't get to the quarterback, the Bears continue to find ways to hide weaknesses and erase mistakes by highlighting strengths and forcing opponent miscues.

They've done so with coaching adjustments, and clutch plays in key moments in every facet of the game, in addition to a little luck.

"You've got your second-, your third-string quarterback in the game," Devin Hester said. "You know, you want to give him as much help as you can. When you get good field position by the returners, it takes a lot of pressure off. We wanted to get good field position to eliminate some of the stress on the quarterback."

Hester and safety Danieal Manning did that with electric performances on returns. Hester ran back three punts for 68 yards, including a 50-yarder. Manning averaged 44.3 yards on three kick returns. His game-opening return, a 62-yarder, set up Forte's first touchdown burst. Manning returned his second kickoff 37 yards to set up Forte's 68-yard TD on the very next play.

Safety Chris Harris said the club should be able to benefit from all it's been through over the first five weeks.

Facing so many challenges while overcoming the majority of them in a variety of ways gives the Bears confidence about how they'll handle adversity in November and December when the stakes go up and the club's playoff life is potentially on the line.

"We see we can win close games," Harris said. "We can play down the stretch, run the ball when we need it, and play good defense. All of this is very good to get early, so when November and December come around, we can be prepared."