Optimism still in the air at Halas Hall

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The spigot of syrupy-sweet optimism flows freely at Halas Hall, despite the Bears stumbling to the bye with three losses over their past four outings, not to mention the club’s laundry list of unanswered questions.

Bears coach Lovie Smith spoke Wednesday as if vast improvement were a virtual certainty for the team in time for its Nov. 7 matchup with the Buffalo Bills in Toronto. With no game to play, that’s easy to say.

Yet blind optimism won’t wipe away all this team’s warts.

“We know we have some things to improve upon, which we’ll do,” Smith said. “There’s nothing we can’t correct by any means. Next time we’re out, we’ll have those things corrected.”

Apparently Smith spread that mantra throughout the rest of the organization, too, because quarterback Jay Cutler and offensive coordinator Mike Martz echoed the coach’s sentiments Wednesday coming off the practice field.

Cutler said, “We’re doing a lot of good stuff. We talked about it after the game. There are some things that happened that we haven’t done all year, some good things. So that’s stuff we’ve got to focus on, make more repetitive, and make it a game-by-game thing.”

Martz heaped on plenty of praise for the offense, too, but stressed the importance of the bye week and what needs to be done for the Bears to improve. Cutler has thrown six interceptions and just two touchdown passes over his past four games, and the offense has converted 2 of 22 third downs over the past two weeks, while the ground game has produced only one 100-yard rusher all season.

The Bears rank 30th or worse in five offensive categories (yards per game, rushing yards per game, interception percentage, sacks per pass, third-down efficiency).

Martz’s main objective during the bye is “to go back and clean up, come back and just catch your breath, and go back and look at the mistakes we’ve made, what we have to clean up and where we’re going in some of these things personnel-wise, and take advantage of some guys. Those kinds of things, it’s big during the bye to be able to do that. This is a good time to regroup a little bit and go.”

The time also seems ideal for critical self analysis on offense.

“Bye week is coming at the perfect time. Sometimes when you take a step back, you can really analyze,” Smith said. “As we analyze, I think we’re a 4-3 football team. We’re undefeated in our division. We have some big games coming up. I’m disappointed in not being able to close out the last couple of games. You have to be a good football team to turn the ball over six times [like the Bears did against the Redskins] and have an opportunity to win.”

Perhaps Smith isn’t giving Chicago’s opponents enough credit for forcing the turnovers in the first place. The blueprint for teams doing such a thing appears to be in place. Despite Martz’s reputation for carrying a diverse offensive playbook, of Chicago’s 425 snaps, 389 have come from two formations (three receivers and two tight ends), according to ESPN Stats and Information, opening up the possibility the Bears may be too predictable.

The Bears passed 155 times out of 245 snaps from three-receiver sets, resulting in four passing touchdowns, three rushing touchdowns, and 21 sacks for 110 negative yards. The Bears ran out of their two tight-end sets 81 times out of 144 snaps, resulting in just 267 rushing yards and no rushing TDs.

Interestingly, the Bears lined up in two-back sets for just nine plays this season, running once for three yards while completing 7-of-8 passes for 65 yards.

The Bears are also displaying a penchant for struggling against blitzes by defensive backs, with the quarterbacks completing a combined 26 of 45 for 238 yards, two interceptions and a passer rating of 53.8, in addition to absorbing 9 sacks on the season.

“Those are all things that we look at over the bye week. There are a couple of things that we want to look at which are a little bit different than maybe what we’ve done in the past,” Martz said. “I think we’re all excited about it.”

Cutler saw the preliminary stages of the offense finally clicking in Sunday’s 17-14 loss to the Redskins, saying everyone is beginning to work in unison in terms of seeing coverages and reacting accordingly.

“Just little things, things we hit in different coverages, stuff we worked on out here and doesn’t always translate to games as well as you’d like to see it, but things are starting to happen a little quicker for guys,” he said. “It’s always going to be a process, not only for me, but for the receivers. They’ve got to be at the right spot at the right depth at the right time against the right coverage. There are a lot of variables involved, and it’s a process. We’re still going through it.”

As optimistically as ever.