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Bears look to increase 1st-down production

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice correctly answered "no" to his own question of whether the struggling offense could "get better at everything in one week."

But in preparing to face the Dallas Cowboys' top-ranked defense, which features a fierce pass rush led by DeMarcus Ware, the Bears know they need to shore up their offense as much as possible -- one that seems to be tripping on its own feet heading into Monday night's showdown at Cowboys Stadium.

"It's one of those games you've got to be ready," backup running back Michael Bush said. "If you're not ready, you're going to get your butt kicked."

To avoid that scenario, Tice pointed out the importance of taking measured steps toward correcting specific deficiencies as opposed to attempting to apply a fix-all solution to the team's offensive woes. So while Tice said the Bears "have to do a better job this week of making sure we protect the quarterback against a couple of elite pass-rushers," the focus going into Monday night is on becoming more efficient on first down.

"We have to be better on first down, first and foremost," Tice said. "We're putting ourselves in second-and-long a lot, and then you're fighting to get back to a manageable third down."

The Bears displayed as much last week in their 23-6 win over the St. Louis Rams. Of the club's 10 first-down plays in the first quarter, just four gained positive yardage, two were penalties, three were incomplete passes and one gained no yardage.

The club improved in the second quarter with positive gains and a touchdown on 5 of 9 first-down plays, but on the other four plays the Bears lost a total of nine yards (five because of a false-start penalty on Chilo Rachal).

"You can't win in this league when you're in a lot of second-and-long, third-and-longs," receiver Brandon Marshall said. "We need to clean that up, but I really like what we're doing (in the game plan this week)."

Repairing the issues on first down isn't all the Bears need to do prior to facing the Cowboys, who have posted seven sacks (four from Ware), and are limiting opponents to 250 yards per game, including an average of 137 yards through the air.

Quarterback Jay Cutler has thrown five interceptions and one TD in his past two games, completing just 48.3 percent of his passes for a total QBR of 16.6. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cutler throws deeper than 10 yards down the field on every 2.66 attempts. Yet his performance on those throws hasn't justified the frequency of making them.

Cutler throws deeper than 10 yards down the field 37.6 percent of time, yet he's completed just 40 percent of those throws, which ranks 31st in the league among 32 quarterbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information. So smarter play-calling and better decision-making by Cutler could lead to improvements on offense for the Bears.

It's not a process Cutler expects the club to complete overnight.

"It's the first year in the offense," he said. "It's gonna take time. It's a whole season. You've got to build on each and every game and get better."

Center Roberto Garza agreed, and acknowledged the Cowboys will "try to create a lot of situations where we're singled up (in one-on-one situations against pass-rushers)."

In addition to giving up 11 sacks as a team, Chicago's offensive line has been responsible for six quarterback hits and 21 pressures. Tice discussed the possibility of max protecting on the majority of pass plays, saying "you think all those things through: What can beat this protection? You want to know the answers to that before the game starts. You want to know what can defeat this protection and then you want to have a counter for that. That's what we have to do a better job of. You have to have more than a couple of ways to take care of a player that might be having a rough night. At the same time, you can't take good care of that player every single play. There has to be a point in the game where players have to earn their money and block one-on-one.

"At the same time, you have to have answers for a number of different players that might be in a difficult matchup and say, ‘If so-and-so is, where do we go to? If so-and-so is, where do we go to?' That's what I can do a better job as a coach of improving at."

Coach Lovie Smith said the "entire team needs a boost right now and we need to improve in a lot of areas."

But how much improvement is sufficient offensively, given the strides that need to be made? Even with the extra day of preparation that goes with playing in a matchup on "Monday Night Football," the Bears understand the difficulties of taking their first-year offensive system on the road against a top-flight defense.

"You look around the league (and) it's so difficult to win on the road," Tice said. "We just have to be poised and handle the crowd noise and all of the above. We have a checklist of things we have to do better. Like I said, we've got to continue to work at getting better at something each day, and get better at something each game without taking any steps backward."