- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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The problem, though, is there's really no bona fide solution to cure the club's slow starts on offense.
"We could be playing this type of ball in December, I don't know. I can't tell the future," Cutler said. "All I know is offensively we're going to try to get better. I'm going to try to get better each week and each day. I know the guys that we have in that room are going to try to get better. I believe in our coaches and the system we have. They're going to do the best possible job they can to put us in situations to be successful."
So far, it hasn't worked on a consistent basis. Through the first seven games, the offense continues to struggle early, with the team scoring a total of 30 points in the first quarter, compared to 81 in the fourth. The Bears entered their victory over Carolina on Sunday ranked last in average yardage (4.1) on first downs, which serves as one component of the team's problems thus far.
Cutler admitted the Bears probably "see more second-and-10's than anybody else in the league, second-and-8-plus" which typically snowballs into a dilemma on third down. Cutler said "if you call a run and don't get five-plus" in those second-and-long situations "you're sitting in third-and-long, and if you pass and it's incomplete, then you're at third-and-10."
That only exacerbates the struggles, putting the team in predictable passing situations. When the Bears face third downs with 5 yards or fewer to gain for a first down, they've converted 20 of 33 (60.6 percent conversion rate). Push that distance from third-and-6 to 10-plus yards needed for the first down, and the conversion rate falls to 29 percent.
"Facing some better teams down the stretch, we're going to have to get better at it," Cutler said.
Teammate Brandon Marshall admitted to not knowing what the offense's problem has been early in games this season, adding that "what I do know is that we're close. I know we're working hard to get where we want to be."
It all starts with the quarterback. Cutler's passer rating in the first quarter is 29.5 with the quarterback completing 25 of 53 for 169 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions. In addition, he's been sacked eight times in the first quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Cutler's passer rating dramatically improves to an NFL-best 132.0, garnering praise from Marshall, who has suggested nicknames such as "The Closer" and "Ace" for the quarterback.
"Jay is one of those guys where he has that clutch gene," Marshall said. "You hear guys talking about it. Some believe it, some don't. But Jay has it."
Does he really, though? The Bears held leads going into the fourth quarter in five of the club's seven games, winning by an average score of close to 15-9 heading into the final 15 minutes. Teams at a disadvantage in the final quarter typically don't key in on the pass because the winning squad is usually trying to run down the clock with the rushing attack.
In addition, trailing fourth-quarter teams usually play more aggressive schemes in an attempt to regain possession for their offenses. That's why Cutler isn't putting too much stock in his fourth-quarter performances this season, although it's important to note he lit up the Panthers on Sunday for 106 yards and a touchdown on 12-of-14 passing with his team trailing in the fourth quarter.
In the two games Chicago trailed going into the fourth quarter, Cutler completed 16 of 23 for two TDs and two INTs (82.1 passer rating) as the Bears claimed victory in one of those contests.
"(Our) defense is putting us in positions where we're leading games and defenses are trying to get the ball back," Cutler said. (So we're seeing) a lot of single-high (safety looks), which makes it a lot easier on the outside throwing the ball. We've hit some big plays out there. The way our defense is playing and carrying leads into the fourth quarter makes my job easier."
Through the normal flow of a game, Cutler and the offensive staff also seems to be figuring out the opposing defense. But the Bears can't afford to waste time getting dialed in on offense, especially given the upcoming schedule that includes the Tennessee Titans on Sunday followed by back-to-back outings against the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers.
The Bears follow up those games with two more strong opponents in the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks, and the team knows slow starts on offense can put stress on the vaunted defense, even though that hasn't yet happened.
"I think this team, we've talked about it being a young offense, and now we're kind of coming together. It takes a little bit longer to make adjustments in games and get everything straightened out. It goes along with first down and having successful plays on first down," Cutler said. "We've got to get better early on in the first half, and that counts for the first parts of drives too, first down, and second down. We're not going to make a living coming back in the fourth quarter and trying to convert third-and-longs."
The Bears' offense is trying to figure out why they start games slow.