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Bears, Cutler having major problems gaining yards on first down

Jay Cutler BrandMarshall

Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall

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THE BEST (minimum 25 attempts)

Pct. Yds. TD INT Sack Rating

1. Blaine Gabbert, JAX 58.6 271 4 0 2 129.5

2. Josh Freeman, TB 59.3 245 3 0 1 126.3

3. Cam Newton, CAR 81.6 499 2 1 3 125.3

4. Alex Smith, SF 77.1 273 2 0 7 117.9

5. Andy Dalton, CIN 79.4 317 1 0 5 115.3


27. Mark Sanchez, NYJ 45.4 210 0 0 0 66.5

28. Michael Vick, PHI 54.3 347 1 3 6 58.9

29. Sam Bradford, STL 45.7 169 1 1 3 57.9

30. Andrew Luck, IND 48.0 360 1 3 1 53.8

31. Jay Cutler, Bears 47.1 209 1 2 5 52.2

Courtesy of STATS LLC

Updated: October 29, 2012 7:01AM

Michael Bush knew a problem existed, but he didn’t realize to what extent.

He was stunned when informed of the offense’s league-worst 3.32-yard average on first-down plays.

“You can’t start like that,” Bush said, shaking his head. “You put yourself in a hole, and you have to fight even harder. So it’s just something you can’t do.”

The Bears’ offense was ranked fifth in the NFL after racking up 428 yards and 41 points in the season opener. In the two games since, the offense’s ranking has plummeted to 27th, and the unit has managed only 442 combined yards.

One problem consistently cropped up: an inability to generate yardage on first down. The Bears’ average is five yards fewer than the league-leading Carolina Panthers and two full yards fewer than the NFL average.

“We’re bad on first down,” offensive coordinator Mike Tice said. “We’re putting ourselves in second-and-long a lot. So our goal this week is to do a lot better job, be more efficient on first down.”

Asked if first-down plays are a point of emphasis, quarterback Jay Cutler said, “Absolutely. Three-and-outs, first downs, putting ourselves in second-and-15, second-and-12, it’s hard to call a game. It really is. You’ve got to get positive yards on first and second down and give yourself a chance. When you’re fighting a second-and-eight-plus, third-and-eight-plus, it doesn’t really matter what you call. You’re fighting uphill.”

Cutler, of course, is a big part of the problem.

Among all NFL quarterbacks with at least 25 first-down passes, Cutler is ranked 31st with a passer rating of 52.2. He has completed only 16 of 34 passes (47.1 percent) for 209 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. By contrast, Jacksonville Jaguars second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert is 17-for-29 (58.6 percent) for 271 yards with four touchdowns, no interceptions and a league-best passer rating of 129.5 on first down.

Worse yet, it has been a comedy of errors for the Bears:

◆ Five sacks, including 12-yard losses on the opening offensive play of two games.

◆ Two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown.

◆ Six penalties, including four false starts by offensive linemen.

◆ Eleven runs for no gain or loss of yardage.

But practicing first-down plays isn’t as physical or even practical as plays in the red zone. To that end, Tice said each unit will study how it can improve. For instance, the offensive line can focus on limiting the sacks and false starts. The running backs can focus on hitting the right gaps and picking up pass rushers. The receivers can focus on catching the ball, and the quarterback can focus on throwing it.

Cutler certainly can do his part, but Tice and pass blockers can help, too. The three highest-rated quarterbacks on first down (Gabbert, Josh Freeman and Cam Newton) have been sacked six times combined, only once more than Cutler.

“We have to do a better job — and I have to do a better job — this week against Dallas of making sure we protect the quarterback against a couple of elite pass rushers and a very elite front,” Tice said. “They lead the league in defense.”

The goals seem modest enough. Tice is aiming for four yards on runs and six yards on throws.

“We’re trying to get better each day,’’ Tice said. ‘‘We put that mantra out there a long time ago, ‘Work your trade and get better each day.’ Can you get better at everything in one week? No. But we can pick some things that we’re going to get better at this week.”

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