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Bears’ 2nd-half schedule gives offense tough proving ground

Jay Cutler was sacked six times Sunday. “Six sacks is too many” coach Lovie Smith said. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Jay Cutler was sacked six times Sunday. “Six sacks is too many,” coach Lovie Smith said. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 1, 2012 4:31PM



Jay Cutler is right: It’s too early to go to DEFCON 1 on the Bears’
offense. But what about DEFCON 4 or 5? If it’s too early to panic, is it too early to wonder if the Bears’ oft-promising offense ever will be what it hopes to be?

Seven games into the season, the offensive line still looks like it was assembled in the dark. Cutler was sacked six times Sunday by a Carolina Panthers defense that had 14 sacks in its first six games.

All six sacks led to holes Cutler could not get out of. Two of the sacks forced fumbles that gave the Bears a negative turnover differential for only the second time this season. Another led to one of six consecutive failed third-down conversions that gave the Bears their worst third-down conversion rate of the season (2-for-8, 25 percent).

Bears coach Lovie Smith put his foot down.

‘‘Six sacks is too many,’’ he said.

That’s about as forcefully as Smith will put his foot down publicly. As it turned out, every offensive player — from J’Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi to Cutler and Brandon Marshall — received the same grade from the game: 6-1.

When Cutler gets himself out of a hole, as he did with a near-perfect fourth quarter in the Bears’ 23-22 victory at Soldier Field, it doesn’t matter that he helped dig the hole in the first place. That’s a problem that can and will be fixed, Smith said. It’s just a matter of execution.

‘‘Even the sacks,’’ Smith said. ‘‘Six sacks is too many. But it’s each guy having one. It is about execution most of the time. But we’re not going to change what we believe in; we are going to do it better. We’re not going to apologize for being 6-1 and not playing our best game and getting a win.’’

That’ll work if the offensive performance was an anomaly. The Bears were playing on a short week. Cutler was recovering from bruised ribs. Alshon Jeffery was out. If those aren’t excuses, the Bears might have a problem because the degree of difficulty is about to increase.

After the game Sunday in Nashville against the Tennessee Titans and their 30th-ranked defense, the Bears’ offense will face a challenging schedule. All of their last eight opponents have defenses that rank in the upper half of the NFL in total defense, and seven are in the upper half in points allowed.

Five of them are in the top 10 in both categories — the Houston Texans (third in yards, fifth in points), San Francisco 49ers (first/second), Seattle Seahawks (fifth/third), Arizona Cardinals (sixth/fourth) and Detroit Lions (ninth/10th). In the first eight games, the Bears will have faced only two defenses that ranked in the upper half in points
allowed. The Dallas Cowboys (eighth) and Lions (10th) are in the top 10.

So unless the Bears were victims of circumstance against the Panthers, they face the difficult challenge of making significant improvement against better competition.

They’re talented enough to do it, but to wonder how it’s going to happen is not DEFCON 1. This offense should be further along than it is, shouldn’t it?

‘‘I think you have to be careful when you say ‘further along’ and yardage and those things,’’ Smith said. ‘‘You’re looking at the wrong thing. Our offense has allowed us to get to 6-1, looking at ball security and each week what do we need our offense to do in order for us to win the football game.

‘‘And I’ve been pleased with that. Or we wouldn’t have six wins. Are we going to make a jump and will we have to rely on our offense to carry us a few football games and will we be able to do that? Yes. I think that’s when you’ll truly see what we are as an offensive team.’’



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