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Bears’ offense punting ball after 3 plays 41 percent of time

A familiar sight: Bears quarterback Jay Cutler hangs his head as Bears have punt ball away fourth quarter 27-17 loss

A familiar sight: Bears quarterback Jay Cutler hangs his head as the Bears have to punt the ball away in the fourth quarter of the 27-17 loss Sunday to the Green Bay Packers. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 2, 2011 2:12PM

In the season opener against a credible Atlanta Falcons defense, the Bears’ offense showed it might be ready to take a much-needed step in its second season under coordinator Mike Martz.

Hope carried over to New Orleans, where the offense put together an impressive 11-play, 87-yard drive capped by an eight-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver Dane Sanzenbacher.

But since that first-quarter drive, the offense has been a colossal mess plagued by penalties, missed blocks, dropped passes, errant throws and curious play calls.

The statistics reinforce the collective failure: 23rd in total yards per game, 31st in rushing yards, 30th in sacks per pass play and 29th in third-down conversions.

But the most damning of all is that the offense leads the league with 16 three-and-outs, according to STATS. With 39 offensive series, the Bears have punted the ball after three plays 41 percent of the time.

“To me, three-and-outs are the worst thing in football next to turnovers,” Martz said Wednesday. “That’s the worst thing. I hate three-and-outs with a passion.

“That’s something, in the past, we’ve been pretty good at.”

Taking its toll

Martz, though, must be referring to his history beyond last season.

The Bears had 56 three-and-outs in 2010, although the percentage (28.3) was dramatically lower.

Martz noted that not being more productive on first down is one of the keys. To his point, in the third quarter Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, the Bears’ three three-and-out drives started with these plays: a sack, a two-yard loss on a run by Matt Forte and an incomplete pass.

Quarterback Jay Cutler said the offense needs more “manageable” third downs. Against an aggressive Packers defense, the Bears faced third-and-10-or-more on seven of 12 attempts, including a third-and-33. They converted 3 of 12.

“We’ve got to convert on third down. That ties into the rest of that stuff,” Cutler said. “Those third-and-longs, at the end of the day, we’re not going to be able to convert a high rate of those.”

After missing the game against the Saints, receiver Roy Williams returned against the Packers. But with so many three-and-outs, Williams focused on staying fresh — something he struggled to do on the field.

“For me, I have to stay warm,” Williams said. “I can’t just sit on the sideline.”

So Williams jumped up and down, stretched and hopped on a stationary bike to keep himself loose.

Meanwhile, the offensive linemen were often studying pictures of the previous series and reviewing corrections with line coach Mike Tice.

But against the Packers, the offensive players simply spent too much time on the sideline. Only seven minutes and 23 seconds elapsed in the team’s five three-and-outs against the Packers, which, in turn, forced the defense to spend more time defending one of the league’s most dangerous offensive players, quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

All told, the Packers possessed the ball 37 minutes, 29 seconds.

Not ideal for a Bears defense that features five starters in their 30s.

“Of course, we would like the time of possession to be more than it has been, but we can’t control that,” Bears cornerback Tim Jennings said. “When our number is called, we have to go on the field and execute, force a three-and-out and give the offense another opportunity.”

Something must give

The Packers game, however, wasn’t an exception.

The Bears had six three-and-outs against the Saints, who controlled the ball for 36 minutes in a 30-13 victory.

“It’s very frustrating,” Williams said. “It gives your defense no time to rest on the sideline.”

Added offensive tackle Frank Omiyale, “We got to help them.”

The Bears are 29th in time of possession (26:32), ahead of only two winless teams (the Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts) and another with one victory (the Seattle Seahawks).

Last season, the Bears were an anomaly.

Of the five teams with the most three-and-outs, the Bears were the only one with a winning record. And the average number of victories for the 10 teams that had the most three-and-outs was six.

“It’s obviously an issue, but it’s not just [three-and-outs],” tight end Kellen Davis said. ‘‘It’s something we don’t want to have happen. But it comes down to execution, just like everything else.”

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