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The Bears' first-year offensive coordinator heads up the league's 3rd-ranked scoring offense. But what adjustments does he have to make to get even more out of his offense?
After the first five games of the season, things are looking pretty good for the Bears as they head into their bye week - sitting at 4-1, tied for first in the division and two games ahead of the Packers (and three-and-a-half ahead of the Lions). After Jay Cutler's four-turnover game against Green Bay, the Bears' offense has had only one turnover in each of the team's other four games.
And yet, not all is right in the Bears' offensive house.
Mike Tice's rookie year as coordinator and playcaller is bound to have a few growing pains. The Bears experienced them in the team's Week 2 loss to Green Bay and at varying times in the other four weeks. And Tice is learning from his errors, there's no question about that. Instead of leaving J'Marcus Webb on an island against a premiere pass rusher like Clay Matthews, when he lines up against DeMarcus Ware he has extra tight end help. Brandon Marshall has been a wrecking crew since he started making appearances in the slot. And instead of relying on the big play passing game immediately in a game with play-action sacks, Tice has reeled it in and begun to work in a more balanced running game utilizing both Forte and Bush in tandem, as well as getting Kellen Davis involved early against Jacksonville (of course, Davis suddenly growing a pair of hands hasn't hurt his chances). But Tice must continue to grow as an offensive coordinator, especially as we get into the latter part of the season.
No one, and I mean no one, can argue that the Jacksonville defense is the creme de la creme of the NFL. I mean, I really like Derek Cox and Paul Posluszny, but let's not pretend that the unit is the '06 Bears, '01 Ravens, or even this year's Bears. Scoring-wise, the best defense the Bears have played so far are the Rams (9th); yardage-wise, the Cowboys (4th, but on bye last week, and that's deflated by the Bucs' 91-yard passing game). The Bears still have dates to come with the Niners (1st/2nd), the Texans (4th/3rd), twice with the Vikings (6th/7th), the Cardinals (5th/11th), and Seattle (2nd/1st).
Now, certainly that's balanced out with games against the Panthers (20th/23rd) and Titans (32nd/29th), not to mention the Lions (26th/9th) and Packers (14th/16th), but the Bears will be heading into a part of the schedule, especially with the Texans, Niners, Vikings, Seahawks and Vikings all in a row from weeks 10 through 14, that will be especially unforgiving. Those four have given away a total of 11 interceptions, and six of them have been from Russell Wilson, so aside from Seattle, a short field probably isn't going to be there.
The four teams also combine for 55 sacks on the year, so pass protection may be difficult to maintain, particularly since the Bears' five opponents thus far this season, after playing the Bears, all combine for 57 sacks.
Then there's the whole starting slow thing. The nice thing about stats is they as a sum can tell you something, but as a sum, they can also hide some things. For instance, that 3rd-ranked scoring offense the Bears have is buoyed by their 35-point gift from the last three weeks by the defense, and their net yards per pass attempt and yards per rushing attempt are squarely in the middle of the league.
But as far as starting slow is concerned, okay, the Bears scored 24 points in the first half against Indianapolis. Since then, they've only scored 23 first-half points. They've gotten away with it in three of the last four games largely because the defense is playing out-of-their-minds strong and they've been playing really really bad offenses. Houston's scored 93 first-half points. Can the Bears afford to have a slow first half there, against a defense stronger than any they've faced so far and a team that's only turned the ball over a league-few three times? I know the Bears just scored 38 points in the second half against Jacksonville, but there's no 38-Point-Half Vineyards out there for them to just grab one when they need it.
And I've gone over the "Boot-to-the-throat" passing game that's been great at finishing out games, but not so good in terms of getting ahead or scoring meaningful points. I'd say it probably leans more to the execution side than the playcalling side - the offense gets into a good rhythm, but then there's a third down drop, or Cutler doesn't hit the target, or someone lets a rusher through - but if Tice wants the offense to be a true dual-threat early, the passing game has to get in sync earlier at some point.
Is it because the offense plays tighter earlier? Is it called tighter? It kind of has to be, since the first two games the team tried to pass with bravado, Cutler got sacked, and it doesn't seem like Tice has been willing to open up Cutler to that kind of pass rush right away since. The passing game only really gets opened up when the team has the lead - but in those moments, it's been explosive enough to take the lead. Why does the passing game only work to build the lead further? Because the other defense doesn't expect "go for the jugular" passing?
The Bears start the post-bye schedule with Detroit, Carolina and Tennessee, which, well, it could be a lot worse. But it does give Tice and the offense three games to get clicking a little earlier, before they get into the rougher part of the schedule. Against some of the defenses to come, they'll need to be.