As the Bears begin preparations for the playoffs, their offensive play-calling in Sunday's loss to the Packers should remind them of the formula they used to win seven of eight games prior to the regular-season finale.
The balance of rushing and pass plays that helped produce a 7-1 record after the bye was nowhere to be found at Lambeau Field. A similar imbalance could make the Bears' postseason a short one.
In the eight games after their bye at the end of October, the Bears were the only NFL team that had more run plays than pass plays. But they inexplicably abandoned that strategy against the Packers. Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz called for 47 passes and 18 runs. Cutler threw 39 passes, was sacked six times and ran twice when chased from the pocket. That's similar to the ratio that the Bears used in back-to-back home losses to the Seahawks and Redskins just before the break, during which Martz and Co. made a commitment to the ground game that fueled the run to the playoffs.
Cutler was sacked 10 times in those two losses and threw four interceptions with just one touchdown pass.
Going pass-heavy against the Packers made even less sense because the Bears were having success running the ball in the first half, even though they didn't do it much.
After averaging 7.2 yards on nine running plays in the first half, Martz called just nine more running plays in the second half, which produced 37 yards. There were also two Jay Cutler runs for eight yards on designed pass plays.
"Offensively, I like the way we ran the football," coach Lovie Smith said. "We see going into the playoffs that you have to rely on the run. There will be times when you'll have to be able to run the football or just want to run the football, and we see that we can do that."
So why not run it more?
Instead, the Bears tried unsuccessfully to force the ball to their wide receivers. Cutler threw 13 passes to Devin Hester and Johnny Knox, which produced a total of one catch for 16 yards. Both of Cutler's interceptions came on passes intended for Hester or Knox.
"Passing-game wise, we know that we have weapons, and we can pass the football when we want to pass the football in the playoffs," Smith said.
That absolutely wasn't true against the Packers. The only thing the Bears proved in that game is that their wide receivers can be taken out of the game by quality cornerbacks, especially when Cutler is pressured. Smith admitted that the inability to protect Cutler was a problem.
"I think it's a concern every time you give up a sack," Smith said. "That's a little bit too much pressure on our quarterback. [There were] a lot of reasons for that."
One major reason was that the Packers didn't have to worry about stopping the run.
The Patriots did the same thing when they jumped to an early lead in Week 14, forced the Bears to throw and limited Knox and Hester to four catches for 33 yards.
Asked about the lopsided pass-run ratio against the Packers, Smith mentioned the final, futile drive when, with time running out, 13 straight pass plays were called.
But even before that, the Bears had called 34 pass plays and 18 runs, which defies logic considering that they averaged 5.5 yards on run plays that didn't involve Cutler scrambles. On their 45 pass plays, not counting Cutler's two runs, the Bears managed a total of just 117 yards, an average of 2.6 yards per play.
NOTES AND QUOTES
"We were in a hostile environment, and we could have to play in a hostile environment in the playoffs," Smith said. "We can't say that we've been in a lot of hostile environments, where the crowd was into the game like they were [Sunday]. Our offensive line hasn't played together in a place like that before."
The Falcons are favored to advance to the NFC Championship Game and, if the Bears win their home game, they could wind up playing at the Georgia Dome for the right to play in Super Bowl XLV.
Their experience at Lambeau Field would be experience for the Bears if that scenario plays out. Smith's team had not faced much adversity on the road before Sunday. Their previous road game, against the Vikings, was moved to the University of Minnesota's outdoor stadium, which didn't help the dome team at all. Against the Lions at Ford Field, the Bears had almost as many fans as the home team, and Bears fans were in abundance in South Florida for the Dolphins game. The road game before that, against Buffalo, was in Toronto, where the Bears seemed to have a larger and louder following than the Bills. ...
By playing the starters for the full game Sunday, the Bears risked injuries. But they came through in good shape.
Relatively minor injuries to linebacker Nick Roach (shoulder) and safeties Chris Harris (stinger) and Major Wright (leg) are expected to be healed by game time on Jan. 16. Smith believes the positives far outweighed the negatives.
"What better way to get ready for the playoffs than to go through a hard game like that and be in all the different situations that you're going to go through," he said. "But don't get me wrong. It's one thing to go on the road and play, but we can't wait to have our playoff game here." ...
Had the Bears reached the end zone on their final drive Sunday, they could have gone for two points and the win or kicked the extra point and gone to overtime.
"I really hadn't thought that far," Smith said. "We probably would have tied the game and gone from there."
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