Kamil Kraczynski/USA TODAY Sports

Bears play-action passing attack still searching for consistency

Despite a consistent rushing attack, the Bears and Jay Cutler are still struggling to produce at a high level in the play-action passing game.

The Chicago Bears are committed to the run game. 

The team has run the ball 265 times this season, which is fourth most in the NFL. At their current pace of 29.4 runs per game, the Bears will surpass last season's 16-game rush total (355) by Week 13. 

The balanced attack has helped the Bears consistently compete in the battle for time of possession, while forcing opposing defenses to respect the run, no matter the situation. 

We saw proof of that last week against the Rams, when Jay Cutler checked out of a pass play on 3rd and 10 and pitched the ball to running back Jeremy Langford, who picked up 11 yards and a first down. 

While the overall production of the run game has been less than ideal - the Bears rank 14th in the league in rushing yards and 24th in yard per attempt - the effort by offensive coordinator Adam Gase to ride the run game each week has never waned. 

Under the previous coaching staff, play-action was more of an idea than something the offense actually executed on game days. Former head coach Marc Trestman was quick to abandon the run far too often, so opposing defenses weren't quick to bite on play fakes, thus severely reducing the effectiveness of play action. 

This year's offense is built on the run game but, surprisingly, it has not increased production on play-action passes. 

Of Cutler's 292 dropbacks this year, 58 have used play action (19.9 percent), per Pro Football Focus. He's completing 67.9 percent of his play-action passes, while completing just 63.3 percent of his non-play-action passes. That 4.6 completion percentage differential is 11th best in the NFL among 30 qualifying quarterbacks. 

The ball fakes are helping open up passing lanes, of which Cutler is obviously taking advantage. The issue is that play-action passes this year have not resulted in chunk plays. 

That's a problem. Play fakes are used to bring the defense toward the line of scrimmage, thus creating space over the top for vertical throws. 

"I think we’ve been pretty consistent in the play action game," Gase said. "The run game makes things a lot easier. We can get the linebackers up on the line of scrimmage and it helps get throws behind it. If we keep growing and be multiple in what we’re doing in the run game, it always makes the play action game that much better."

On dropbacks without a ball fake, Cutler is averaging 7.9 yards per attempt (7th best in the NFL). Yet on dropbacks that include play action, Cutler's per-attempt average drops to 6.2. His -1.7 differential in yards per attempt is 29th in the NFL, ahead of only Russell Wilson. 

Cutler has a passer rating of 96.8 without play action and a QB rating of 89.4 after a ball fake, a drop off of more than seven points. 

When you think about it, that doesn't make a lot of sense. A properly executed play-action pass should fool a defense and create space in the intermediate and deep zones. The whole idea behind a play fake is to make things easier for the passer. Yet, somehow, despite a consistent run game, Cutler has regressed on play-action passes this year. 

This is an area in need of improvement. Since getting their hands on Cutler, Gase and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains have slowly molded him into a high-percentage passer with heightened pocket awareness and good down-field vision. So the next step is to improve Cutler's effectiveness on play-action calls. 

Considering the strides they've made in just half a season, it's safe to assume Gase and Loggains will find a way to get Cutler locked in following ball fakes. So if you think he's playing well now, wait until he starts truly taking advantage of the improved rushing attack. 


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