Starting Unit Needs to Get More Reps Thursday

There is a system in place for the preseason that the majority of the NFL follows pretty closely. The starters typically play a quarter or so in the first game, about a half in the second game, into the third quarter in the third game, and then very little in the fourth and final game. But with this many question marks still remaining on offense, Rex Grossman & Company could use some more work.

Through three preseason games, the cumulative numbers for this supposedly new-and-improved Bears offense look eerily similar to last season's inept attack.

They are only 7-for-31 on third down conversions. Opponents are 20-for-45. They are averaging just 3.0 yards per carry on 60 attempts. Opponents are averaging 4.1 on 101 attempts. And just like last year, the defense has been on the field way too much because time of possession is under 24 minutes per game.

Head coach Lovie Smith saw his defense make a quantum leap in productivity from 2004 to 2005, and he has been adamant all preseason long that the offense has the pieces in place to make a similar jump from 2005 to 2006. However, based on what we have seen so far through three exhibition games, Rex Grossman & Company are struggling every bit as bad as they did last year, and in some cases, maybe even worse.

It's understandable that the passing game has been a little slow to develop. Grossman still has only started seven regular season games in his four-year career, and aside from veteran Muhsin Muhammad, most of his receiving targets are vastly unproven. Grossman has thrown the ball well in stretches, but he is still yet to put together a complete performance in the preseason.

A much bigger potential problem, their inability to run the football, seemed to come out of nowhere. With three gifted tailbacks and one of the more decorated offensive lines in the NFL, it was assumed that the Bears would have no trouble moving the ball on the ground like they did the majority of last season. That has not been in the case.

Third-stringer Adrian Peterson averaged a grand total of 1.8 yards per carry in two games as the starter. Last season's most productive offensive weapon, Thomas Jones, returned to live action last Friday against Arizona and managed only three yards on four carries. Cedric Benson is still yet to play in the preseason as he continues to come back from a sprained left shoulder, and although he is not expected to play this Thursday in Cleveland, he should be ready to go for the regular season opener at Green Bay on September 10th.

It's hard to tell if the problems in the running attack are the result of poor play by the tailbacks, the offensive line not opening up any holes, or the inability of the passing game to keep opposing defenses honest. In all likelihood, it's a product of all three. It's the classic chicken-or-the-egg argument. Do they need to run the ball and open things up for the pass, or do they need to pass the ball better to make it easier for them to run? Whatever the case may be, if the Bears all of a sudden have trouble running the football and have to rely too much on a neophyte-heavy passing game, it could me a long and disappointing season at Soldier Field.

Grossman has had stretches this preseason where he has played extremely well, but he can't seem to shake his tendency to make the big mistake that erases all the positive steps he took along the way. His passer rating of 48.0 is simply not going to get it done, especially with $6 million second-stringer Brian Griese plugging along with a 148.5 mark. Grossman has put up just six points in about six quarters of action, while Griese has marched the offense up and down the field and thrown four TD passes along the way.

So what is the solution this Thursday against the Browns? Logic says that they play their starters just for a series or two and protect them from injury at all costs. As coach Smith has repeated almost daily since the very first day of training camp, everything is geared toward putting their best team on the field September 10th in Green Bay. That being said, it does little good to put the best team on the field if that team isn't prepared to win football games. Just like Ty Webb said in Caddyshack, "A flute with no holes is not a flute."

Even though it flies in the face of what most every NFL team will do in their final exhibition game, Smith would be wise to let his starting offense play the entire first half and hope they leave Cleveland with some good vibrations. It will do Grossman no good whatsoever to exit the game 100% physically healthy if he's still completely out of whack between the years. Just let him engineer one touchdown drive and come back to the sidelines with a smile on his face and a round of high-fives from his teammates.

With three divisional games on the schedule the first three weeks of the season, including two on the road, the Bears don't have the luxury of working out the kinks after the starting bell.


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