If the Bears' impossible dream of running the table and making the playoffs has any chance of becoming reality, they'll need to become a lot more productive in the passing game.
Before he suffered a sprained ankle against the Lions in the eighth game of the season, quarterback Kyle Orton appeared on the verge of a breakout year, but his performance and the passing game production have gone steeply downhill since then. Orton had by far his worst game of the season Sunday night in the 34-14 loss to the Vikings, throwing three interceptions – just one less than he had in the first 11 games combined.
At 6-6, the Bears probably need to sweep their remaining four games and hope for help from other teams to overtake the 7-5 Vikings, who are tied with or ahead of the Bears in the first four tie-breaking categories.
But the Bears can forget about winning out if they can't throw the ball better than they have in the past five games, including one start by Rex Grossman, who also relieved Orton when he was injured against the Lions. In each of their past five games, the Bears haven't thrown for more than 166 yards, and their average in the air is 148 yards per game. In the three previous games, they averaged 295 yards through the air. But that seems like a distant memory.
It's not all Orton's fault, not by a long shot, even though his passer rating of 39.1 Sunday night was by far his worst of the season and nearly 50 points below his season rating of 88.1 through 11 games.
"They rushed the passer well," Bears head coach Lovie Smith said, "and of course Jared Allen had a heck of a game."
Allen, the Vikings Pro Bowl defensive right end, repeatedly blew past Bears' left tackle John St. Clair and an assortment of players who tried to assist him. Allen's three sacks pushed his season total to 11, and he added three tackles for lost yardage and four quarterback hurries. But one player didn't short-circuit the Bears' aerial attack. Orton missed some passes, and his receivers dropped a few others.
"They have a good front, we knew that going in," Smith said. "Kyle would tell you he probably would like to have some of the throws back. Normally it's a combination of quite a few things. We dropped some balls [Sunday]. So, whether it's protection, Kyle or receivers catching the ball, we all could do things a little bit better, and we'll have to in this next stretch."
The Bears' wide receivers have struggled in recent weeks to beat press coverage at the line of scrimmage and get separation, and their production as a group has waned. But the drought has also spread to tight ends Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen.
Wide receiver Rashied Davis has exactly one catch in each of the past four games. Brandon Lloyd has a total of four catches for 44 yards in the three games since he returned from a sprained knee. Neither of them has a TD in the past four games. Devin Hester has nine catches for 131 yards in the past three games, but 65 of those yards came on his TD catch Sunday night, the only score he's had in the past seven games.
Clark has 12 catches in his past four games but for only 63 yards, a 5.3-yard average. Olsen, who was starting to resemble a go-to guy just a couple weeks ago, has one catch for 7 yards in the past two games.
With production like that, the Bears will have a tough time making up a deficit in any game down the stretch.
"We have to make some strides, we have to improve in order for us to get where we want to go," Smith admitted. "We realize that. We have to improve. Not just in that area, but in quite a few areas for us to win out."
Win out? The Bears are certain to be left out if the passing game doesn't get better in a hurry.
NOTES & QUOTES
Both players stepped up Sunday night, as Harrison was third on the team with seven tackles and Adams added six plus a tackle for loss.
"Our expectations are for them to move right into that role," Smith said. "Both of those guys have played and played well for us. It's unfortunate what happened to Dusty."
Despite frequent double-teams, Dvoracek is seventh on the team and first among the linemen with 40 tackles, and he's tied for third on the team with six tackles for loss. Dvoracek started all 11 games this season after missing his entire rookie season in 2006 with a foot injury and suffering a season-ending torn ACL in his knee in the first game last season.
"That's very hard for a guy like Dusty to go out like that," Smith said. "No one works harder than him. He's a tough guy. It's just unfortunate. [You] don't know the reason why. As you look at how he injured his arm, [it was] just a typical play that he's made plenty of times."
Adams started eight games last season but has been the odd man out most of this season, suiting up for just five of the first 12 games.
"You hate to be the guy to come in after something like that happens," Adams said. "With Dusty, that's messed up. For this to keep happening to him, it's tough. But I've got to step in and just do a great job for him because we're down a soldier, and he was definitely a key part of our defense." …
Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz gave credit to the Vikings' defensive line for stopping the Bears four times from the 1-yard line Sunday night, but he didn't absolve the offensive line of blame.
"Obviously they did a great job," Kreutz said. "They're a difficult defensive line to move the ball on. You have three Pro Bowlers (Kevin Williams, Pat Williams and Allen) out of four guys, but we still have to punch it in at that point. We could've done better, and I know I could have blocked better on those four plays to help us get in the end zone." …
The Bears finally got around to calling their version of the Wildcat for the first time in Week 12 with direct snaps to running back Matt Forte and wide receiver Devin Hester, and it wasn't anything different than what many other NFL teams have already run. But both players are capable of throwing the ball, and that would put a different spin on the gimmick play.
At Tulane, Forte ran and threw from what the Bears call "Cajun" when he takes the snap, and "Cane" when Hester gets the ball.
"I can throw the ball," Hester said."If he calls it, I'll do it," Forte said. "If that's one of his plays in the playbook and we put it in, I'll definitely throw it."
The Bears ran the Cajun just once against the Vikings, and Forte was stopped for no gain.
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