Bears hope for more bye-week improvement

The Bears hoping they learned something from Green Bay's pressure on Jay Cutler on Sunday. AP Photo/Mike Roemer

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The emotional high Lovie Smith envisioned the Chicago Bears ending the regular season on eluded the team Sunday in a 10-3 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.

That won't prevent the team from hitching a ride on a new one.

The last time Smith put the tighten-things-up phrase on repeat, the Bears responded with a five-game winning streak, anchored by the same dominating defense and amplified by the seemingly continuous evolution of the offense. All that started with a week off in October for critical self evaluation, combined with training-camp style workouts designed for augmenting strengths, eliminating weaknesses and single-minded focus on making the minute details as crisp as possible.

This time around, though, the Bears don't need a five-game tear. Two wins get them to the Super Bowl.

"It's gratifying to have this week where you can sit back. We're all excited about watching others play, trying to figure out exactly who we're going to play this round, and just kind of being a fan of pro football this week," Smith said. "But at the same time, though, [we have] a week to really tighten up on some things. Now [that] we've gone through an entire year, we kind of see some of the things we need to improve. We've been looking at it throughout the course of the year, but now that it's all over you can concentrate a little bit more on certain things."

The last time the Bears received a week off and extra time for preparation and self evaluation, most of the changes the team made manifested themselves on offense.

In the seven games prior to the week off in October, the Bears had given up 31 sacks. But upon return, the re-tooled offensive line surrendered 25 over nine games, including Sunday's six-sack night by the Packers.

"We obviously didn't execute as well as we should have [against the Packers]. But we're gonna learn from it," Bears guard Roberto Garza said. "We're gonna take a week off, recharge, and come back ready for playoff football. [Smith's message after the game was] we're still a good football team; 11-5 is a hell of a year. All of the work is done [for the regular season]. So now it's time for playoff football."

During the first series of major changes on offense devised in October, the Bears shifted their focus with regards to the pass-run ratio. Averaging 22.3 rushing attempts and 88.6 yards through the first seven outings, the team came out of the break averaging 28.7 attempts and 110.7 yards over the last nine contests.

Think the rushing numbers don't matter? In the two games the Bears lost after the bye, they ran the ball 14 and 20 times, which was not only off the team's average during that span, but also its two lowest totals in terms of attempts over the last nine games.

"We see going into the playoffs that you've got to rely on the run," Smith said. "There will be times where you'll have to be able to run the football, and we see that we can do that."

So it's no coincidence that after the Bears made sweeping change offensively, their third-down conversion rate of 17.9 percent in the first seven games improved to 44.1 while the touchdowns per game increased from an average of 1.8 before the bye to 3 for the remainder of the season.

The players expect the team's evolution to continue into the postseason. Over the final nine games of the regular season, it seemed every week questions remained as to whether the offense had reached its full potential.

Continued inconsistency on offense indicates it hasn't.

"You want to look at things things like, ‘What could I have done to help my team win,'" Bears tackle Frank Omiyale said after Sunday's loss at Green Bay. "So that's what we're gonna do when we go back and look at the film: Find ways to win. That's what we get paid to do."

The coaching staff falls into that category, too.

"To have this bye week is important," Smith said, "to rest up as much as anything. At the same time, it'll be good to have a couple of practices, training-camp-type practices getting ready for whoever we end up playing in our first playoff game."

The Bears will face either the Philadelphia Eagles, Seattle Seahawks or New Orleans Saints at noon on Jan. 16 at Soldier Field.

After a brief slide on defense, the unit regained some of its swagger in limiting a high-powered Packers offense to 284 yards (just 60 rushing) and 18 percent on third-down conversions, in addition to sacking Aaron Rodgers twice. Bears linebacker Lance Briggs considered Sunday's game "good preparation going into the playoffs," adding it was encouraging to see the defense perform well against an explosive offense, indicative of what they'll face in the postseason.

"We're looking forward to the game because this is a new season," defensive end Julius Peppers said. "This is what we play for: a chance at the ultimate goal."

Will the Bears reach it?

Their chances are good if the team uses the week off to make the same type of progress they made during the regular-season break in October, and the team's track record certainly indicates them doing so.

"That's why these practices this week are so important, too," Smith said. "Every day you go out on the practice field you can get better. That's what we plan on doing this week."