LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- At least on some level, they’re consistent.
More than an hour after quarterback Jay Cutler expressed a lack of concern about Chicago’s ineptitude on offense this preseason, coordinator Mike Martz kept the excuse-ship flying high Tuesday in his weekly meeting with reporters at Halas Hall.
Martz admitted to being “a little surprised” about how poorly the offense performed Saturday against the Cardinals, and attributed the struggles to jitters and an overload of information on young players “wanting to play well so bad[ly].”
“We made some mistakes I was a little surprised at,” he added. “Fortunately, you get that out of the way now instead of the opener, and get that out of their system. There are some young guys trying to figure out how to play. There’s some mistakes; more than I would like to have. It’s not because of a lack of effort or not knowing to do.”
The production through three preseason games hasn’t quite matched up to the fanfare associated with the potential impact Martz’s offense could make on the Bears. In 16 possessions this preseason, the Bears’ starting offense has converted 31.3 percent of third downs (5 of 16) with just two touchdowns. Just four teams finished the 2009 regular season with worse third-down conversion percentages (Buffalo, Oakland, San Francisco and Kansas City), and coincidentally -- or not -- none of those teams finished with records above .500. While it’s just the preseason, it’s important to note that the Bears offense -- which isn’t game planning opponents -- has encountered vanilla defenses throughout the preseason.
Cutler, meanwhile, has thrown two interceptions and taken 10 sacks while producing a 62.4 passer rating. The quarterback insisted the team and staff sees beyond the superficial in the club’s self evaluation.
“You guys haven’t seen a lot,” Cutler said. “You guys don’t get to see the film, and see what we see, and you guys don’t know exactly what we’re trying to accomplish out there. The guys have been working extremely hard and doing things really well -- well, maybe a little bit off and on -- but more on than off at this point.”
“It’s just little things. Guys have a real good feel for what we’re trying to do, and what their routes are going to be. We don’t have a lot of mental mistakes out there with guys lining up wrong or running the wrong routes. It’s minor things -- not getting enough depth, cutting too soon, missing a single-high [safety read] or a middle-field open [read]. It’s little things right now.”
Perhaps that outlook depends on perspective because a receiver and quarterback seeing and reacting to those subtleties when they occur can actually lead to homerun balls; touchdowns.
Martz said another source of the offense’s struggles is the high volume of information the staff is throwing at the offense. The objective, Martz said, is to familiarize the players with the diversity of the scheme. But once the regular season kicks off, Martz said the club plans to streamline game plans into easily-digestible nuggets.
They’ve utilized them sparsely, but throughout the preseason, the Bears haven’t shown high volumes of the shifting, multiple-receiver formations they operated out of during the offseason, due to fear of giving opponents too much insight into the scheme.
“We’ve done quite a bit,” Martz said. “We’ve been in ‘balanced’ in nickel, ‘balanced’ in ‘tank’ and ‘regular’. We’ve done quite a bit of moving and formation-ing and shifting,” Martz said. “Not a lot, but enough to make sure everybody gets to where they need to be. Down in the goal line, we were in a Wildcat [formation]. So we dusted that off a little bit. We’ve been sprinkling those things in just for the very reason you said, to get them comfortable with all these different alignments, and what they’re assignments are, and don’t just flash out on them the first game of the season.”
Still, the unit continues to display some difficulty grasping the multiplicity of the scheme. The good news, though, is it appears the offense is shoring up its question-mark offensive line, which gave up five sacks in two quarters against the Raiders, before allowing another four Saturday against the Cardinals.
Despite the high number of sacks Cutler suffered against the Cardinals, the protection held up fairly well, and it appeared that just two of them came as a result of legitimate pressure. One of the four sacks came as a result of solid secondary coverage from Arizona. Cutler tripped over his own feet on another.
Cutler admitted to feeling jittery from the five-sack outing against the Raiders, which contributed to happy feet in the pocket against the Cardinals.
“They played a lot better this past game. Going back and looking at the film, I was a little edgy in the pocket moving around sometimes. I could’ve helped them a little bit,” Cutler said. “That’s where we learn. With Lance [Louis] in there and Chris [Williams] on the outside, we’re still jelling together. Some of the calls are a little bit new to them as well in terms of what we’re doing protection wise. It’s all coming together. Once we hit full stride, we’ll be OK.”
Based on what’s happened thus far, that’s difficult to believe.
Resting against a locker on Tuesday, receiver Earl Bennett snickered when the subject was broached. Bennett returned to the practice field for the first time since Aug. 8 on Monday, before the club held him out of workouts Tuesday. He’s watched the offense progress since Martz’s arrival, and considers the current situation merely growing pains.
“We’ve got a great offense, and I know a lot of guys in here are confident very about what we can do as an offense,” Bennett said. “We know we can move the ball. I don’t see a reason to be concerned. We’ve got a great line, guys are making plays, receivers, running backs, and in my opinion, the best quarterback in the league in Jay. We’ve just got to continue to stay focused. We know who we are.”
Whether the Bears can show that soon remains the most pressing question headed into the regular season.
Cutler spoke exhaustively Tuesday about the need to get the receivers, running backs and the offensive line in synch, the importance of eliminating miscues on “the little things” and his responsibility in comforting teammates in the huddle.
But how is Cutler grasping the offense, and is he adequately absorbing it?
“I’m good. I’ve met with Mike [Martz] a lot since the preseason started, just talking through plans,” he said. “We’re going to do more and more once the season gets closer. From week to week, I’m sure we’ll have lots of film sessions, and going over the game plan, I feel good. I feel good about this system. I understand it, and know what we’re trying to accomplish out there. I’m ready for the real games to start.”