Bears stumbling on their way downfield

Jay Cutler has been throwing deep early and often this season, with disappointing results. Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire

The Chicago Bears have fallen short in fielding the kind of explosive offense they envisioned after making receiver Brandon Marshall the centerpiece of an offseason overhaul. Trust me, however. It hasn't been for lack of trying.

The Bears have pushed the ball downfield more than most NFL teams through three weeks, but their efficiency on such passes -- judged as balls that travel in the air more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage -- is among the league's worst. As they prepare to face the Dallas Cowboys' top ranked-defense on ESPN's "Monday Night Football," the question is whether the Bears will pull back or keep pushing.

"It's the first year in this offense," Cutler told reporters this week. "It's going to take time. Very few teams go out there in the first year of an offense with a new offensive coordinator, a new system, and put up 30-40 points per game. It's a whole season, and you've got to build each and every week and get better."

The Bears opened the season with a 41-point showing against the Indianapolis Colts but have managed a total of 33 points in their two games since. Cutler's average pass has traveled 9.8 yards past the line of scrimmage, the fourth-highest in the league according to ESPN Stats & Information, and overall he is averaging a pass of 10-plus yards once every 2.66 attempts. That figure ranks eighth in the league.

But as the first chart shows, Cutler ranks at or near the bottom of quarterback performance on such throws, completing only 40 percent of them. He has been especially ineffective with three or more receivers on the field, completing a little more than half of his throws from that formation and throwing five of his seven interceptions, as the second chart shows.

Cutler has always been known as a gunslinger, but never in his career has he pushed the ball downfield the way he has so far this season. He averaged a career-high 11.5 air yards per pass in the Week 2 loss to the Green Bay Packers, and 11.1 air yards against the Colts, the third-highest total of his career.

Here were Cutler's averages for air yards in each of his previous three seasons with the Bears:

  • 2009: 7.5

  • 2010: 7.4

  • 2011: 8.7

OK, enough with the numbers. What does this all mean?

Like everyone else, Cutler and the Bears are eager to produce the kind of offense they should be capable of playing, based on the skill players on their roster. Not only does Marshall provide a legitimate threat, rookie Alshon Jeffery has also proved dangerous running down the middle of the field. Cutler, meanwhile, has been given new freedom to change plays to best capitalize on defensive fronts.

The Bears, however, have struggled to protect Cutler, most notably against the Packers. More significant, I think, has been an underwhelming average of 3.32 yards per first-down play. That performance can be traced to the passing game as well. With so many low-percentage throws, it's not surprising that Cutler's first-down completion percentage of 47.1 percent ranks 30th in the NFL. That only sets up the Bears for more difficult, and lower-percentage, throws on second and third down.

The Bears are expected to get tailback Matt Forte back for the Cowboys game. That gives them the 1-2 punch with Forte and Michael Bush they haven't had for most of the last six quarters. Forte's return will put the Bears back to full strength, but it might take more time than everyone hoped to get them to peak efficiency.

(All statistics from ESPN Stats & Information, unless otherwise noted.)