When the Seattle Seahawks beat the Chicago Bears 23-20 in Week 6, the primary issues for a Chicago team less impressive than its 4-2 record began with a serious inability to protect quarterback Jay Cutler that went all the way back to the preseason, when offensive coordinator Mike Martz and offensive line coach Mike Tice (remember him?) decided to use limited protection calls in the offseason. This kept an already unimpressive Bears offensive line even more undermanned.
Cutler was sacked 28 times in Weeks 1-9, and that took a major hit on his ability to be efficient in Martzs aerial system. In that time frame, the Bears ranked 30th in Football Outsiders cumulative efficiency metrics. Cutler threw just nine touchdowns to seven interceptions, and the team finished the seasons first half with a 5-3 record.
In the seasons second half (through Week 16), Cutler suffered just 18 sacks, threw 14 touchdowns to seven picks, and the Bears list just one more game in that time frame. The teams FO passing metrics bounced up from 30th to eighth, and for good measure, the rushing efficiency metrics shot up from 27th to 14th.
The Seahawks found a lot to be encouraged about in that first matchup. Marshawn Lynch looked solid enough in his Seattle debut, and Justin Forsett gained 67 yards on just 10 carries. Matt Hasselbeck wasnt a touchdown machine he threw for just one score but he was efficient enough against Chicagos tough defense.
An offensive line still very much under construction kept Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije and the rest of the Chicago front seven from sacking Hasselbeck, and the Bears didnt pick up a single turnover. Pete Carroll said at the time that it was a win the Seahawks could build on, and they have done so despite rough waters at times.
Green Bays Sunday night wild-card win over the Philadelphia Eagles has the Seahawks traveling back to Soldier Field for the rematch, but Carroll had best make his team aware the offensive weaklings they faced last time are but a memory.
To what can we attribute this sea change in production? Four things come to mind after comprehensive film study.
1. Effective use of pre-snap motion.
In the second half of the season, the Bears have used pre-snap motion as often and as effectively as any team in the league. On their first play from scrimmage against the New York Jets in Week 16, the first formation was an empty backfield before running back Matt Forte and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna motioned into the backfield, changing the Jets interior defensive structure and loosening up the run defense enough for Forte to gain four yards.
On the next play, Devin Hesters motion from right to left forced the defensive backfield to shift that way, which left Forte with an opening outside for an additional five yards on the ground.
When extra blocking was needed, Manumaleuna might motion from inline to an I-formation or H-back look in order to give second-level protection and allow Cutler to move and roll out in the pocket, and this was a major improvement Cutler could set his feet and throw comfortably. For the first time in his career as a Chicago Bear, he was afforded the luxury of consistent mechanics.
2. Increased protection concepts.
Motion is just one way in which the Bears have altered and improved their protections. At a certain point, Martz finally realized that no five-wide receiver set was going to mean a thing against any defense if his quarterback was seeing the world through the earhole of his helmet. To that end, Martz has drawn up more plays in which Cutler sees a back (or other blocker) on either side of him in shotgun formations, and other creative blocking schemes have gained traction.
It was a big game for the whole team, Cutler said after a late-season win over the Vikings. . Were starting to be more dangerous with our ability to run, with the offensive line really coming together and being able to pass protect. Were creating packages for different guys. Im just trying to use everyones talents as best as possible.
3. Not giving up on the run
When Martzs offense was at its best in St. Louis, the fulcrum of the Greatest Show on Turf was running back Marshall Faulk, who took his own peerless versatility to become one of the most dangerous offensive threats of his era. No offense can survive without a consistent running game, and Forte has become more and more a part of the plan again. Unbelievably, the Bears were the only team to run the ball more than they passed it in the span of an eight-game stretch that ended in Week 16.
“It’s something that we made a qualified decision now to do because it was the best way for us to win,” Martz said in late December of his renewed efforts to keep a solid ground game going. “You look at our defense and we’ve been lights out. Special teams, off the charts. Our part was to hang on to that ball, get points and protect the lead, and get better as we grow. And we’ve been able to do that. Matt right now is just outrageous (in) the way he’s playing.”
4. Using spread concepts to set up the rushing attack
Part of that off-the-charts ability from Forte is the way in which Martz sets spread offense concepts wider line splits, multiple receivers, and obvious passing looks to take defenses beyond the breaking point and prevent them from loading up on the run at any time. For the first time since his days in St. Louis, Martz has found the perfect balance between explosiveness and consistency between risk and reward.
Well go into other aspects of the game through the week, but this is a very good place to start. Because of the Bears newfound balance, they offer a portable and consistent offensive concept that, combined with excellent special teams and defense, will allow them to pose a very serious threat to any team they face in the postseason.