Third and wrong; improvement important on key down

Thanks Sunday, hello Monday. The day is finally here, and once we all survive the grind of work we’ll be ready to settle in for one of sports best rivalries: the Chicago Bears vs. the Green Bay Packers.

You know all the story lines by now. Two 2-0 teams facing off. Jay Cutler and his rough 2009 season vs. Aaron Rodgers on his Pro Bowl 2009 season. One of the league favorites to play in this year’s Super Bowl vs. one of this year’s biggest surprises. Mike Martz, Clay Matthews, Jermichael Finley, Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers, Charles Woodson, yada yada yada.

I’ve yet to decide why I believe the Bears can win this match up, though I do believe they can. I can see the front page of the paper tomorrow, but can’t quite envision the game itself. Probably because I’m not 100% sold on the 2010 Chicago Bears, though a win tonight would go a long ways for me, and probably even longer for the Bears themselves.

I am also not sold on the Packers as the elite team everyone seems to want to call them. I’ve seen enough of them though to know that they are a very dangerous offense, loaded with big, smart and talented players. They also have some issues, notably the offensive line, something we are all hoping the Bears can exploit tonight. Something we all know needs to happen. I’ve also seen enough of them to know that their defense, even with all of it’s talent is vulnerable.

Again, you know the story lines and you know what it will take for the Bears to win. A steady dose of screen passes, a pass rush on Rodgers, the emergence of a running game.

I want to discuss something else, something that disturbs me about the Bears and something they will need to fix, by tonight, if they hope to be successful.

Third down.

Remember last season, when it seemed the Bears would allow third and long conversions one after another? In 2009 the Bears allowed teams to convert on 41% of their third down attempts. They were 27th in the NFL in that category. The Jets, who led the league, allowed a conversion rate of 31.5%. We know the old adage, it’s tough to win when you can’t get your defense off the field and the Bears found wins very difficult to come by.

Thus far, the Bears have improved a bit on that number, now down to 37% after their first two games. On offense however, the Bears have found themselves struggling on that same down. Last week in Dallas the Bears converted just once on 11 tries on third down and on the season they have only converted seven of 25 times on 3rd down. That puts them at the bottom of the league at 28%; among Washington, San Francisco, Arizona, Oakland and Detroit. Not exactly elite company.

Cutler’s numbers below, shed some light on issue.

1st down 22 28 321 78.6 11.46 89 4 0 2.0 154.0 3 3 1.0 5 0
2nd down 12 19 199 63.2 10.47 38 1 0 3.0 115.9 3 6 2.0 4 0
3rd down 10 17 129 58.8 7.59 59 0 1 0.0 58.2 3 14 4.7 11 0
4th down 0 0 0 0.0 0.00 0 0 0 0.0 0.0 1 2 2.0 2 0

Conversely, Aaron Rodgers is just 3/6 for 51-yards and both of his interceptions have come on third and long and his completion percentage drops from 84% on first down to 52% on third down. This is no statistical anomaly. The same thing goes for the best quarterbacks in the league. Drew Brees and Peyton Manning also have similar numbers on 3rd down when compared to first.

This is the down that the Bears must win, on both sides of the ball and it needs to start tonight. A couple of big plays saved them against the Cowboys, who converted six of 13 third downs. Greg Olsen spoke about it following the Dallas game,

“The big plays kind of make up for poor third-down conversions,” Olsen said. “Big plays mask that a little bit, but in the long run that will catch up to you so you have to do a good job staying on the field and converting third downs. … We have to work on that.”

Guys like Rodgers will pick you apart if you leave them with extra downs, and they have enough play makers to exploit a worn down defense if the Bears offense can’t stay on the field themselves. On both sides the Bears need to improve here, and no better time to start than Monday night.

Follow Rex on Twitter: @ChiCityRex

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