CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 16: Running back Matt Forte #22 of the Chicago Bears runs the ball in the first half against the Seattle Seahawks in the 2011 NFC divisional playoff game at Soldier Field on January 16, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Matt Forte
Ready for a bizarre assessment of the Bears 2010 season? Jay Cutler was a much better back than Matt Forte in third-down situations.
Jay Cutler was the best rushing quarterback in the league in third-down situations in 2010. Laugh if you'd like, but it's true. Cutler rushed for 121 yards in 12 carries on third-down and was successful 75 percent of the time. Seriously, stop laughing. Cutler is surprisingly mobile, and when plays would break down a large defensive lineman was bearing down, Cutler could still pull a first-down out.
But that brings to light some problems that must be addressed on offense if the Bears expect to have a successful season in 2011.
For one, it illustrates just how bad the offensive line is. Cutler was already the most-sacked man in the NFL in 2010, but it could have been much worse if he wasn't the kind of player who could scramble for a first down, even with Ndamukong Suh bearing down.
It's also not good for his long term health. A quarterback who runs for a first-down forfeits some of the special protections given to QBs the second he leaves the pocket. The Bears have committed to Cutler for the future. It's not smart for the team to rely on him both as a consistent third-down rushing option and as the man who will lead the team to the Super Bowl.
Secondly, it points out a glaring weakness in Matt Forte's game. The Bears starting running back has proven himself as a versatile threat on offense who can run and catch, but short-yardage, run-or-die scenarios are a problem.
In seven third-and-1 situations, he converted once, making him the worst third-down back in the league. These stats don't take into account his conversions as a receiver, but the problem can't be ignored: Six out of seven times, Forte didn't come through for a first down.
After that horrible 2-22 stretch on third down conversions, the Bears improved their ways. Their efficiency crept upward through the end of the regular season and in the playoffs. Unfortunately, this momentum has been stopped by the lockout, and the lack of players and coaches working together on third-down situations.
But once the season does start, improving how third downs are handled has to be at the top of Mike Martz's to-do list. Otherwise, we'll have another bizarro season with the QB and RB switching jobs on third-down.