Bears still searching for offensive answers

TEMPE, Ariz. – When the Chicago Bears acquired receiver Brandon Marshall from Miami in the offseason, quarterback Jay Cutler rejoiced in a receiving corps that he finally believed was ready to make a major impact on the offense.

It hasn’t worked out that way in Chicago this year. Key injuries along the offensive line, to running backs Matt Forte and Michael Bush, to receivers Alshon Jeffery, Devin Hester and Earl Bennett, and to Cutler himself, have made continuity difficult.

In the broader view, so has the fact that Cutler has played for three different offensive coordinators (Ron Turner, Mike Martz and Mike Tice) in his four seasons in Chicago.

“You look around the league and you look at successful quarterbacks. Most of them have a lot of consistency within the offense and growth from year to year,” Cutler said Wednesday in a conference call with Phoenix area media. “That’s kind of how it goes. When you’re always starting back at square one in the offseason and trying to catch up and learn it by training camp and you’re still installing in Week 1, it’s a little difficult.”

When the Bears began the season 7-1, it looked like the offensive problems might finally be over, thanks in large part to a monster season from Marshall, who is second in the NFL in receiving yards at 1,398 yards and tied for second with 10 TDs.

But Cutler suffered a concussion in a 13-6, Week-9 loss to the Texans, and the Bears were pummeled 32-7 in San Francisco the following week with Jason Campbell starting for Cutler. Since then, the club’s mojo has disappeared and it has lost five of its last six games, including three straight one-score games to Seattle (overtime), Minnesota and Green Bay.

Despite the preseason hopes, Chicago’s offense is ranked 29th in the league at 305.9 yards per game, and the passing offense is ranked 28th at 186.4 yards. Those storylines should sound familiar to Cardinals fans, who have watched a rash of injuries and dreadful offense derail a 4-0 start and lead to questions about coach Ken Whisenhunt’s future.

Bears coach Lovie Smith is facing the same sort of scrutiny in Chicago. If the club doesn’t make the playoffs, or even if it does and falls in the first round as a No. 6 seed, there is talk Smith could be ousted and Cutler could be playing for his fourth OC in five years.

Smith has faced this sort of speculation before. After the Bears went to the Super Bowl in 2006, the team failed to make the playoffs the following three seasons, and there were calls for Smith’s head. The Bears responded with an 11-5 record and an NFC Championship game berth in 2010 but missed the playoffs last season with an 8-8 record that was largely the product of a Cutler injury after the team started 7-3.

But with just three playoff berths in eight seasons as coach – in a city of great expectations – speculation about Smith is warranted.

“I coach the same way that I’ve coached every day that I’ve been a head coach here, and that’s not going to change,” Smith said Wednesday. “I’ve been the head coach here for a long time for a reason. Again, I plan on being the coach here for a long time.”

MUTED RETURNS

Sunday’s game will boast the only two active NFL players in history who have taken four punts back for TDs in a single season – the Cardinals’ Patrick Peterson (2011) and the Bears’ Devin Hester (2007).

Unfortunately for both, neither has had much success this year. Neither has a TD or is among the leaders in average yards per return. Hester ranks 15th at 9.0 per return; Peterson is 20th at 8.6.

Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt thinks those numbers partially reflect the respect both players are given.

“You’ve seen it more so this year with teams punting away from Patrick, so I know they have the same type of respect for him,” Whisenhunt said. “There’s a good chance that one of those types of plays can make a difference in this game.”

PEANUT THE STRIPPER

Cornerback Charles Tillman’s nickname in Chicago is Peanut, but Smith is unwilling to discuss the origin of that that nickname.

“You are asking some personal things,” Smith said, laughing. “I call him Charles most of the time. We have a couple other names, The Beef … Genghis, but it’s fitting.”

What Smith will discuss is Tillman’s uncanny ability to strip opposing ball carriers of the ball – a talent at which Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton rates Tillman the best in the league.

“I wish I could tell you what he does, but I think when you have a special talent like that, that’s why it’s special,” Smith said. “First, there has to be an emphasis on it, and there’s an emphasis on it from our coaches here, and not just with Charles. We have as many takeaways as any team in the league since 2004.”

Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson spent a lot of time with Tillman at last year’s Pro Bowl, yet he also has no idea how Tillman has managed to lead the league with an astounding 10 forced fumbles this season and finish among the top six in that category three of the past four seasons.

“I believe it’s a gift because I try to strip the ball away each and every time, but it never comes out for me,” Peterson said. “It’s a God-given gift that those guys have to get the ball out when they want.”

INJURY UPDATE


For the Cardinals:
WR Early Doucet (concussion), S Rashad Johnson (hamstring) and S James Sanders (calf) did not practice.

DE Calais Campbell (calf), G Mike Gibson (calf), LB Quentin Groves (foot), TE Rob Housler (knee), FB Anthony Sherman (knee), OT Nate Potter (knee), NT Dan Williams (hamstring), CB Greg Toler (hamstring) and DE Ronald Talley (ankle) were limited.

LS Mike Leach (back/shoulder) practiced fully.

For the Bears:
LB Brian Urlacher (hamstring) and OT Jonathan Scott (hamstring) did not practice.

WR Earl Bennett (concussion), CB Tim Jennings (shoulder), DE Shea McClellin (knee) DT Henry Melton (chest) and LB Geno Hayes (knee) were limited.

Jennings leads the NFL in interceptions with eight, but has missed the past two weeks.

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