The loss to the Minnesota Vikings last week was a tough one for the Chicago Bears, as it created a steep uphill climb to the playoffs. There was plenty of blame to go around but two plays in the fourth quarter were as responsible as any others in the 23-20 defeat.
Clinging to a three-point lead, Chicago's offense took possession at midfield with less than five minutes to play. After a nine-yard run on 1st down, the Bears tried twice to run the ball up the gut for another first down, yet failed to get a yard on both 2nd and 3rd down.
Chicago was forced to punt, giving the Vikings the opportunity to drive the field and tie the game, of which they took full advantage. And we know what happened in overtime. The Bears may miss the playoffs for the fifth time the past six seasons due an inability to gain one yard.
The club has lost three of its last four games, dropping to 6-6 on the season. In those three losses, the Bears have converted just four of nine opportunities (44 percent) on 3rd and 3 or less – although three of those conversions came in the Week 12 loss to the Rams. Last week, they were 0-3 in 3rd and short.
"It's tough," said right guard Kyle Long. "As an offensive line, you're expected to make those blocks. Whatever the case may be, it hasn't gotten done. Obviously, within in our room we know what the deal is, what needs to happen."
Chicago's offensive line, while dramatically improved in pass protection this season, has consistently failed to get push up front in short-yardage situations. Whether it's Matt Forte or Micheal Bush, Bears running backs are getting hit at or behind the line of scrimmage, ultimately resulting in stalled drives and lost games.
As a result, the focus this week has been improving the front five's ability to move the pile at the point of attack.
"Well, all you can do is continue with your techniques, because when it comes down to it is just executing what you've done in practice in a game," said coordinator Aaron Kromer. "And sometimes you feel like you have to do extra and that puts you out of position to do your job. I think that's happened a couple times lately in our third-and-shorts.
"We've studied all our short yardage. We've watched other teams' short yardage. And when you have something that shows up like that, where you don't make a first down, you do everything you can to figure out why and to help the guys understand why. And it was evident. But all you can do is work on it and get better at it, and that's where we're at. We've missed a couple lately and we've got to get better at that and just trusting our techniques and trusting what we do is the right thing to do even in 3rd and short."
Looking at the tape, it hasn't been a collective failure on each play. Instead, most of the short-yardage miscues have been the result of all but one guy getting his man blocked.
"We're one block away in a lot of cases from the first down and maybe even more," said Long. "Sometimes a home run shot is one block away from happening. We've got to continue to focus on that."
With the problem diagnosed, the Bears this week have spent extra time and put additional emphasis on gaining one yard.
"You've got to be assignment right," said coach Marc Trestman. "Our mistakes have not been a question of effort or being outmanned or anything like that. Ours have been simply the three or four times we haven't gotten it done, whether it's goal line or short yardage, we've just got to do a better job in making sure we're blocking the right guys. We're going to get out-physicalled at times – teams do. But we feel it's more just making sure that assignment-wise, we're sharp.
"All five guys plus our tight ends plus our backs all have to be doing the right thing, and we haven't gotten it done. It's difficult to make a yard in this league like that. Certainly, with recent events, we have to do a better job."
With execution the problem in short yardage, the Bears don't have any plans to change up the playbook. Instead, they'll continue to calling the same plays, hoping the blockers up front can get the job done.
"We've got to run the same plays. We've got to run the same schemes," Kromer said. "We just have to do it better."
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.