On a chilly Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field, the Bears took the ball inside the Denver 20-yard line on four different occasions. That in itself could be considered a bit of an accomplishment, given that the Broncos entered Week 11 allowing the fewest yards per game and yards per play in the NFL. However, there are no points awarded for just driving the ball inside the 20, and the lack of scoring points was the root of Chicago's overall problem in Sunday's 17-15 loss.
Only one of the four trips inside the Broncos' red zone did the Bears come away with a touchdown - Jeremy Langford's 2-yard run with 24 seconds left. Two of the other trips ended with Robbie Gould field goals, and the fourth ended with no points at all, after the Bears turned it over on downs early in the fourth quarter.
The failure to execute inside the opposing 20 was a major reason Chicago fell to 4-6 on the year. The Bears have not been strong in the red zone all season, and those issues boiled over in the loss to the Broncos.
|Tight end Martellus Bennett nearly pulls in a touchdown reception against the Broncos.|
"[Denver] is just a good team, and we beat ourselves," left guard Matt Slauson said of the red-zone woes. "We aren't making any excuses. We'd love to have everybody healthy and everybody playing, but at the same time, it's part of our job to have next guy up, and I think we've been doing a good job of that all year. But we just got to execute a little more, execute a little harder, and that means finish plays and finishing drives."
With injuries sidelining three of the team's top skill-position players - running back Kyle Long and wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Eddie Royal - quarterback Jay Cutler had to look for new targets near the goal line. On Chicago's first trip inside the Denver 20 midway through the second quarter, the Bears marched 50 yards on seven plays. Most of that came through a 38-yard pass from Cutler to wide receiver Josh Bellamy. However the drive eventually stalled, and on third-and-5 from the Denver 19, Cutler's short throw to Zach Miller went wide, leading to a Gould field goal.
In the third quarter, the Bears offense had another opportunity to get across the goal line. Big plays and some costly Denver penalties gave Chicago a first down from the Broncos' 21-yard line. Langford ran for a couple, moving the ball up to the 19-yard line. But then Cutler couldn't find a target, missing short to Langford on second down and deep to Marquess Wilson on third down. That led to yet another Gould kick.
While also giving credit to the job their opponent did in stopping them, several Bears players stated it was their own failure to execute properly that led to the stalled drives inside the red zone.
"That's us, on the offense," Langford said. "We did a great job moving the ball down there multiple times, but we have to go back and look at the film to see what we can do better. Driving the ball - we did a great job of doing that. But as a total offense, we need to fix those mistakes."
Red-zone offense has been a problem for the Bears all season long. The team has scored only 14 touchdowns on 34 trips inside their opponents' 20-yard line, a 38.2 percentage that ranks among the worst in the NFL. Gould has been accurate making up for the errors, making 13 of his 14 field goals this season from 39 yards and in. But the difference between touchdowns and field goals has been costly.
In the fourth quarter, that difference in points really added up. Trailing by eight, the Bears were looking to kick-start their offense. Cutler's legs and arm took the team from the Chicago 20-yard line to the Denver 7 in just two plays. Then a completion to Langford gave the Bears second-and-goal from Denver 4-yard line. On second down, Cutler's pass to Martellus Bennett was knocked away by a defender, followed by an errant throw to Wilson.
The two incompletions set up a fourth-and-goal from the Denver 4 with 10 minutes to go, a chance head coach John Fox was willing to take. He'd say later he was unsure if the Bears offense would have a better chance to score a touchdown than that one, and he was comfortable with his quarterback making a play. But for the third straight down, Cutler's pass fell incomplete, and the Broncos got the ball back, their eight-point lead still intact.
Chicago would return to the red zone later, and Langford finally reached pay dirt in the final seconds. A failed two-point conversion proved to be the difference, but the Bears may have never been in that opportunity if their first three red-zone chances had resulted in more than six total points.
"It's not deflating; we just need to do better," Cutler said after the loss, when asked about the team's red-zone issues. "We have to figure out ways. During the week we have to work on it more, guys have to study more. I have to execute better and be more accurate. It's a challenge for all of us."
Fixing the challenge would be the difference between three and seven points, and maybe down the road, the difference between a close loss and an important victory.