Chicago Bears hope to shake third-down futility

Jan. 21, 2011
Mike and Pete preview the NFC championship game
Mike and Pete preview the NFC championship game: Mike Vandermause and Pete Dougherty go over some of the key matchups for Sunday's NFC championship game between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.
Green Bay Packers linebacker Erik Walden sacks Chicago Bears' Jay Cutler on a third-down play Jan. 2 at Lambeau Field. / File/Gannett Wisconsin Media

Third rate

Teams that have gone five or more years since the last season in which they converted at least 40 percent of their third downs.

Years Team
15: Bears
8: Bills
8: Raiders
7: Seahawks
7: 49ers
6: Rams
5: Panthers


Defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his Green Bay Packers’ defense might have an unusual ally when it comes to getting off the field during Sunday’s NFC championship game in Chicago: the Bears’ offense.

Soldier Field will be home to offenses of differing strengths in the second postseason meeting between two of the NFL’s oldest franchises. One is skilled at striking fear into opponents. The other is perfectly capable of striking out on third down.

The Bears are in the playoffs for the third time under coach Lovie Smith. And as was the case in 2005 and 2006, Chicago again owns the poorest third-down conversion rate among the teams that qualified for the postseason.

The Bears converted 64 of 195 third-down opportunities (32.8 percent) during the regular season to rank 27th. Their 64 successes were fewer than all but the Cardinals (58) and Redskins (61).

Among those that made the playoffs, only the Seahawks (35.5 percent) and Chiefs (36.7) were within sniffing distance of the Bears.

Generally speaking, 40 percent is the divide between teams that do a decent job of converting third downs and those that don’t. Since 2004, the year Smith arrived in Chicago, that benchmark has been hit or exceeded 90 times in the NFL.

Not by the Bears. Chicago last reached that level in 1995 after which 15 sub-40 seasons have followed.

That dry spell is by far the longest of any team today. Even the Lions, who had been dormant for just as long, surpassed 40 percent this season.

Chicago’s third-down story in 2010 can be broken into three chapters: dismal, very good and business as usual.

In seven games before the bye, the Bears were on pace to set a record for futility. Had they maintained their 17.9 percent success rate, they were liable to set the game of football back decades.

In going 0-for-13 against the Giants and 0-for-12 against the Seahawks, Chicago gained minus-32 and minus-4 yards, respectively, on third down. They earned positive yardage on just four of 25 plays.

The bye week did wonders for Jay Cutler, who missed a game-and-a-half with a concussion, and the offense. After the break, Chicago converted 58.3, 57.9 and 55.6 percent of its third downs in consecutive games against the Bills, Vikings and Dolphins.

Normalcy returned by late November. Though they did venture above 50 percent one more time (55.6 percent at Detroit), the Bears were back to their sub-40 routine in five of their last six games.

A closer look at Chicago’s track record on third down is revealing. The team fared poorly running the ball and in protecting the quarterback.

The Bears attempted to run for first downs 38 times and gained 141 yards for a 3.7 average per attempt. They moved the chains 15 times.

But Cutler accounted for more than half (eight) of those first downs. Without him, Chicago gained just 20 yards on 26 third-down runs with a long of four yards.

Gale Sayers at age 67 might have been more effective, bad knees and all.

Chicago didn’t do a good job keeping its quarterbacks upright either. The most-sacked team in the league saw 30 of its 56 sacks allowed come on third down.

Getting planted on his backside so often might be one reason why Cutler’s passer rating on third down (75.1) is more than 10 points lower than his overall rating of 86.3.

Green Bay helped in this regard. In two meetings, the Packers sacked Cutler five times.

As for running against their rival, Chicago all but abandoned that idea. In 25 third-down plays, the Bears ran just three times with Cutler securing two first downs, and running back Matt Forte going nowhere on the play preceding Robbie Gould’s game-winning field goal in Week 3.

Not since Oct. 12, 1997, has Chicago converted at least 50 percent of their third downs against Green Bay. Should that streak end Sunday, the Bears might be hoisting the Halas Trophy come sundown at Soldier Field.

Postseason series

♦ Overall: Chicago leads 1-0.

♦ At Soldier Field: First meeting.

Starting quarterbacks

♦ Packers: Aaron Rodgers (2-1 overall; 0-0 vs. Chicago).

♦ Bears: Jay Cutler (1-0; 0-0 vs. Green Bay).

Once a Bear, now a Packer

There are no former Bears on the Packers’ roster.

Once a Packer, now a Bear

There are no former Packers on the Bears’ roster.

Eric Goska is a Green Bay Press-Gazette correspondent, a Packers historian and the author of “Green Bay Packers: A Measure of Greatness,” a statistical history of the Packers. E-mail him at

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