(MCT) — CHICAGO — Mike Tice joked that he approached Jay Cutler in the cafeteria at Halas Hall on Wednesday to sit down to talk with him, and the quarterback didn’t walk off.
Things are going well when Tice can make comedy out of past sideline rifts. That is all possible for a 5-1 team that has the second-best record in the NFC as it prepares for a meeting with the struggling Panthers (1-5) on Sunday at Soldier Field.
The quarterback is happy.
The play caller is jolly.
The whole building has positive energy in the midst of a four-game winning streak.
But after shredding the Jaguars for 501 yards before their off week, the Bears sputtered somewhat Monday night in their 13-7 home victory against the Lions. They scored a touchdown on the opening drive for the first time in 13 games, then scuffled the rest of the way.
“It’s not always pretty,” Tice said. “We’re right now not the prettiest offense in the world but . . . I was able to show a pretty lengthy tape today to the offense of guys finishing in the pocket with pass protection, receivers finishing downfield.
“That’s the tone and that’s the way we want to play. The last two weeks, (in) the three years I’ve been here, is the most physical the offense has been. I didn’t say it was the best but the most physical.”
Tice points to a familiar problem — production on first down. Remarkably, the Bears are 13th in the league converting third downs at a 41.4 percent rate despite struggling on first down. They rank 32nd in yards gained on first down, averaging only 4.11 yards overall and a meager 2.84 on runs.
That means the offense rarely has had advantageous down-and-distance situations, thus creating a greater challenge for itself.
The running game has improved in the last two games as Matt Forte has rushed for 203 yards on 44 carries in victories over the Jaguars and Lions. But a total of 385 yards rushing in the two games looks a lot different if you subtract Armando Allen’s 46-yard touchdown in garbage time against the Jaguars and Cutler’s 56 yards on scrambles.
Nevertheless, there has been improvement and there is a feel for the ground game for a line that still is settling in with left guard Chilo Rachal having made only four starts.
“We have to do a little bit better job than we did (Monday),” center Roberto Garza said. “We left a lot of plays on the field technique-wise. (But) we’re coming along.”
The red-zone production also is a concern. The Bears rank 25th with seven touchdowns in 16 trips. They failed in three cracks from the Lions 3-yard line at the start of the third quarter when a touchdown would have opened up a 17-0 lead. Cutler missed on two passes to Brandon Marshall and one to Earl Bennett.
The absence of wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who is sidelined with a broken right hand, affects the passing game near the goal line. Jeffery was selected specifically to help there, and Tice had a package involving him and Marshall in the low red zone (inside the 10) that is on hold.
The Bears also need to run the ball more effectively in the red zone, and that means finding productive uses for Forte and Michael Bush.
But things are turning for the offense, and Cutler even noticed a difference after Ndamukong Suh clocked him and he returned to the game. The crowd roared.
“That was good to hear,” Cutler said. “It hasn’t always been great around here. But (the fans) coming around slowly but surely. It was a nice ovation when I came back out, so that was fun.
“Winning helps too. Any time you win, that’s going to be a cure-all.”