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Things of that nature: The Bears' aversion to downfield throws

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This season, the Chicago Bears offense has almost systematically avoided pushing the ball downfield. Will that trend continue with Jimmy Clausen under center? I'm banking this week's article on it!

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

So... Jimmy Clausen? The Chicago Bears certainly have a way of ruining "Things of that nature," don't they? First Brian de la Puente Week, and now THIS. Football is simultaneously dumb and hilarious.

I'll be honest: I don't have any substantive critiques to make about Clausen as a quarterback. I guess his career arc can do that better than I can. Still, I don't imagine Marc Trestman is going to significantly alter the Bears' offensive game plan in the span of a few days, so film from Week 13 should still help inform our expectations for Sunday's game.

The Bears tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to rely almost exclusively on short passes and yards after the catch against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving -- not that this is entirely different from what the Bears have done all season, mind you. For a team with big-play wide receivers who can do things like this, the Bears seem far too comfortable throwing bubble screens and quick stop routes. Matt Forte, Martellus Bennett and Alshon Jeffery rank first, 13th and 17th in yards after the catch this season, respectively. (Golden Tate is third, and first among wide receivers.) Jeffery has roughly the same percentage of his total yards come after the catch as Randall Cobb, which is crazy to me, because they're such different players. Cobb is a shifty open-field runner who has performed as an NFL return man. Jeffery is not -- he's at his best going over defenders, not around them.

Even compared with a seemingly conservative Lions offense, the difference is noticeable -- Jay Cutler is completing almost five percent more of his passes than Matthew Stafford this season and is still averaging 0.3 fewer yards per attempt. So, you get the point.

Sure enough, that trend popped up on Thanksgiving, when only 14 of Jay Cutler's first 40 pass attempts (i.e., while the game was still within two scores) traveled farther than 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. Almost every time the Bears saw soft coverage from one of the Lions' cornerbacks, they ran quick underneath routes. They seemed particularly eager to test the tackling abilities of Darius Slay:

Bubble 1

Soft coverage from Slay? How about a bubble screen to Jeffery?

Bubble 2

Slay breaks well on the play for a gain of 2 yards.

More soft coverage? How about another bubble screen to Marshall?

Bubble 3

Slay makes a play on this one, as well, avoiding his block and bringing down Marshall for a gain of 1 yard.

Really, these are just portraits from a very solid game by Slay. He missed a couple tackles that led to first downs, but the damage on those plays was ultimately minimal. And, when the Bears tried to test Slay in the second half with a double-move down the sideline by Jeffery, he was sticky in coverage and batted the ball away. Wag that finger, son.

Obviously, this offensive strategy wasn't entirely useless. The Bears came out of the gate with a 55-yard touchdown drive relying entirely on such short passes. But, against even a decent tackling defense (and with a putrid defense of its own), that's not a sustainable practice. The strategy banks on players in the back seven consistently missing tackles and the ball carriers breaking for chunks of yardage. Even when the Lions did miss tackles, the Bears' biggest gains were often no more than 10 to 12 yards. A defensive stop on one of these plays -- which occurred far more frequently -- ends with a minimal gain, which backs up the offense and stalls drives. The entire offensive system requires a level of precision that few can maintain, and the Bears do not seem to be among those few. However, the Bears' strategy did allow Teryl Austin to throw a little shade:

"I think the Patriots obviously, they (New England) did a heck of a job and they didn't [run the ball] until they needed to at the end. Last week, it looked like they (Chicago) tried to simulate or emulate what they did and I don't think that's going to happen ... Everybody doesn't have Tom Brady at quarterback, and so you have to have some type of balance within your offense."

I'm going to miss Austin when he's gone.

Of course, not all the Bears' short passes tested the tackling skills of the Lions' cornerbacks. The Bears had more success, relatively speaking, in creating matchups that put Bennett against weaker links in the Lions defense, which is another way of saying "linebackers not named DeAndre Levy." The Bears employed a series of TE screens and shallow crossing routes that either put Bennett in space against Tahir Whitehead and Ashlee Palmer or drew Levy away from his route.

TE Screen 1

This is an example of the former. The Lions are sitting in zone coverage, and Bennett blocks Jason Jones as Marshall goes deep down the seam, with Palmer on his hip. Once Palmer gets deep enough running with Marshall, Bennett leaks out into the flats.

TE Screen 2

Even with this much space, the play results in no more than 5 or 6 yards if Palmer makes the tackle in the flats. But, he doesn't, so the play goes for a first down instead.

Drag 1

Here the Lions run man coverage with the three defenders at the top of the image. With all receivers clearing out of the flats on their side, Bennett drags late across the formation for an easy pickup.

Drag 2

These are really isolated instances, though. We all watched the game, so we know how the Lions' defense held up against the barrage of underneath routes. With Clausen under center, I can't imagine the Bears are suddenly going to take the governor off and let it rip. Stranger things have happened, I suppose.

Like Jason Jones, I can taste the playoffs, and I mean to experience it live. If any of you Lions fans are going to be in Chicago this Sunday, feel free to note it in the comments. My brother and I (as well as a decent-sized crew) will be in attendance. The size of a tailgate is directly proportionate to its enjoyment. Let's do this thing, Lions.