Matt Trowbridge: Bears coaches need to be as aggressive as Orton

Matt Trowbridge

Kyle Orton is no Shane Matthews.

Or Dave Krieg or Brian Griese or Steve Walsh or Craig Krenzel or any one of a dozen dink-and-dunk quarterbacks the Bears have had over the years.

Orton proved that Sunday.

Remember when Matthews threw two touchdown passes in the final 28 seconds to rally Chicago to a 27-21 overtime win over Cleveland seven years ago? Well, that defined old Chicago. The Bears had 24 seconds and one timeout after recovering an onside kickoff at Cleveland’s 47 — yet got only one crack at the end zone. Matthews completed dinky passes of 4 and 9 yards before throwing a successful Hail Mary.

The Bears didn’t need a miracle this time, because Orton didn’t play for one. When the Bears reached the Atlanta 17 with 28 seconds left, Orton immediately threw into the end zone. It failed once. It failed twice. The third time gave the Bears the lead with 11 seconds left.

Yes, the Bears still managed to blow it, but Orton showed Chicago’s offense has now caught up to its defense.

The reason is Orton. It’s not just his skills. It’s how he uses them. Orton goes for it.

The 5-yard pass on third-and-7 is a thing of the past. The Bears threw about five of those a game when John Shoop was their offensive coordinator. Orton has thrown three in six games.

And one of those shouldn’t count. Twice against the Bucs, Orton completed third-down passes that weren’t long enough for a first down: a 6-yarder to Matt Forte on third-and-7 and a 4-yarder to Desmond Clark on third-and-7. His only other third-down completion of the season that didn’t gain a first down was a 7-yarder to Devin Hester on third-and-8 against Atlanta. And that one might have been a touchdown if Hester hadn’t slipped. Plus, Chicago went for it on fourth down and picked it up.

Orton’s unwillingness to dump it off and settle for a punt has drastically improved the Bears’ third-down offense. The Bears have converted 15 of 45 third-down pass plays of 5 yards or more this year, including 4 of 9 against the Eagles, 4 of 10 against the Falcons and 2 of 5 vs. the Colts. The Bears gained a first down on only 16 of the last 105 such plays with Rex Grossman.

The Bears now rank sixth in the NFL on third-down percentage (45.7). That’s a huge climb. Even in their Super Bowl year, the Bears ranked 22nd on third down. They ranked 29th last year. And 32nd (dead last) and 31st in 2004 and ’05.

Now if only the rest of the Bears would show as much courage as Orton. The Bears keep getting burned whenever they try to play it safe. Against the Falcons, for instance:

A squib kick after Orton’s 17-yard TD pass to Rashied Davis gave Atlanta enough time to run one play and kick a field goal. The Bears should have known this was dangerous. Davis’ 17-yard pass — which actually covered 25 yards because he was 8 yards deep in the end zone — took six seconds. So Atlanta throwing a 26-yard pass in five seconds was certainly possible.

Before their final two drives — which led to half their points — the Bears ran eight times for 21 yards on first down and completed 6 of 8 passes for 67 yards on first down. If you are gaining three times as much yardage passing, why not pass more? Orton has passed for 527 yards on 66 first-down plays the last five weeks (8.0 average) while the Bears have run for at least 4 yards — their minimum goal — on only 14 of 69 running tries (20 percent).

The conservative thing to do is run up the middle near the goal line. Jason McKie and Matt Forte failed on third-and-goal and fourth-and-goal from the 1. Just as Philadelphia had failed with the same strategy three times in a row in a Bears’ win.

The risky time to run is on third-and-3 or more. Forte gained 20 and 10 yards on two such runs Sunday. He had 18 carries for 46 yards (2.6 average) the rest of the game. He’s down to 3.6 on the season. That’s lower than Cedric Benson’s career average (3.8).

Forte is better than Benson. Much better. But he needs a chance. He won’t get it unless Chicago coaches show as much nerve as their surprising quarterback.

Matt Trowbridge can be reached at (815) 987-1383