Bears seek fast start

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler scrambles during the fourth quarter against the St. Louis Rams on Sept. 23 at Soldier Field. The Bears face the Dallas Cowboys at 7:30 p.m. today.
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler scrambles during the fourth quarter against the St. Louis Rams on Sept. 23 at Soldier Field. The Bears face the Dallas Cowboys at 7:30 p.m. today.

Michael Bush speaks like he runs: Straight to the point.

The Bears’ running back didn’t dance around the offense’s recent struggles heading into today’s game against the Dallas Cowboys. Maybe a good defense could bail out a sloppy offense at Soldier Field, but to expect the same on the road would be foolish.

“If you come out slow,” Bush said, “it’s going to be a long game.”

Regardless, Bears fans could be in for a late night.

The Bears (2-1) will play the first of three Monday night games this season when they visit the Cowboys (2-1) in an important conference matchup. Both teams have featured top-10 defenses and inconsistent offenses through the season’s three weeks, and both sides expect to reach the playoffs come January.

Bears coach Lovie Smith embraced a high-stakes contest on the national stage at Cowboys Stadium, a gaudy, $1 billion facility that holds more than 85,000 fans. The Bears upset the Cowboys in Dallas two seasons ago and eventually advanced to the NFC Championship Game.

“Nothing like playing the Cowboys, and nothing like playing a team on their home turf,” Smith said before the Bears departed for Dallas. “If you’re a legitimate football team, you have to be able to go on somebody’s home turf and beat them.”

To beat the Cowboys, the Bears cannot afford to play from behind.

A slow start cost the Bears in an embarrassing loss to the Green Bay Packers in Week 2 at Lambeau Field. The Bears punted on their first four possessions and Jay Cutler threw an interception on the fifth series to help create a 13-0 halftime deficit.

Forced to play catch-up, Cutler unraveled with three second-half interceptions.

Comebacks are possible every week in the NFL, but the Bears prefer to avoid the drama. Since Smith took over as head coach in 2004, the Bears are 52-10 when they lead at halftime, 13-42 when they trail at halftime, and 8-6 when tied at halftime.

One of the keys to a successful first half is having success on first down.

The Bears have averaged 3.32 yards a play on first down, which is last in the NFL. No other team entered Week 4 averaging fewer than 4 yards a play on first down, and 22 teams entered the week averaging more than 5 yards a play on first down.

Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice stressed the point to his players this week.

“We have to be better on first down, first and foremost,” Tice said. “We’re bad on first down. So we’re putting ourselves in second-and-long a lot. And then you’re fighting to get back to manageable [distance] on third down.

“So our goal this week is to do a lot better job, be more efficient on first down. Get that four yards running the ball and throwing the ball, shoot for six yards [to go], and get ourselves in a better, manageable second down.”

That could mean a heavier workload early in series for the Bears’ running backs. Matt Forte missed last week’s game because of a sprained right ankle and was listed as questionable to play on the team’s official injury report, but he ran without a limp during practice last week and said he expected to return.

No matter who is on the field, Bush said, the Bears’ offense needed to be sharp.

“It’s a big test offensively,” Bush said. “Dallas has got a good D. They’ve got great corners. Their outside linebackers are good. It’s just a solid defense.

“It’s one of those games you’ve got to be ready. If you’re not ready, you’re going to get your butt kicked.”

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