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Updated: October 13th, 2011 11:50pm
Pelissero: Vikings, Bears struggling to throw for different reasons

Pelissero: Vikings, Bears struggling to throw for different reasons

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Sunday night's game at Soldier Field will match two passing games under fire for opposite reasons.

In Chicago, coordinator Mike Martz is catching heat for not doing enough to protect Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.

Here, coordinator Bill Musgrave is hamstrung by having to protect the Vikings from their weakness at the most important position.

In Chicago, there are promises of change as Cutler, coming off a cunning performance in defeat at Detroit, muses openly about the fallout of persistent pressure in Martz's precision passing offense.

Here, there are only promises of progress as Donovan McNabb, booed heartily at home in a runaway win over Arizona, becomes increasingly defiant about skills that have so obviously declined.

The Bears (2-3) rank 23rd in passing offense and 26th in passing efficiency. The Vikings (1-4) rank 31st and 28th, respectively. Yet their problems intersect sparingly.

A high-ranking NFL scout who has broken down both teams on tape was asked by 1500ESPN.com on Thursday for his subjective opinion about their issues and what, if anything, can be done to fix them.

On the Bears

In Chicago, it's a confluence of factors that start up front.

"I don't really think they have an identity," the scout said, "and their line sucks."

That also was the problem last season, when the Bears allowed an NFL-high 56 sacks, including 10 in one memorable meltdown against the New York Giants. Yet that Bears team found a way to win the NFC North Division and reached the conference title game, protection issues and all.

"They won 12 games, but I don't remember anyone thinking they were that good last year," the scout said. "They moved (J'Marcus) Webb over to left tackle, and he's not a left tackle and I didn't think he was a very good right tackle either. (Roberto) Garza's the best guy still, and they moved him into center, and they've had some injuries. (Rookie right tackle Gabe) Carimi getting hurt probably hurt them more than what most people would think."

Cutler isn't an ideal fit for Martz's quick-strike offense, which emphasizes precise drops and routes. But Cutler can make so many things happen with his elite arm and ability to throw on the run that he'd have a chance if his perimeter group weren't a liability, too.

Halfback Matt Forte is by far the team leader with 30 receptions for 345 yards. Undrafted rookie Dane Sanzenbacher actually ranks second with 16 catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns, while Johnny Knox (14-254) and Devin Hester (12-171) average fewer than three catches a game.

"First of all, Knox is their best receiver and they're not using him all the time," the scout said. "Another thing is those intermediate and deep routes -- they're not getting enough time to run those routes."

Then there is the departure of former first-round draft pick Greg Olsen, the 26-year-old tight end who was dealt to Carolina in July after racking up nearly 200 catches and 2,000 receiving yards over the previous four seasons.

To replace him, the Bears signed former "U" tight end Matt Spaeth, who fits the blocking mold Martz prefers but doesn't make opponents account for him in the passing game as Olsen did.

"They basically traded away a playmaker for nothing," the scout said. "They got a (third-round) draft pick, but you understand what I'm saying, in terms of how their offense runs. It's just one less thing that you have to worry about."

On the Vikings

Many point to McNabb's accuracy as the root of the problem. The reality is that's merely a symptom of the broader concerns surrounding a 34-year-old who only has completed better than 61% of his passes twice in 12 NFL seasons.

"The arm strength part has been a little surprising," the scout said. "Accuracy's never been his thing, but it doesn't look like he throws it very hard anymore."

Indeed, the bounce passes to tight end Visanthe Shiancoe and receiver Percy Harvin that got McNabb booed last weekend can be explained as products of overly cautious play, rather than a product of poor mechanics.

A series of intermediate-to-deep throws McNabb has flat-out missed raise greater red flags about a quarterback whose 37,099 career passing yards are a reflection of his ability to create on the perimeter, belying shortcomings in the pocket.

"It's more stuff like that, where he's got a perfect pocket or he doesn't have to move around and he just, for whatever reason, can't hit the guy," the scout said. "I've been reading those articles about his mechanics. I don't see much different, other than the fact he's an older guy now. Probably, his joints aren't as flexible and loose as they once were."

Not only is McNabb completing only 56.8% of his passes, he's also averaging only 6.4 yards per attempt -- two categories in which he ranks among the NFL's worst qualifying passers. One national reporter who wrote a story on McNabb after the Arizona game cited unnamed scouts and coaches as saying the veteran wouldn't turn things around because he doesn't fit Musgrave's scheme.

"I don't agree with that," the scout said. "The way you could say that is because he doesn't make great decisions some of the time, and this is an offense where, if you just had a guy that could make good decisions and hand the ball off and throw the ball to the open guy, it would function a little bit better. But I don't see him as being a poor fit."

It's not all on McNabb, though. While the offensive line has improved, playing easily its best game in the win over the Cardinals, the Vikings still lack balanced speed on the perimeter and have shown a tendency to stray from what they do best -- run the ball with All-Pro Adrian Peterson -- when it counts.

"It looks like they're making a conscious effort the first half to run the ball," the scout said, "and then, coming out in the second half and -- I'm not sure what they're doing. It's just common sense stuff.

"There was a play in the Detroit game (a 26-23 loss on Sept. 25). I think it was fourth-and-1. They didn't give the ball to Peterson. What are you doing? Just trying to show people how smart you are? Stuff like that. They don't seem to be decisive."

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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