We’ve seen it all throughout Jay Cutler’s Bear career: an unimaginative offense; no time to throw behind a porous offensive line; no threats at receiver (at least until Brandon Marshall joined the team before last season); bad feet and poor decisions from Cutler himself. The offense would constantly take one step forward and then two steps back.
If last Sunday’s game vs the Bengals is any indication, 2013 should be much different.
Start with the offensive line. The biggest additions, left tackle Jermon Bushrod and rookie right guard Kyle Long, solidified this unit. It’s not the best in the league by any measure, but the improvement from a year ago is night and day. Jay Cutler was not sacked once against one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. With Bushrod able to win one-on-one matchups, and Kyle Long’s physicality plugging up the middle, Cutler had a clean pocket from which to throw.
Let’s move over to the receiving corps. Brandon Marshall and Cutler have had a rapport since their days in Denver, that much has been obvious. Alshon Jeffery, Chicago’s number-2 receiver, is a big, 6’3”, 216-pound talent, who might still be raw with his route running, but provides Cutler with a decent alternative to Marshall. A year ago, Marshall and Jeffery (when he was healthy) threatened defenses on the outside, but there was no one to challenge the middle. This made it easier for defenses to pay extra attention to these two on the outside. The addition of Martellus Bennett ends that. Bennett is a 6’6” monster with great athleticism for his size. His presence gives Cutler 3 athletic receivers with heights of 6’3”, 6’4”, and 6’6”, in addition to the always-dangerous Matt Forte out of the backfield. Suddenly, the Bears options in the passing game are formidable.
It’s not just the talent on this offense that can threaten defenses, but it’s how that talent is used. On Sunday, Marc Trestman aligned Brandon Marshall in the slot for much of the game, creating huge matchup problems for the Bengals. Playing Brandon Marshall man-to-man isn’t a good option for any defense, especially when he’s not aligned on the outside where corners can play using the sideline as help. Playing man-to-man when Marshall is lined up in the slot and has the entire field at his disposal is not an attractive option.
The Bengals chose the alternative on Sunday – zone coverage. This left linebackers and safeties on Marshall. Advantage Bears. In fact, the game-winning touchdown came with Marshall and Jeffery lined up to the left, Marshall in the slot. The Bengals matched up with quarters coverage, which left the safety to that side, Reggie Nelson, matched up one-on-one with Marshall. Marshall ran a corner route, easily turning Nelson around. Cutler was late with the throw, but got away with it because he has a canon for an arm. Touchdown Bears. 1-0 Bears.
We haven’t even touched on the improvement of Jay Cutler yet. Remember that quarterback who wouldn’t plant his back foot, often drifting backwards and making off-balanced throws? He was not in attendance on Sunday.
Cutler is one of the most physically gifted quarterbacks in the NFL. His mechanics and decision-making have always gotten him in trouble. His feet have always been an issue. Because he rarely set, the off-balanced throws led to a higher level of inaccuracy. It also cut off half of the field, because if he saw someone breaking open on the side away from his initial look, he would have to stop, plant his feet, then throw back to the other side. By that time, the defense would be able to react and cover the previously open receiver. Planting your back foot at the top of a drop and being ready to throw opens the entire field to a quarterback. On Sunday against the Bengals, Cutler did this with consistency. His feet were markedly improved, as they were all preseason. He threw the ball with more force and accuracy. His ball placement was fantastic as he made throws to beat the coverage; sometimes throwing back shoulder; sometimes throwing at a receiver’s feet forcing him to the ground away from an incoming defender; sometimes just flat out hitting a receiver between his numbers, perfectly in stride.
For years we’ve heard analysts and commentators talk about what type of quarterback someone as physically gifted as Jay Cutler could be if his foot mechanics weren’t so terrible. This year, we might just find out.