As the Bears come off their most impressive win of the season and look forward to a key NFC North matchup with the Detroit Lions on Sunday, our Four Downs panel weighs in on Jay Cutler, Brian Urlacher and more:
Fact or Fiction: Urlacher is getting better with age.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact: We're not saying Urlacher is better now than he was in 2005 or 2006, but at 33, the middle linebacker shows no signs of slowing down. Maybe the season-ending 2009 wrist injury was a blessing in disguise. A fresh Urlacher made the Pro Bowl in 2010, and appears to be headed toward a similar fate in 2011. With 66 tackles, three interceptions, five tackles for a loss and a pair of pass breakups through eight games, Urlacher is a major reason why the Bears' defense has settled down the past few weeks. Whatever Urlacher and Ray Lewis are taking, please send me some, because both linebackers continue to play the position at an elite level despite their respective ages.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. Players all over the league openly discuss exactly what’s happening with Urlacher right now. As a player ages, his physical skills diminish, while the mental aspect of the game improves. But what often takes place is a player’s physical skills diminish so much that later in their careers they have to rely on the mental aspect to make up for the loss of athleticism. Well, with Urlacher, his physical skills haven’t diminished much. So combine that incredible athletic talent with his experience and mental sharpness, and Urlacher’s game rises to a new level, which is very rare in what we all know is a young man’s game.
Melissa Isaacson Fiction: He certainly is not getting markedly worse. His nose for the ball is as good as ever, as are his hands when he smells an interception. But Urlacher built his Hall of Fame career with uncanny speed for his size, particularly laterally, that just naturally is going to decrease after 12 years in the league.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction, but only because he was really, really good a few years ago. He certainly hasn’t lost it after 30, though. Age has taken away some of Urlacher’s physical abilities but experience has made up for some of what he’s lost. He’s certainly still got it, and he still makes amazing plays that brings you back to his salad days as the young heir apparent to Butkus and Singletary.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears have become a better team than the Lions since they played last.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction: Let's wait to see what happens on Sunday. We can argue the Bears have become a much better team since they faced Detroit a month ago on Monday night football, but we won't know for sure which is the better team until after the rematch at Soldier Field. But the return of Earl Bennett, the improved offensive line, the lack of big defensive breakdowns and the overall excellent play of Cutler the past few weeks should have Bears fans excited about their prospects of knocking off the Lions. But let's not jump the gun.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. No doubt about it, the Bears are rolling both offensively and defensively. The Lions, meanwhile, have gone the other way. Sure they thumped the lowly Denver Broncos right before taking a week off for the bye, and will be well prepared when they face the Bears. But the Lions won’t have the home-field advantage they enjoyed the first time these teams met. Earlier in the season, when Detroit was performing its best on offense, the team feasted mostly on big plays, but hasn’t been as potent lately, while Chicago’s defense has started to eliminate explosive plays. Defensively, the Lions rank 28th against the run, and that doesn’t bode well when you’re facing a running back like Matt Forte.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact: Statistically speaking, the Bears, who have won three straight games since losing to the Lions on Oct. 10, have shot up in nearly every category -- offensively from 26th to 17th in total yards (308 to 342); 20th to 11th in rush yards per game (96 to 121); 30th to 22nd in sacks per pass attempt (.103 to .074); and defensively from 31st to 23rd in yards allowed (426 to 374). But the eye test will also tell you both offensively and defensively that the Bears are operating more efficiently.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. That 24-13 loss was the nadir of the season, thus far anyway. But in another way, it almost felt like the Bears had to hit bottom. Six false start penalties in a half? An 88-yard untouched touchdown run by Jahvid Best? Monday Night madness consumed the Bears, but they still only lost by 11. The next week, Chicago destroyed Minnesota, and we’ve seen positive changes, especially from the offensive line. Cutler seems to be on the verge of a breakout as well.
Fact or Fiction: Bennett is the best receiver on the Bears.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. A no-brainer. Bennett has been the best receiver on the roster since 2009. Bennett isn't a converted defensive back or a track star, he's a professional wide receiver who's played the position this entire life. He was the all-time leading receiver in SEC history, so he knows how to get open, and more importantly, how to catch the ball. Nobody is putting Bennett in the Pro Bowl, but if he stays healthy, there is no reason why he can't be a 60-70 catch guy per year in the NFL.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. Absolutely, Bennett’s the best receiver on the roster. Veteran Roy Williams even admitted that shortly before Bennett’s return to the lineup. Bennett’s most valuable attributes are his chemistry with Cutler, and his run-after-catch ability. The Bears use Bennett primarily in the slot, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start lining him up all over the field, and calling more plays designed to get the ball into his hands. From the sounds of things, that might be what the Bears are planning to do over the second half of the season.
Melissa Isaacson:Fact. All you’ve had to do is watch Cutler’s timing and confidence in throwing to Bennett over the past three years, and see the state of the Bears' passing game in Bennett’s absence this season to make the argument. Do Johnny Knox and Devin Hester have better speed downfield? Sure. But for a combination of route-running, sure-handedness in traffic and instinct, Bennett, like it or not, is the Bears’ best receiver.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. In other news, I’m the tallest person in my house, with a wife who’s 5 feet tall and a 14-month-old son. Bennett proved his rep as Cutler’s third down guy wasn’t just hype against Philadelphia. He’s easily the best wideout on the team, and the Bears missed him desperately. He’s not the fastest, and he can’t jump the highest, but he does what he does better than anyone else at that position.
Fact or Fiction: Cutler is as good as any QB when he has time.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Cutler has the arm to make every throw in the book. When he has time, he's deadly. However, this is the NFL, you can't expect to be given much time to deliver the football. That's life. What Cutler is starting to do is make great throws on the run or when he's being pressured. That's the sign of a great quarterback. And that is what the Bears believe Cutler can eventually become.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. He’s certainly trending that way, but I’m not ready to heap on a ton of praise after just a couple of good games. Throughout Cutler’s career, there hasn’t been much of a correlation between his passing numbers and sacks. For instance, in 2007, Cutler was sacked 27 times, but completed 63.6 of his passes for a passer rating of 88.1. The following year, he was sacked just 11 times, completing 62.3 percent of his passes for a passer rating of 86.0. Not much difference, right? Cutler played lights out against the Lions in Week 5, and again Monday night against the Eagles. But I need to see Cutler perform like the guy the Bears expected to get when they gave up two first-round picks on a more consistent basis. He appears to be close, but not there yet.
Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. He sure has looked that way lately, particularly on Monday night, but let’s not get carried away. He has to put together a sustained effort which, yes, requires the offensive line to keep up their current level of play. His receivers also need to hold onto the ball. As Cutler himself said it when he considered midway through the Eagles’ victory that he had not yet been sacked: "Let’s not jinx this ..." .
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Let’s not get crazy here. I could think of a handful of quarterbacks I’d take over Cutler in any situation. Maybe two handfuls. He could throw three picks Sunday with normal protection. But I’ll say this, against Philadelphia, with no sacks, he showed he could be the quarterback the Bears have been waiting for. I’m interested to see how he plays under severe duress. I thought he handled himself pretty well against Detroit last time.