Jay Cutler provided a simple but accurate analysis of the Chicago Bears' struggles for most of last Sunday's victory over the Carolina Panthers: "No one played well."
Beyond a doubt, the Bears suffered breakdowns at every level -- the offensive line, running back and quarterback -- in taking six first-half sacks and managing just seven points through three quarters. But with Cutler on pace to take a career-high 57 sacks this season -- he has 25 through seven games -- I thought it would be worth examining the problem areas to see if any patterns emerge. How much blame does the offensive line deserve? What about Cutler for holding the ball too long?
Judging pass protection is among the trickiest task for outsiders. Few of us know each lineman's responsibility, or how much time the play is designed for, or if a running back helped in the way he was assigned. That doesn't mean we just give up, of course, and usually over a big sample size, a consistent evaluator can note trends.
Our friends at Pro Football Focus (PFF) assign responsibility for every drop back a quarterback makes under pressure. While the grades are subjective, I think in this case they provide a realistic sense of what's happened with the Bears.
So far this season, Cutler has been pressured -- sacked, hit or hurried -- on 92 of his 248 drop backs. That pressure percentage of 37.1 is the fourth-highest in the NFL. PFF assigned 77 of those pressures to the Bears' offensive line, the 13th-highest total in the NFL, and 14 of the 25 sacks. The latter is the fifth-highest total in the league.
That means PFF found blame elsewhere for 15 of the pressures on Cutler and 11 of the sacks. What does that mean for the Bears' offensive line? It's not solely to blame, but it shoulders the primary responsibility. Overall, PFF's formula for pass blocking efficiency -- measuring pressure relative to drop backs -- ranks the Bears as the NFL's third-worst pass-blocking group.
What do we make of this analysis? To me, it confirms what an amateur but careful eye can see during games. Cutler probably could have avoided a few sacks with quicker throws, even if they were thrown away. And I can think of at least one instance, in Week 2 against the Green Bay Packers, where Cutler was sacked by a blitzing linebacker that tailback Matt Forte failed to block.
Generally speaking, though, the Bears' offensive line has had a rough start in pass protection for the third consecutive year. It has left Cutler facing more pressure, based on percentage of drop backs, than all NFL quarterbacks except Michael Vick, Kevin Kolb and Russell Wilson.
The Bears are 6-1 despite those issues, a testament to Cutler's clutch play in the fourth quarter and season-long dominance by the Bears' defense. The good news is that the Bears have figured out ways to settle down their offensive line by midseason in recent years. It's about that time.