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Air and Space: Adventures in the red zone

10/22/2009

Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

Jay Cutler's struggles in the red zone Sunday night at Atlanta got me wondering how the rest of our Air and Space quarterbacks have performed inside the 20-yard line this season. As you can see from the chart below, which comes courtesy of STATS Inc., two of them rank among the NFL’s top 7. The other two, er, do not.

You can’t get much better than Favre has been inside the 20, and he has helped the Vikings to the league’s top ranking in overall red zone offense. They’ve scored touchdowns on 15 of 23 possessions and have scored at least a field goal on 91.3 percent of their trips inside the 20.

Rodgers has also performed well, but it should be noted (again) that his five sacks don’t count in the NFL passer rating formula.

Stafford has produced the kind of numbers you would expect from a rookie, although it’s notable he hasn’t thrown a red-zone interception. The big question is what to make of Cutler’s performance.

Cutler’s completion percentage and has taken a plunge in the red zone, and he’s thrown two interceptions in 32 attempts there. There’s no doubt he’s made some poor decisions near the goal line. But I also wonder if this isn’t where the Bears’ inexperience at receiver is coming home to roost.

In the big picture, Devin Hester, Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox have all made significant contributions. But the reality is the Bears have only one proven red-zone threat: tight end Greg Olsen. Knox is approaching that status as well, but it takes a special skill set to succeed over time in a relatively crowded area.

More than anywhere else on the field, a receiver has to make catches in traffic when he’s near the goal line. There isn’t enough room to run away from defenders. Ball skills, leverage and strength are huge factors.

Cutler shares some of the blame, but with an inexperienced group of receivers and a struggling running game, I don’t think he’s dealing with a full deck near the goal line.