NFC North: Jay Cutler
“Lance didn’t practice today. He was out there running around a little bit,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said. “Jay was limited, you saw that. Anthony Walters was limited, but looks better. Kyle [Long], Major and Brandon all worked. So that was good.”
For Dallas, cornerback Morris Claiborne (hamstring) and receiver Dwayne Harris (hamstring) were held out of practice.
Receiver Dez Bryant (back), linebacker Justin Durant (hamstring), tight end Gavin Escobar (hamstring) and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher (neck) participated full for the Cowboys, along with linebackers DeVonte Holloman (neck) and Sean Lee (hamstring).
1. JD, what is your best guess for what the Bears do with Jay Cutler? Franchise tag, long-term deal or let him walk? Thank you for the weekly mailbag posting. Happy Holidays. -- Marcus, Loves Park, Ill.
Dickerson: My best guess is that Cutler signs a new deal with the Bears in the offseason. My sense is the Bears have already decided that Cutler is their guy -- even though Monday he will miss his fifth game due to injury in 2013 -- and will look to finalize a contract with him in next couple of months. The new trend in the NFL is for free-agent players to sign shorter deals for as much guaranteed money as possible. So it wouldn't surprise me if the Bears and Cutler eventually ink a three-, or maybe four-year contract somewhere north of $16 million per season. The franchise tag is always a negotiating tool for a team to use if the negotiations fall apart, but in this case, I think the scenario of Cutler receiving a new multi-year contract is the most likely.
2. DICKERSON, YOUR BUDDY MCNOWN STUNK UP THE PLACE IN MINNESOTA. ARE THEY GOING TO MAKE A MOVIE ABOUT THAT? GO PACK!!! -- Alex, Ashland, Wis.
Dickerson: Alex, I can assure you Cade McNown did not start for the Bears at quarterback last Sunday in the Metrodome. Maybe your television reception is a little fuzzy living that far up north. Now if you're taking about Josh McCown, he struggled at times in the 23-20 loss to the Vikings. Let's just say it wasn't his best performance. But for all the people criticizing McCown for his lack of arm strength or the methodical manner in which he guides the offense down the field, let me ask you this question: how many NFL general managers would love to have a backup quarterback on their roster, who in six appearances is capable of completing 120 of 184 passes for 1,461 yards, nine touchdowns, one interception for a passer-rating of 103.6? Without the benefit of a scientific poll, I'd say most league executives would find McCown's contributions this year to be acceptable. Not to mention the fact that he almost brought the Bears back versus Washington and Detroit, and had the team up 20-10 versus the Vikings in the second half. This is not about McCown being the Bears' quarterback of the future. This is about acknowledging that an incredible job he's done so far in relief of Cutler. McCown is a backup quarterback. But he's a very good one, and the Bears are lucky to have him.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears' decision to sit quarterback Jay Cutler for Monday night’s game against the Dallas Cowboys appears to be the smart play, and the perhaps the best way to avoid a repeat of the situation that put him where he is in the first place.
If you remember, Cutler rushed back from tearing a muscle in his groin during an Oct. 20 game against the Washington Redskins when the team faced the Detroit Lions on Nov. 10, only to bang up the ankle on a seemingly random hit in the second quarter. Now, it’s easy to say one injury had nothing to do with the other because that’s absolutely true.
But if you watched Cutler’s movement early on in his return for the Lions game, it was quite apparent the quarterback’s mobility was compromised. That likely didn’t cause Cutler’s ankle injury in the second quarter. But the end result is the end result.
Cutler returned to practice inside the Walter Payton Center on Thursday, but it would be unfair to ask the quarterback to try to overcome nearly a month of inactivity in just four days of prep time in advance of Monday’s game. That’s setting him up for failure.
"We want to be very, very careful," Bears coach Marc Trestman said. "I was encouraged today just by the work that he got in considering the injury wasn’t that long ago. So we’ll see where he is next week. It was a good first day for him to come and get some work. I thought he threw the ball very, very well."
Trestman said that when Cutler is medically cleared, he’ll "absolutely" play. That clearance could come sometime next week or the week after, and at that time Cutler will receive ample opportunity to prove whether he's worth the long-term deal in Chicago he seeks. But really there’s no reason to rush Cutler back into the lineup, even if the team were in the thick of race for the NFC North crown because backup quarterback Josh McCown has played well enough for this team to win.
McCown is 1-2 in his last three starts, throwing for 1,038 yards and five touchdowns to go with only one interception. In five starts on the season, McCown is 3-2 with an overall passer rating of 103.6.
"I think they both do a great job, different personalities definitely inside the huddle," tight end Martellus Bennett said. "Jay has a stronger arm and can do different things with just his arm strength, rely on his arm strength, and Josh relies on timing and being where we need to be. So Jay could make some throws that Josh may not be able to make in some different situations. But they both do a great job for us, and it shows. Every single week we’ve still been putting up numbers no matter who’s [in] there."
When the two 7-5 teams meet in Philadelphia, it won't matter how they got there. The Eagles and Lions are both in position to win their division titles, and a win Sunday will be a major step toward achieving that goal.
The game will feature two potent but very different offenses. Nick Foles may not be the bona fide franchise quarterback that Matthew Stafford is, but he is the hottest quarterback in the league over the past five weeks. The Eagles' defense may lack stars like Ndamukong Suh, but it is playing better every week as a group. Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush will provide its toughest test since the Denver disaster back in September.
ESPN.com reporters Michael Rothstein, who covers the Lions, and Phil Sheridan, who covers the Eagles, took a look at some key issues in a game with major playoff implications.
Sheridan: The NFC North race has been deeply affected by quarterback injuries, with Chicago's Jay Cutler and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers out of the picture lately. Despite a healthy and productive Stafford, the Lions haven't been able to separate from the rest. What are some key reasons for that?
Rothstein: It starts with turnovers and inconsistency. The Lions' defensive line, the same group that dominated on Thanksgiving, largely disappeared in some earlier games. Turnovers are a major issue, too. The Lions have three or more turnovers in four of their past five games. Against Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, that was a key factor in those losses. Detroit is a very talented team that continues to feel like a group still finding out exactly how it wants to play. But it does start with those turnovers. A couple of the Lions' players even told me after Thursday's game -- by far the Lions' best performance this season -- that turnovers were still a major issue. And Detroit committed four of them and still scored 40 points. If they do that Sunday, the Lions will be leaving with a loss.
Speaking of turnovers, Foles appears allergic to mistakes, especially turnovers, this season. Is it all fitting in with Chip Kelly's system? Maturation? Magic? Something different? What has turned him into this quarterback this season?
Sheridan: There is almost certainly an element of magic involved. By that I mean that Foles has had a bit of luck on his side. He threw two would-be interceptions to Patrick Peterson Sunday, for instance. DeSean Jackson batted one away and a penalty negated the other. But there is no doubt that Foles has played extremely well and with remarkable poise and confidence. He has fully embraced and absorbed Kelly's offense, which includes sound pass protection and a great running game -- two of every quarterback's best friends. Foles has been accurate and unafraid to trust his receivers to make plays on the ball. If you make good decisions and sharp throws in a well-designed offense, it turns out pretty much like what we've seen from Foles the past two months.
The Eagles felt pretty good about running their offense effectively against good Tampa Bay and Arizona defenses. The Lions seem like a new challenge with that front of theirs. Was the Thanksgiving game a sign the Lions have gotten it going on defense or are they just as likely to disappear in the face of Kelly's uptempo, unorthodox offense?
Rothstein: It's tough to say because the Lions haven't really seen this type of offense before, although I'm guessing the three younger guys on the line -- tackle Nick Fairley and ends Ziggy Ansah and Devin Taylor -- are somewhat familiar from their recent college days. Getting pressure with the front four -- and, at least last week, well-timed blitzes from linebackers and safeties -- is still going to be the key for any Detroit defensive success. And doing it for one week doesn't make it a guarantee that it'll continue. Even though he doesn't have huge stats, Suh has been a consistent force up front and if he and Fairley can get going early, it opens things up for Ansah on the outside.
The pressure key, though, is more important for Detroit's cornerbacks. The Lions have been very inconsistent there this season, but they were able to take the first read away from Green Bay's Matt Flynn a lot. By doing that, it gave the defensive line an extra second to get to Flynn so it all worked together. But it has been a matter of consistency, which the Lions have not had there this season.
Since we were talking about the Detroit defensive line, the Lions have been extremely good against the run. They haven't allowed a rushing touchdown in two months and have gone six straight games holding teams under 70 yards rushing total. Some of this is the proliferation of passing in the NFL, but considering LeSean McCoy's numbers this season, how much do the Eagles try running before sticking with Foles and his arm?
Sheridan: One of the most striking differences between Kelly and Andy Reid, a guy I covered for 14 years and respect a lot, is that Kelly is very committed to the run. He sticks with it almost no matter what, with the belief that it will eventually wear a defense down. Reid would abandon the run game after two or three unsuccessful plays. Early in the season, McCoy was on pace to break the NFL record for rushing attempts in a season. He is now on pace for 100 fewer carries than that, about 310. That's because Foles' success in the passing game has allowed Kelly to be more balanced. A few teams -- the Giants and Cowboys, especially -- were able to shut the Eagles' running game down. Arizona did a good job of it in the second half. But Kelly hasn't completely abandoned it in any of those games. If that changes Sunday, it will mean he really thinks the Lions' defense is invulnerable to it.
The Eagles were moderately successful keeping Larry Fitzgerald from going off last week. Johnson is another matter. Has anyone been really effective in stopping Megatron and, if so, how did they go about it? Does it take an elite corner or an elite scheme? A drone strike?
Rothstein: The team that has been most successful in limiting Johnson this season has been ... the Detroit Lions. There have been times during games this season when the Lions have seemed to go away from the best receiver in football, most notably in the second half against Pittsburgh, when he had no catches. Darrelle Revis has been pretty good on Johnson as well, but for the most part, it takes a really good scheme to keep the ball out of his hands. Unless you have a corner like Revis, usually some sort of bracketing of Johnson can be effective. But the Lions are OK with that happening because it opens up the field for Bush and Nate Burleson. That was a big reason the Lions got Bush -- just for that.
This kind of leads into my last question. Philadelphia's pass defense has been both poor and porous this season. Do they have any sort of manpower to match up with Johnson -- and to a lesser extent Burleson, Brandon Pettigrew, Kris Durham and Bush -- or could this be another game like he had against the Cowboys or Bengals?
Sheridan: Before getting to the answer (spoiler alert: It's no, the Eagles can't match up with Johnson), let me clarify a bit. It's true that the numbers show the Eagles to be terrible as far as yards allowed. They really have given up vast chunks of yardage. But they are keeping teams out of the end zone, and that is giving the offense breathing room to function.
While insisting the Eagles' defense is better than its stats, I have to say this matchup could be the one that breaks some of those trends. Stafford is better than Carson Palmer and Johnson is better than anyone, so this may be the week the yards translate into more points. The Eagles' strength right now is their front seven, and if they can get pressure on Stafford and force him into some of the mistakes he is prone to making, that will go a long way toward covering up the mismatches on the back end.
In this week’s edition, Dickerson rightfully gives receiver Alshon Jeffery some love for his outstanding performance in Sunday’s loss to Minnesota. Dickerson writes:
"Marc Trestman's questionable decision-making in the 23-20 overtime loss to the Minnesota Vikings obscured Jeffery's brilliant performance in the Metrodome, in which he caught 12 passes for a team-record 249 yards and two touchdowns. In just his second year in the NFL, Jeffery is only the eighth player in NFL history to have two 200-yard receiving games in one season. On the year, Jeffery has 70 catches for 1,109 yards and five touchdowns, not bad production from a second-round pick who some viewed as a malcontent coming out of South Carolina. Jeffery and Brandon Marshall are rewriting the Bears' record book at wide receiver, and the duo has been together for less than two seasons."
Hopefully Jeffery and Marshall can stay together a few more seasons. Let’s not forget Marshall’s deal is up in 2014, and the club would be wise to try to re-up with him before that contract actually comes up on its final season.
-- Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times believes Jay Cutler is the better quarterback for the Bears at this point than backup Josh McCown, which is obvious. But the difference between the two isn’t as night-and-day as you might think. Yes, with McCown under center the Bears are gaining more yards but scoring fewer points than they did with Cutler running the show. But all the variables need to be taken into account when looking at the situation, instead of relying solely on statistics. See, the Bears scored four of their five touchdowns on defense this season with a healthy Cutler starting at quarterback, which skews the scoring average somewhat. With McCown under center, the Bears scored one defensive TD, on David Bass’ interception return against Baltimore. Taking that into account, which means we subtract the defensive TDs and freebie extra-point kicks, the Bears averaged 21.75 points with Cutler engineering the offense and 19 with McCown at the helm. And just two games -- one Bears win and one loss -- this season were decided by two points or fewer.
We won’t even get into comparing the turnover numbers.
When Cutler first went down against the Redskins on Oct. 20, he had completed 3 of 8 passes for 28 yards, with an interception and a passer rating of 8.3, before leaving the contest with 9:56 left in the first half. McCown led Chicago’s offense to 24 points in that 45-41 shootout. Then, when Cutler went down again Nov. 10 at Detroit, the Bears trailed 21-13. So McCown accounted for six of the club’s points in that loss by virtue of an 11-yard touchdown pass to Marshall in the final minute.
If we’re looking at it from the standpoint of physical skill set, sure, Cutler undoubtedly is the man to lead the Bears over the next four games, provided he’s healthy. But McCown certainly hasn’t been a slouch, and he deserves some credit. He’s played well, generating a passer rating of 103.6 and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 9-to-1 that supports that assertion.
-- CSNChicago.com’s John Mullin ponders whether the loss of Cutler to the offense was more significant than the loss of linebacker Lance Briggs to the defense.
"Each team is unique and each offseason definitely has a wide variety of challenges in putting together a team that has the opportunity to win championships," Emery wrote in response to a question. "This coming offseason will be the most challenging of the three due to the fact that we have a high number of Bears players with expiring contracts. It's a great opportunity to use all the resources the Bears have to put together a championship team."
Given the team's situation, however, it must allocate those assets selectively. That's part of the reason Emery continues to say the team won't address contracts until after the season, when it has expended enough time to thoroughly evaluate every player and how he might fit in the future in relation to potential targets in free agency and the draft.
So even though Cutler's body of work this season appears to be incomplete due to injuries, it's not exactly a slam dunk the Bears would use the franchise tag on the quarterback because of the ramifications it would have on the team's salary cap, which could hurt the team's effort to make additions at other positions.
"The franchise tag is a tool that's available if both parties can't reach an immediate agreement," Emery wrote. "It protects both the player and the team and allows you to continue to negotiate with the player knowing that you retain his rights for the upcoming season, and the player knows he will be paid within the average of the top five players at this position. The franchise tag for the quarterback position has unique challenges because the average comes out to be such a big portion of your cap and your total money available to spend on other players to acquire to help your team."
The franchise tag for quarterbacks in 2014 is projected to fall in the neighborhood of a little more than $16 million, which would be fully guaranteed with that entire amount hitting a team's books next season. So if the team decides Cutler is the team's franchise quarterback moving forward, it would rather work out a long-term deal with him than be forced to apply the tag.
If the team tagged Cutler, it would be on the hook in 2014 for the projected $16-plus million as well as the cap charge of $18.183 million tied to the contract of Julius Peppers if the defensive end's deal isn't renegotiated. The Bears would have to fit in those deals with potential new contracts for defensive tackles Henry Melton, Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins as well as cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, linebackers D.J. Williams and James Anderson, defensive end Corey Wootton and safety Major Wright provided the club decides it wants to bring them back.
Center Roberto Garza's deal expires at the end of this season, too, as do the contracts of left guard Matt Slauson, kicker Robbie Gould, return man Devin Hester and McCown.
"With the franchise tag being so high for the quarterback position, to use it and not sign the individual to a long-term deal hurts the team because you lose the ability to prorate the amount of guaranteed salary over the length of the contract," Emery wrote. "Proration lowers the salary cap number in relation to that player's contract. Obviously the lower the number in relation to the salary cap, the more players you can sign to help your team reach its goals."
“Getting better,” Cutler said Monday during “The Jay Cutler Show” on ESPN 1000. “Still got to talk to the doctors, gotta go through some stuff this week. I don’t know. I think if we’re gonna have any shot at playing, I’m gonna have to practice [this week]. I still feel like I’m gonna get back here really soon. I want to play. It’s just the trainers and doctors and going through the scenario we’ve got to go through.”
Cutler missed three consecutive games due to a severe high ankle sprain sustained in the second quarter of a Nov. 10 loss to the Detroit Lions. Veteran Josh McCown filled in for the last three games and produced a 2-1 record, throwing for 1,038 yards and five touchdowns with only one interception.
In those three starts, McCown produced a passer rating of 103.8. On the season, McCown is 3-2 as a starter with an overall passer rating of 103.6, which currently ranks as the second best in Bears single-season history.
McCown passed for 355 yards and two touchdowns against the Vikings.
Cutler said he ran on a treadmill Monday, and “felt good about that,” adding that he hopes “there’s no ill effects tomorrow.”
With the team’s postseason prospects on shaky ground, Cutler said that even if the Bears fall out of contention for a playoff berth in the coming weeks, he’d still like to return to the lineup.
“I want to play as soon as I can play. I’ve been out long enough,” Cutler said. “Just want to be able to help the guys be able to win football games, no matter what the situation is.”
Similar to his recovery from a torn muscle in his groin back in November, Cutler underwent a vigorous regimen to return to full health from the latest setback.
The rehabilitation process included Cutler spending copious amounts of time improving mobility in the injured ankle, in addition to doing exercises to strengthen the area. Cutler also used an ARP machine to speed up the recovery process.
Cutler has missed portions of two games already this season, in addition to the three other contests. The quarterback has completed 63 percent of his passes for 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions for a passer rating of 88.4.
“I’m not sure where we are right now [with Cutler’s progress],” Trestman said. “He visited the doctor today, and we’ll know more Thursday or Friday. But [his return to the field will] start with some limited work, see how he moves around and we’ll take it from there. It’s still week to week. I’ll know a little bit more in the next 24 hours. I really can’t answer that question right now. I’m not trying to hide anything from you. That’s where we’re at.”
Cutler missed half of the club’s Oct. 20 loss to Washington due to a groin strain, and all of the team’s Nov. 4 upset win over the Green Bay Packers. Cutler returned from the groin injury in a Nov. 10 to the Lions and sprained the ankle.
With his contract set to expire after the season, Cutler admitted last week that his injury history could affect the team’s evaluation of him. Cutler missed time last season due to a concussion and six games in 2011 because of a broken thumb.
Cutler also missed a game in 2010 due to a concussion.
Forte hurt his knee last weekend in the Bears’ loss to the St. Louis Rams but managed to finish the game, gaining 117 all-purpose yards. Forte, the NFL’s sixth-leading rusher (851 yards) and third in yards from scrimmage (1,265), has been inactive only five times in his six seasons in the league.
Safety Anthony Walters and cornerback Derrick Martin were also sidelined on Wednesday.
Defensive tackles Stephen Paea (toe) and Jeremiah Ratliff (groin) were both limited during the workout. Paea sat out last week after re-injuring his toe in the Bears’ Week 11 victory over the Baltimore Ravens, while Ratliff has yet to make his 2013 debut after signing a one-year deal with the club on Nov. 2.
Trestman officially ruled out linebacker Lance Briggs (shoulder) and quarterback Jay Cutler (ankle) for the Vikings game.
Cutler has been ruled out for Sunday’s game at Minnesota, and has missed the club’s past two outings. The Bears say Cutler's time frame for recovery is week to week.
“I’m sure it ain’t [a] Grade III [sprain], because he would not be playing,” Peterson said of Cutler’s injury. “I’ll tell you this: I’ve had a couple of injuries and some surgeries, and that high ankle sprain, it’s nothing to play with; [rapper] Drake said it perfect[ly]. It’s brutal. I broke my collarbone, [tore] my ACL. The ACL, the first couple of days like fresh out of surgery, that’s probably the most pain I’ve experienced outside of that high ankle sprain. On a consistent basis, six, seven weeks, it doesn’t get any worse than a high ankle sprain; especially a Grade III.”
In an effort to immobilize the injured ankle, the Bears fitted Cutler for a cast shortly after he suffered the injury on Nov. 10 against the Detroit Lions. Team doctors took the cast off to re-evaluate the ankle before putting on another cast.
Medical personnel removed the cast on Nov. 21, and Cutler has since worn a brace. The quarterback has indicated on “The Jay Cutler Show” on ESPN 1000 that the injury is more significant than simply a high ankle sprain. Bears coach Marc Trestman, however, has said he’s been told by the team’s medical staff that Cutler’s injury is just a sprain.
To speed the healing process, Cutler has used an Accelerated Recovery Performance machine, something Peterson is familiar with. The machine uses a low-voltage current to penetrate injured muscle tissue and break down existing scar tissue. Throughout his football career, going all the way back to college, Peterson has used an ARP machine only once, he said.
“I used [the] ARP in college my sophomore year [to recover from the high ankle sprain],” Peterson said. “I think it helped a little bit, to be honest. You know, a Grade III high ankle sprain, you know how bad that is. So I don’t really know if it really helped so much because it was so painful dealing with that injury.”
“It’s like having a flat tire,” Paea said about the bad toe. “Imagine having to drive on a flat tire.”
Paea will continue to rest and receive treatment on the toe, but he’s unsure how long he’s going to be sidelined.
“It’s just frustrating right now,” Paea said. “It’s the same exact thing injury. I just re-aggravated it. The field was kind of wet (Sunday), so that (probably helped cause) it.”
With Paea down for at least a week, the Bears are expected to welcome back defensive end Shea McClellin (hamstring). McClellin participated fully in practice the entire week and is listed as probable.
Also probable for the Rams game: long-snapper Patrick Mannelly (calf) and right tackle Jordan Mills (quadriceps).
Safety Craig Steltz (concussion) is questionable, and had limited participation in practice on Friday.
Quarterback Jay Cutler (ankle), linebacker Lance Briggs (shoulder) and defensive tackle Jay Ratliff (groin) were all ruled out for Week 12. However, Ratliff practiced Friday (limited participation) and might be ready to make his Bears’ debut in Week 13.
The Bears' roster stands at 52 players (53 is the max). The open roster spot could be used to elevate a defensive back off the practice squad if Steltz is inactive on Sunday.
Will Chris Long get the best of his younger brother? Is Zac Stacy the next running back in line for a big day against the Bears' run defense? Our panel weighs in on those questions and more:
Fact or Fiction: Chris Long will beat Kyle at least once and get a sack.
Jeff Dickerson:Fiction. If Chris Long beats a Bears offensive lineman for a sack on Sunday, it will be either left tackle Jermon Bushrod or right tackle Jordan Mills. Rams coach Jeff Fisher said on Wednesday that he does not anticipate Long bumping inside and lining up at defensive tackle, which is where he would have to play in order to go head-to-head with right guard Kyle Long. Maybe the two brothers exchange words and get tangled up after the whistle, or perhaps the younger Long is asked to help out Mills to block Chris Long, but don't expect the sibling rivalry to take place head-up in the trenches.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Chris Long has a better shot of beating tackle Jordan Mills, whom he'll mostly be matched up against in a one-on-one situation. Either way, I think the odds are decent the Bears hold the elder Long brother sack-less, if only because that's what they're good at. The Bears have given up the third-fewest sacks in the NFL and you can bet Mills, as well as Kyle Long, will be ready for him.
Fact or Fiction: Josh McCown will make the debate about a starting QB even hotter with another strong game.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Eventually McCown is going to have a mediocre game, but if the Bears can give the veteran time to throw on Sunday, he should be successful against a Rams defense that ranks No. 19 overall. Now, that's easier said than done given the presence of Chris Long (6.5 sacks) and Robert Quinn (12.0 sacks) on the St. Louis defensive line and the always productive James Laurinaitis at middle linebacker. But imagine if McCown improves to 3-0 and the Bears sit at 7-4 next Monday. Are the Bears really going to rush Jay Cutler back from this high-ankle sprain? If McCown plays well on Sunday and the Bears are victorious, the best thing for the team is to start McCown Dec. 1 at Minnesota. Why ruin a good thing?
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. McCown should have a good game, but it doesn't change the fact that Cutler is the starter. This isn't a Colin Kaepernick-Alex Smith situation. The Bears might not sign Cutler to a long-term deal this offseason, but he's not getting benched for McCown, now or later. It's not even a question, especially considering Cutler has played pretty well this season, thanks in part to the upgrades on the offensive line and the coaching staff.
Fact or Fiction: Zac Stacy will be the next running back to gash the Bears defense.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. The Bears proved again last Sunday they can't stop the run. The Ravens entered the game averaging 73 yards per game on the ground. They left Soldier Field with 174 yards. Stacy is the second-leading rookie rusher in the NFL with 537 yards and posted back-to-back 100-yard rushing games in Weeks 8 and 9. With the game being played in the controlled climate of the Edward Jones Dome on artificial turf, I expect Stacy to be next in a long line of running backs to exploit the Bears' run defense.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Well, he's next, right?
Fact or Fiction: Alshon Jeffery will get more receiving yards than Tavon Austin.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Austin is a dangerous home-run hitter. But Jeffery is turning into a legitimate No. 1 NFL wide receiver with 54 receptions for 818 yards and three touchdowns. He is a focal point of the Bears' offense. Jeffery has four 100-yard receiving games this season and has topped 80 yards in three of the past four weeks. Brandon Marshall is likely due for a bounce-back game after a mediocre performance against the Ravens, but even when Marshall is on a roll, Jeffery finds a way to get his touches. Expect that same exact scenario to play out Sunday in St. Louis.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Austin is coming off the best game of his young career -- 138 yards and two touchdowns, including an 81-yarder. That's the kind of explosive effort the Rams expect, and the Bears do like to give up yardage. But that's the only game he's had more than 47 yards. The Bears' secondary might be bad, but I'd put my money on another reliable effort from Jeffery. With McCown in at quarterback, Jeffery has caught 18 passes for 273 yards in 10 quarters and one series. He's a star in the making, just as Brandon Marshall has predicted. And we know Marshall is never wrong.
“Uh, I’m trying to process Ben Stiller and Jesus,” McCown said, laughing. “I just want to be there to listen to them two talk, because I think that would be cool.”
McCown took some ribbing for his accent at Halas Hall this week, with offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer joking the quarterback’s drawl “slowed [offensive calls] down just a little bit.” But nobody inside the locker room or the organization is complaining about the results produced by McCown, who is 2-0 in relief of starting quarterback Jay Cutler.
Coming into the season, McCown, 34, owned a record of 13-20 as a starter, which makes his recent success seem somewhat improbable.
“Someone once said a long time ago, the difference between a very good player and an average player is reps,” St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “And that’s clearly what we see on tape with Josh. He’s a fine football player. He’s playing very well. His numbers reflect that.”
McCown attributes his success to a combination of factors, ranging from a more mature approach to the game to the bevy of weapons surrounding him, not to mention a strong belief in the scheme brought to Chicago by Bears coach Marc Trestman. McCown hasn’t started more than two games in a season since 2007, when he struggled to a 2-7 record with the Oakland Raiders.
Even after that bout of adversity, a year out of the game in 2010, and mostly fruitless stops with two more teams (including Chicago), McCown doesn’t “know if I allowed myself” to consider whether he’d ever again receive an opportunity to start in the NFL.
“I wasn’t hoping it would happen. I wasn’t going, ‘I can’t wait until Jay gets hurt so I get a chance,’” McCown said. “It was just more of every day trying to get better so that if I have to play, I’ll be ready to play and be productive. Nothing more than that, and nothing more than just so I can be productive for this team right now. On whatever day that is, can I go out and play good football and give us a chance to win the ballgame?”
McCown obviously has answered that question in the affirmative in his last two outings. Asked about the quarterback’s winding career path, Trestman said, “You just learn that every quarterback’s on their own journey.”
“You look at the history of the game and where quarterbacks come from. Some are drafted in the first round and do well, others don’t. Others are drafted the 199th pick in the draft, and they wind up winning three Super Bowls and are Hall of Famers. Other guys are working in a grocery store one year and the next year they’re MVPs in Super Bowls,” Trestman said. “Another guy I coached didn’t start playing until he was 29 years old, and he’s in the Hall of Fame today. So they all have their own way of reaching this moment.
“Josh in an unselfish guy who works very hard, who just has been working hard his whole career, doing whatever’s asked of him to do, and he’s in a position to help this football team, and I don’t think he’s carrying it on his shoulders. Everybody is on their own journey in their own place emotionally, physically, and you know Josh is in that place right now.”
In the huddle, however, McCown seems right at home, despite Bennett’s colorful description.
Asked how McCown sounds in the huddle, Bennett said, “Ben Stiller, maybe, but Ben Stiller in ‘Heavyweights.’ Yeah, it’s a little country, but it’s a combination of Jesus and Ben Stiller.”
“We’ve all heard Jesus,” the tight end added. “But some of us aren’t listening.”
“Shea practiced full today so we feel good about that,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said. “[We feel good about] getting some people back. Isaiah worked noncontact [drills] today and was limited.”
Right tackle Jordan Mills (quadriceps) and long-snapper Patrick Mannelly (calf) also practiced without restrictions.
Safety Craig Steltz (concussion) and defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff were limited. Trestman effectively ruled out Ratliff for the Rams game, but Steltz appears to be making progress after being on the wrong end of a nasty collision while covering a kickoff last week versus the Baltimore Ravens.
Starting defensive tackle Stephen Paea (toe) missed practice for the second consecutive day and is unlikely to play Sunday in St. Louis.
The Bears officially ruled out weakside linebacker Lance Briggs (shoulder) and quarterback Jay Cutler (ankle) earlier in the week, but Cutler seems to be on the mend. The quarterback attended practice again Thursday without a hard cast on his left leg to protect his high-ankle sprain. Cutler simply wore a brace on the ankle and stood on the field for much of the workout that is open to the media.
Trestman was asked if Cutler is permanently out of the hard cast.
“I really don’t have an answer for you,” Trestman said. “It’s really a week-to-week thing. Really, on the cast or the brace he has, it might be a day-to-day thing. But I’m really not any more informed than that. Other than that, I know Jay is going to be week-to-week. I said day-to-day [Wednesday]; I meant week-to-week. … And we’ll see where he is. You see him in practice. You’re getting a good idea of where he’s at. You see him moving around, trying to move around during the individual periods that you’re out there to see and get a good idea of where he’s at. And hopefully he won’t have to have the cast put on.”
Cutler arrived at Wednesday's practice inside the Walter Payton Center with a standard football cleat on his left foot, and not the hard cast and walking boot he was required to wear last week to move around the facility.
“He had a very small brace on,” Bears head coach Marc Trestman said. “He’s the got the sprain, but there is stability there (in the ankle). There is enough stability where they could take the (hard cast) off. Again, it’s day-to-day and I’m optimistic that it will stay that way, but we’ll have to see.”
Trestman refused to speculate whether Cutler would be medically cleared to start versus the Minnesota Vikings on December 1. Veteran Josh McCown will make his third start of the season at quarterback for the Bears when the club travels to face the St. Louis Rams on Sunday.
“I’m just going to stay on a week-to-week (timetable) right now,” Trestman said. “I’m really not the doctor. They tell me it’s week-to-week. I try not to put myself in a position where I get overly optimistic about these things. I just take them as they come. I look at it being week-to-week right now and we’ll see where he is on Monday.”
Cutler revealed Monday on ESPN 1000’s “The Jay Cutler Show” that he originally targeted a Dec. 1 return date immediately after he suffered the high-ankle sprain, but that was before team doctors detected potentially more serious damage that could keep the quarterback off-the-field longer than expected.
"We're taking the cast off periodically, just kind of checking to see where I'm at,” Cutler said. “We'll see again later this week, then early next week where it's at.
"There are a couple of ligaments that we're a little worried about that's different than the normal high ankle sprain," he said. "There are a few other things involved. If I just had a normal high ankle sprain, I wouldn't be in a cast. [A cast] helps it scar up and stuff, but the normal high ankle sprain isn't really a concern at this point."
Preseason: 13 | Last Week: 11 | ESPN.com Power Ranking since 2002
Despite attrition continuing to take a toll on the roster, the Chicago Bears put on a gritty showing in adverse weather conditions Sunday to best the Baltimore Ravens in overtime, which helped the club move up a spot in the ESPN.com Power Rankings from No. 11 to No. 10.
More importantly, the Bears seized a share of the division lead by virtue of Detroit’s loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Chicago still needs another slip-up from the Lions against Tampa Bay on Sunday coupled with a win over St. Louis to take control of the NFC North.
With six games remaining, it’s there for the taking.
What bodes well for the future is the Bears have learned to play with the entire roster due to all the injuries in so many key spots. They’ve demonstrated they can get the job done without Jay Cutler, Charles Tillman or Lance Briggs in the lineup through a combination of strong coaching and several young players stepping up to fill the void. The Bears expect a few of the key contributors to return soon. So that, coupled with the strength of the depth gaining experience now, should be beneficial down the stretch.
Elsewhere in the division, the division-leading Lions dropped two spots to 11th in this week’s rankings, while the Green Bay Packers fell another two spots to 15th after a 27-13 loss to the No. 22-ranked Giants. The Packers have fallen two slots in each of the last two weeks, and the free fall could continue until the club gains stability at quarterback with Aaron Rodgers out. Green Bay is currently on a three-game skid.
Minnesota, meanwhile, dropped another spot from 30th to 31st after a 41-20 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Just two of the six panelists gave the Bears a top-10 vote, while two put in votes for No. 11 and two put the club at No. 12.
Chicago’s struggling defense continues to improve, which might be attributed to defensive coordinator Mel Tucker opting to orchestrate from the sideline instead of the coaches’ booth. Offensively, the Bears improved the rushing attack against the Ravens, and quarterback Josh McCown continues to perform efficiently. Even with Cutler out for another week, and all the injuries on defense, the Bears appear to be ascending.