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Tuesday, October 5, 2010
A frightening combination for the Bears

By Kevin Seifert

Jay Cutler
Jay Cutler was under constant pressure Sunday, being subjected to nine first-half sacks.
Dead leaves, seaweed, rotten eggs, too.
Stir them in my witches' brew.
I got magic! Alakazamakazoo.
Spider web, moldy bread, mucky mud, too.
Stir them in my witches' brew.
I got magic! Alakazamakazoo.


Hopefully kids these days are still singing "Witches' Brew" in school. For some reason, it's what popped in my head Sunday night while watching Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler absorb nine sacks in the first half of a 17-3 loss to the New York Giants. That unprecedented total seemed to be the result of four frightening ingredients tossed into a simmering black cauldron.

(Thus ends our corny Halloween imagery. For now.)

In one night at the New Meadowlands Stadium, you had:
  1. An offensive scheme with a long history of allowing high sack totals.
  2. A quarterback who has taken the 10th-most sacks in the NFL since becoming a full-time starter.
  3. Four moving parts on the five-man offensive line.
  4. An opponent with athletic and speedy pass-rushers along its defensive line.

Not every Bears opponent this season will have pass-rushers like the Giants' Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, each of whom notched three sacks Sunday night. Unfortunately, the other three factors are all embedded in the Bears' dilemma.

Like coach Lovie Smith, I'm not ready to panic just yet -- not when the Bears' defense is playing at such a high level and their special teams are showing some big-play signs. But the events Sunday night raise some fair questions: Is Mike Martz's scheme, Cutler's decision-making and a torn-up offensive line a combustible combination? Are the Bears deeply vulnerable to teams with decent pass rushes? Or are there ways to smooth the edges?

"We played four games and we lost one," Smith told reporters Monday. "Let's not panic around here, all right? The reality is we're 3-1 with this group. Our offense has done a lot of good things. [Sunday] night, we didn't get it done. We didn't get it done. No more than that."

Let's take a deeper look at the individual factors involved. The first chart tracks the sack numbers and context for the 11 NFL offenses Martz has either coordinated or been the head coach of. As you can see, each of the past eight has ranked in the bottom third of the NFL for most sacks allowed. The trend has spanned four franchises and five primary quarterbacks, leaving little doubt about its genesis.

The reason is simple, says Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "Martz likes to get as many pass-catchers into routes as possible," Williamson said. "He has a lot of seven-step drops and long-developing route combinations."

In short, quarterbacks in the Martz scheme often need more time to let plays develop. Good protection puts them in position to make lots of big plays, but adjustments are necessary when pass-rushers have the upper hand. The scheme can shift to shorter drops and quicker routes, as it did Sept. 19 against the Dallas Cowboys, but it requires quicker decisions from the quarterback.

Which brings us to our second point. Since he became the Denver Broncos' full-time starter in 2007, Cutler has taken 90 sacks. As you can see in the second chart, that ranks him ninth among all NFL quarterbacks over that span. But since it also includes an anomalous 11-sack season in 2008, I put together a third chart that shows where he has ranked among the league's most-sacked quarterbacks in his other three seasons as a full-time starter.

Close observers know that Cutler is quick-footed and mobile. A more likely explanation, then, is a tendency to hold the ball too long and/or take a sack rather than throw the ball away.

Speaking Monday on ESPN radio, former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner -- Martz's star pupil with the St. Louis Rams -- emphasized the importance of Cutler quickening his release and decision-making.

"[The Bears] are going to keep the pedal down, they're going to continue to take chances," Warner said. "But so much of it as a quarterback is just making quick decisions, understanding what's going on up front and that you can't sit back and just wait for the big play every time. Sometimes you've just got to say it's not there initially, let's just get the ball out of my hands and let somebody else do something with it."

According to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, the Bears' coaching staff attributed three of Sunday night's sacks to Cutler holding the ball too long. Four were the result of offensive linemen simply losing their one-on-one matchup, and three others were put on tight ends failing to make their blocks.

You could blame Martz for leaving tight ends to block defensive ends, even if it's 300-pound Brandon Manumaleuna. But the larger issue is his scheme requires a steady group of offensive linemen who on average will win their one-on-one battles.

But Martz doesn't have that with the Bears. Left tackle Chris Williams hasn't played since suffering a significant hamstring injury Sept. 19. Right guard Lance Louis departed Sunday night's game with a knee injury, and the Bears have rotated two inexperienced players -- J'Marcus Webb and Edwin Williams -- into the mix.

In all, eight different offensive linemen have seen significant playing time through four games. The only starter who has played every snap at his original position is center Olin Kreutz.

Such upheaval makes it easy to understand why Giants players were slicing through the Bears' line Sunday night. There are no shortcuts to building a cohesive offensive line. I'm quite sure the Bears would prefer to identify five full-time starters and continue playing them, but at this point it hasn't been an option.

"There were a lot of things that were unacceptable from that game," Smith said. "I'll put the offensive line in there. But it's not just the offensive line. We gave up a lot of sacks, and that was spread out. Some of it was the offensive line, the tight ends and running backs had something to do with it, and also Jay. It's a combination of all of those."

I supported Martz's candidacy for this job and still think hiring him was the best the Bears could have done under the circumstances. They won their first three games with this offense and have the capacity to win many more. But they would also be foolish to consider Sunday night's performance an aberration.

Like it or not, the Bears are saddled with a witch's brew of spider webs, moldy bread and mucky mud. A combination of ingredients went into the cauldron, and it will take a blend of solutions to sweeten the taste. Or something like that. You get my drift.