NFL Nation: Air and Space

CutlerAndrew Weber/US PresswireBears quarterback Jay Cutler is coming off his two best weeks of the season.
Aaron Rodgers is chasing history, Matthew Stafford is establishing credibility and Christian Ponder is awaiting his opportunity. With so many quarterback developments here in the NFC North, it has been easy to overlook perhaps the most fascinating figure of them all.

Jay Cutler has put together his two best games of the season in consecutive weeks for the Chicago Bears, in the process arriving at nothing less than a career crossroads. In revealing he has at least as good, if not better, sense of the Bears' capabilities than offensive coordinator Mike Martz, Cutler has exposed himself to at least the possibility of a fourth new offensive coordinator in the past five years.


Yes, suggestions are mounting that Martz might not return to Chicago when his contract expires after this season. I know the next coach is always the best option in the minds of many, but I'm far from convinced that Martz needs to move on. In fact, Cutler's career might be best served by finding a way to make it work with him.

Martz has certainly had his share of stumbles since joining the Bears, and for many of you it's gone on too long already. ESPNChicago.com's Melissa Isaacson gave voice to that sentiment, advising the Bears to make Martz a lowball offer and promote offensive line coach Mike Tice in 2012. And without naming Martz, ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer Insider wrote that Cutler "needs to be around a coach, someone he trusts, someone who can tap into whatever passion is there and bring it out."

Much has been made of the obscenity that NBC's microphones caught Cutler directing at the Bears' sideline during Sunday night's 39-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. Cutler asked someone to "tell him I said [expletive] you." Martz sits in the coaches booth during games, leading to speculation that he was the target of Cutler's ire.

Afterward, Cutler reminded reporters about his public plea to scale back the Bears offense last week and notably spread credit for Sunday night's success.

"There's a lot of people involved in this," Cutler said. "Mike Tice, me, [quarterbacks coach] Shane Day, [tight end coach Mike DeBord]. Everyone has kind of a say in this and we are all trying to do the right thing and we are all trying to manage what we can and can't do on the football field. When we are smart about it and do the things we did tonight, we are more than likely going to be successful."

Yes, Cutler correctly assessed the Bears' offensive capabilities and shortcomings. That he went public with his ideas suggested he was at least concerned Martz might not oblige. Perhaps it was an end-around. More likely, it was an aggressive nudge. Regardless, you can't argue with the results.

According to film analysis by Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune, the Bears used at least six players in pass protection on 23 of their 31 passes. On both of Cutler's touchdown passes, they kept seven blockers in.

Those touchdowns also came on play-action, which the Bears used to near-perfection Sunday night. As the second chart shows, via ESPN Stats & Information, Cutler completed 8 of 9 play-action passes and had a perfect quarterback rating on them. With seven blockers in place, and Matt Forte in the backfield, it's not surprising the Vikings fell for run-fakes on those scores.

Martz also obliged Cutler on quicker passes, calling for five-step drops or shorter on 26 of his 31 passes, according to Pompei.

"We managed them," Cutler said. "A lot of five-steps and play-action, left some extra guys in, shift a little bit. Whenever we help them [the offensive line] out and get the ball out of my hands, it's going to be easy on me. It's not that difficult. Our game plan was really solid this week and we need to be very judicious going forward with what we can do and can't do."

You could interpret those quotes as Cutler propagating his personal preference over Martz's long-held theories. I see it as evidence of a compromise, uncomfortable or otherwise, that if managed correctly will put Cutler in position to maximize his success over the coming years.

One of the key ingredients in the success of NFL quarterbacks is consistency of scheme. It's no accident that the NFL's five highest-rated passers -- Rodgers, Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Stafford and Drew Brees -- are in at least their third consecutive year in the same offensive system. Obviously the scheme must be sound, but talented and smart quarterbacks like Cutler can usually find a productive comfort zone over time.

That's what I see Cutler approaching at this point. What the Bears did Sunday night looked pretty sound to me, even considering it came against a Vikings defense that seemed slow and undermanned.

I don't know whether Cutler likes Martz personally or even if he respects him professionally. But if Cutler can nudge the scheme to his team's benefit, working or tugging with Martz along the way, the Bears would still be better off than if they started Cutler over with a new coordinator next year. Even if that new coach mirrored what the Bears are doing now, there would inevitably be a transition period that would set back Cutler's career.

Being a serial divorcee might work in Hollywood, but in football it stalls progress. As we've said from the beginning of this marriage, both men need each other to advance their careers.
You might have heard that 2011 is the Year of the Quarterback on all ESPN platforms. Longtime blog readers know the NFC North has been the division of quarterbacks for some time. We like to call it the "Air and Space" division, making a funny based on our longtime "Black and Blue" moniker, and here on the blog we take usually weekly looks at relevant developments for our quarterback corps.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Mike DiNovo/US PresswireBears quarterback Jay Cutler has found success in utilizing the screen pass.
One dynamic that already is jumping out: The Chicago Bears' utilization of the screen play since quarterback Jay Cutler joined forces with offensive coordinator Mike Martz last season. Let me explain how it could have a significant role in Sunday's game at the New Orleans Saints. (All information courtesy ESPN Stats & Information unless otherwise noted.)

In his last 16 regular-season games, Cutler has thrown a total of 48 screen passes and completed them for a combined 418 yards and two touchdowns, both to tailback Matt Forte. Cutler ranks second in the NFL for total passing yards on screen plays over that stretch.

As it turns out, the Saints' traditionally heavy blitzing practices make them particularly vulnerable to screen plays. Since Gregg Williams joined them as defensive coordinator in 2009, opponents have completed an NFL-high 90.9 percent of screen passes against them.

Obviously, the screen isn't a glamour play for a strong-armed quarterback like Cutler. But to me it's a perfect call, as long as it's not overused, for the place the Bears' offense finds itself in right now.

First, screen plays can slow down a pass rush because of the possibility the ball is headed to the flat. The Bears appeared to have made some strides in their pass protection this summer, but there is nothing wrong with cooling the jets of an anxious pass-rusher and then making him chase a running back downfield.

Second, the Bears have one of the best pass-catching running backs in the NFL. Forte has an obvious instinct for the play and exceptional open-field running ability once it develops. If you have any doubts on that assessment, check out Forte's 56-yard touchdown last Sunday. He broke two tackles and then ran away from the Atlanta Falcons' defense on the way to the end zone.

The effectiveness of screens moving forward rests largely in Martz's hands. Sunday's touchdown was set up by a smart fake reverse that gave Forte some room to get started. But Martz will also have to balance a clear strength with the realization that teams will gear up for it if he calls it too often.

Martz might have erred toward the latter option last season after calling six screen plays in the Bears' Week 1 victory over the Detroit Lions. Cutler totaled 126 yards on those plays, including an 89-yard touchdown to Forte. But for the rest of the season, Cutler averaged 12.5 yards per game on screen plays.

Last week, the Saints gave up 30 passing yards on screen plays to the Green Bay Packers on a total of three plays. I think it will be worth the Bears' time to poke the Saints' defense with a few on Sunday just to see if it has an answer.

If you want to watch me talk about the Bears' screen play, check out the "NFC 411" video below. A few other guys will say some stuff as well.

Julius Peppers & Ndamukong SuhUS PresswireFeared pass rushers Julius Peppers and Ndamukong Suh will showcase their talents tonight.
Something has been missing from my life, and perhaps yours as well. Our extended postseason run and an unusual start to the offseason has delayed a follow-up I've been meaning to write for some time. So while we have a moment, let's finally restore order around here.

One of our primary themes for the 2010 season was the NFC North's response to its precedent-setting passing numbers in 2009. In a pre-training camp post, we suggested the division race would turn on the degree to which each team's pass defense could catch up to our passing offenses.

Would the Chicago Bears' acquisition of defensive end Julius Peppers pay off? How much better would the Detroit Lions' pass rush be with their retooled defensive line, one that now included a former Pro Bowl defensive end (Kyle Vanden Bosch) and the No. 2 overall pick of the draft (defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh)? Would the Minnesota Vikings sustain their historic passing efficiency of 2009 while improving their own pass defense? Could the Green Bay Packers straighten out the personnel shortage that led to an epic collapse in the wild-card playoffs?

Our theory: The most effective response would clinch the division and, perhaps more. And although there were a few exceptions here and there, the end result proved illuminating.


As the charts show, the Bears won the NFC North after making a 24-spot jump in the NFL's rankings for defensive passer rating. The Packers, who fielded the league's best pass defense and No. 3 passing offense based on quarterback rating, won Super Bowl XLV. The Vikings improved their pass defense, but the collapse of their passing offense was the single biggest factor in their 6-10 record. Finally, the Lions' progression in both categories mirrored their four-victory improvement from 2009.

Sorry, run-and-run-defense enthusiasts. Success in today's NFL requires efficient passing and pass defense. Passer rating isn't a perfect common evaluator, but I like it better than the NFL's traditional measure using total yards. And as Kerry Byrne of Football Facts points out, defensive passer rating is one of the most reliable indicators of championship-caliber teams.

"This game is made for offensive players, I think," Packers general manager Ted Thompson said recently. "The rules are, and all that kind of stuff."

In turn, any team that can take either special advantage of those rules and make headway against them on defense -- or both -- figures to be in the playoff conversation. So let's take this quiet moment in the NFL offseason to measure each NFC North team through the passing lens. Where are they and how can they improve?

Chicago Bears

Quarterback Jay Cutler threw 10 fewer interceptions in 2010 after getting assimilated into Mike Martz's offense, and the entire team figures to benefit from its familiarity with Martz's system. With that said, I see two pass-related areas the Bears should focus on this year: Pass protection and interior pass rush.

The Bears gave up an NFL-high 56 sacks last season, a figure that doesn't directly apply to passer rating but assuredly affects a quarterback's accuracy and decision-making over time. In a recent interview with the Bears' website, coach Lovie Smith noted "the number of hits Jay took this past season." On many levels, the Bears need to enter 2011 with a better Week 1 plan for their offensive line.

Meanwhile, the release of defensive tackle Tommie Harris reminds us the Bears don't have an established interior pass-rusher who has typically defined their defense. Matt Toeaina, who replaced Harris in the starting lineup last season, was credited with two sacks.

Detroit Lions

The Lions are hoping that Vanden Bosch returns at full strength following neck surgery. If so, their biggest pass-related need this offseason is continuing to rebuild their cornerback position. They did not re-sign starter Chris Houston before last week's deadline, but it's possible he could return to the team after testing the free-agent market. At the moment, however, the Lions have only two established cornerbacks under contract: Alphonso Smith and Nate Vasher.

Meanwhile, the Lions have acknowledged the need to improve at their No. 3 receiver position. Although they can mitigate this issue with the smart use of tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, the Lions' offense would take a substantial hit if either Calvin Johnson or Nate Burleson were forced from the lineup for an extended period. Bryant Johnson and Derrick Williams combined for a substandard 21 receptions last season.

Green Bay Packers

Thompson will need to sort out his receiver depth in anticipation of James Jones' pending free agency. Jones said Monday he wants to be a starter, an indication that he will look to sign elsewhere when the market opens. The Packers could use Jordy Nelson as their unquestioned No. 3 receiver and seek further depth in the draft, a reasonable path that could make Jones' departure inevitable.

[+] EnlargeSidney Rice
AP Photo/Paul SancyaSidney Rice is expected to test the free-agent market this offseason.
The Packers' other big challenge will be replacing defensive end Cullen Jenkins, who led their linemen with seven sacks despite missing five games because of injury. Jenkins is a pending free agent and appears set to move on. Rising second-year players Mike Neal and C.J. Wilson could vie for that job. Reviews on both players have been good, but are they seven-sack good? Another possibility is veteran Johnny Jolly, who has applied for reinstatement after a one-year suspension.

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings might have more passing-game work ahead of them than the rest of the NFC North combined.

At the top of the list is finding short- and long-term answers at quarterback, a job that could require multiple acquisitions. Former Pro Bowl receiver Sidney Rice is a pending free agent and wants to test his value on the market, and last season ended with high-priced veteran Bernard Berrian as an afterthought. A significant rebuild of the receiving corps could be on the horizon.

Defensively, the Vikings probably are looking for two new starters on their defensive line. Left end Ray Edwards, who recorded 16.5 sacks over the past two seasons, appears set to move on in free agency. (Backup Brian Robison signed a new contract last week.) Nose tackle Pat Williams also isn't expected back.

Finally, the Vikings enter the offseason certain of only one starter in their secondary: cornerback Antoine Winfield. The health of fellow cornerback Cedric Griffin (knee) is uncertain, and at the very least, safeties Madieu Williams and Husain Abdullah will have to earn their starting jobs in training camp.
Jay CutlerDennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireChicago's Jay Cutler has taken fewer risks this season, and his 90.4 passer rating would be his career best.
So I was putting together some numbers this week on the season of Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler when ESPNChicago.com's Michael C. Wright posted an item on the topic. Cutler, who has completed only eight passes that traveled more than 20 yards in the air, was quoted saying: "I don't think we've touched on what we're capable of there yet."

Said offensive coordinator Mike Martz: "It'll happen."

To which I thought: "Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!"

There are two ways to interpret Cutler's performance this season, as spelled out in the first chart. One is that Cutler has found enormous success as a short-range passer, limiting his opportunities for mistakes, effectively fighting the urge to force passes downfield while allowing his receivers to make plays on their own.

The other is that Cutler's big arm has been underutilized, and that somehow the Bears must find a way to tap into it during the final push to the playoffs.

For the Bears' sake, I hope the latter isn't true. I hope they will embrace the balance they've found with Cutler and recognize it's part of the reason they've won eight of their first 11 games.

Whether it's been by design, dictated by coverage or a result of poor pass protection, Cutler is having the best season of his career -- and is poised for his first winning season since high school -- by taking the surest bet. He has thrown 35 screen passes, tied for the third most in the league, and overall nearly half of his attempts have traveled less than 10 yards in the air.

Cutler has the NFL's fourth-best rating in those situations, but everything else has been a crapshoot. He's completed only 39 of 96 passes that have traveled more than 10 yards in the air and thrown seven of his 10 interceptions among those attempts.

From my amateur vantage point, I see no problem with the way it's gone. Maybe it's a coincidence, but from the outside, it sure looks like the Bears have at least made some progress in taming a gunslinger. Cutler has a 90.4 passer rating, which would be the highest of his career, and is on pace for the best touchdown-interception ratio of his career. With the exception of his four-interception disaster against the Washington Redskins, Cutler hasn't pushed the envelope. In fact, nearly half of the Bears' total passing yards this season (49.2 percent) have come on yards gained after the catch, the seventh-highest percentage in the NFL.

With December weather upon us, and the magnitude of each pass growing, do the Bears really want Cutler ramping himself up and looking for downfield passes? Isn't it time to rally around your strengths, the so-called "things that brought you here?"

I realize that neither Cutler nor Martz would want to say publicly that they've given up on pursuing the long ball. And by all means, they should take it if it presents itself. But let's also make clear that the Bears -- and Cutler -- have gotten this far without it. There's a lesson to be had there.

Air and Space: Stafford's short season

November, 11, 2010
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Matthew StaffordJerry Lai/US PresswireThough it's a small sample size, Matthew Stafford has produced encouraging statistics this season.
Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford might miss the rest of the season because of a shoulder injury. He could return in a few weeks. No one seems to know for certain yet.

With relative certainty, however, I think it's safe to assume we're not going to see what we most wanted from Stafford this season: A long stretch of uninterrupted starts. More than anything, continuity seemed critical to get a better handle on what he can do and how much he has developed.

Absent that, what can we make of the small sample size he has thus far provided? After 96 attempted passes over three starts, here some thoughts and statistical observations:*

  • Stafford has been exceedingly cautious from a downfield perspective. Almost 80 percent of his passes (76 of 96) and 93 percent of his completions (52 of 57) have traveled 10 or less yards in the air. Only one of his passes have been completed for 30 or more yards. But within that short-range frame, Stafford has been highly successful. He has completed 52 of those 76 short passes for 463 yards and six touchdowns, good for a 110.8 passer rating that ranks No. 1 in the NFL through that filter.
  • In part because he has gotten the ball out quickly, Stafford has the NFL's best passer rating against the blitz. Against five or more pass rushers, he has completed 18 of 28 passes for four touchdowns. He's taken two sacks, but they don't count against his 119.2 passer in these situations. That rating ranks first in the NFL among qualifiers.
  • Stafford has also been cool in clutch situations. His fourth-quarter passer rating of 109.9 ranks No. 2 in the NFL, while his third-down rating of 104.4 ranks No. 6.
  • For the most part, Stafford has stayed in the pocket and worked the middle of the field. Of his 96 passes, only eight have come outside of the pocket. Seven of them were incomplete. About 60 percent of his attempts have gone to receivers who were somewhere between the numbers on the field. Stafford's 125.6 passer rating on those passes ranks No. 1 in the NFL.

(*As usual, credit for these numbers goes to ESPN Stats & Information.)

It's important to reiterate that Stafford's statistics are a relatively small sample size when compared to other quarterbacks. But that shouldn't diminish what seems to be the beginnings of the second-year leap the Lions were hoping for. Over time, I'm sure the Lions will want Stafford to be more aggressive, both downfield and to the sidelines. But after he threw 20 interceptions in 10 starts as a rookie, I don't think anyone is complaining about a few extra check-downs in Year 2.

Of course, none of these numbers will be relevant if Stafford doesn't move past his injury issues. I have no idea how a quarterback can avoid getting hurt, but Stafford is going to have to find a way or the rest won't matter.

Air and Space: Tight ends regress

November, 4, 2010
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Greg Olsen and Brandon PettigrewGetty ImagesGreg Olsen's production has dropped significantly for Chicago while Brandon Pettigrew has 35 catches through Detroit's first seven games.
Air and Space has been a dud so far this season, leaving most of this division's talented tight ends lagging from a production standpoint. The trend is especially notable for the Chicago Bears, while the Detroit Lions are proving the exception.

The chart shows the 2010 performance of the NFC North's top five tight ends. I included the Green Bay Packers' Jermichael Finley, who is on injured reserve, to demonstrate that his five-game reception totals are better than those of two others over seven games.

Let's work from the bottom up. The biggest disappointment has been the Bears' Greg Olsen, who caught 15 passes in the Bears' first four games and had many of us believing that Mike Martz had found a way to incorporate the tight end into his offense. But Olsen has had only three receptions since then, and now ranks No. 26 among NFL tight ends in catches.

I'm not totally sure where to point the finger in this instance because he has been targeted for a relatively healthy 34 passes. Ultimately, however, we have to side with history. Through seven games, at least, we have to acknowledge that Olsen is in danger of becoming a pass-catching tight end buried in Martz's offense. I thought Martz would find ways to get Olsen involved on a consistent basis, and it could sill happen. But shame on him if it doesn't happen.

Meanwhile, Visanthe Shiancoe was the Minnesota Vikings' top receiver over their first two games, catching 10 passes in that span, but quieted down considerably after straining a hamstring in Week 3. You have to wonder if quarterback Brett Favre will start looking Shiancoe's way once again following the departure of receiver Randy Moss and Percy Harvin's ankle injury.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Lions, who have made Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler a focal point of their passing offense. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has made a point to utilize the tight end in his other stops around the NFL, be it Jermaine Wiggins and Jim Kleinsasser in Minnesota or Randy McMichael in Miami and St. Louis. But never has Linehan had two tight ends on pace for 60-plus receptions in a season.

And that would be a conservative estimate; Pettigrew and Scheffler have already combined for 61 receptions in the Lions' first seven games. Pettigrew ranks fifth among NFL tight ends with 35 receptions and could have had a half-dozen more if he had held on to a few passes in traffic. Scheffler has proved a valuable mismatch in the slot and even split out wide, and both players have helped make up for a lack of consistent production from the Lions' running game.

Expectations couldn't be higher for Pettigrew. Any tight end drafted in the first round must develop into an elite receiver to provide fair value. Pettigrew was just beginning to display some signs when a torn anterior cruciate ligament ended his rookie season, and he has picked up where he left off. I wouldn't call him elite yet, but he's well on his way.

Air and Space: Screen efficiency

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Screen passes seem to be an obsession among NFL fans. Over the years, I've heard more from you about them than any other aspect of the game. Teams either throw too many or not enough. They use them at the wrong time or have the wrong personnel.

So I found it particularly interesting this year when ESPN Stats & Information began tracking each quarterback's performance on screen passes. Through six weeks of the season, some interesting numbers and trends have emerged.

The Chicago Bears, assumed to be a downfield-oriented team, lead the NFL with 22 screen passes. As you can see in the chart accompanying this post, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has the league's highest rating on screen passes. At No. 2 is the Detroit Lions' Shaun Hill, whose team ranks fifth among NFL teams in total screen passes.

As you recall, Bears tailback Matt Forte scored on an 89-yard screen pass against the Lions in Week 1. Lions tailback Jahvid Best had a 75-yard touchdown on a similar play in Week 2 against the Philadelphia Eagles.

On the other end of the NFC North spectrum are Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers and Brett Favre of the Minnesota Vikings, who rank No. 27 and No. 33, respectively. Keep in mind that the Vikings have played one less game than the rest of the division teams because of their early bye, but Favre's eight screen attempts still reflect what many of you have observed anecdotally: After parting ways with backup tailback Chester Taylor in free agency, the Vikings aren't using many screen passes on a relative basis.

Air and Space 2.0: Maintenance needed

October, 19, 2010
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Favre/Cutler/Rodgers Getty Images, US PresswireThe 2010 season hasn't gotten off to the greatest start for Minnesota's Brett Favre, Chicago's Jay Cutler and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers.
Through six weeks this season, Air and Space 2.0 is a dud. Indeed, the sophomore slump of the NFC North's elite quarterback quartet weaves through the troubles of the entire division and helps explain why the Black and Blue is bruised and dragging in the third week of October.

The full explanation requires a wider net, but in a quarterback-driven league, it's impossible to overlook the dramatic drop in production and efficiency from NFC North passers. Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers have already matched their 2009 interception total for the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers, respectively. Matthew Stafford has thrown only 15 passes for the Detroit Lions because of a right shoulder injury, and Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has taken 18 sacks in his past three starts.

Cutler and Rodgers have already suffered concussions. Favre has taken a cortisone shot to relieve tendinitis pain in his right elbow. Stafford is hoping to return Oct. 31 against the Washington Redskins, leaving him 10 games to demonstrate why he was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2009 draft.

Let's take a closer look at where each quarterback started, what he has been through and where he might be headed. In alphabetical order:

Cutler
Jay Cutler

The set-up: The Bears hoped new offensive coordinator Mike Martz would focus Cutler's downfield mentality and capitalize on his quick release. They were willing to live with some interceptions, just not as frequently as the 26 he threw last season, and believed the biggest obstacle would be a clash of their stubborn personalities.

The stumble: By all accounts, Cutler and Martz have gotten along professionally and personally. And Cutler has thrown only three interceptions in 141 attempts, tying him for the eighth fewest among NFL quarterbacks. But Cutler's career-long propensity to hold the ball, combined with Martz's blind affinity for deep drops, has totally disrupted the Bears' offense.

By the numbers: Cutler had a 121.2 passer rating over the first two games of the season, but in his past three, he has thrown only one touchdown pass and has a 74.6 rating. As a passer, Cutler has been at his worst on his most important throws. His 52.1 rating on third down ranks No. 33 in the NFL. Overall this season, Cutler has been sacked an NFL-high 23 times -- in the equivalent of just 4 1/2 games.

Quotable: "Jay Cutler was introduced to this offense last spring in organized training activities. He went through an entire training camp with it. He was force-fed all of the information by Mike Martz and shown clearly what this offense is about. They use complex protection schemes and utilize one back in the backfield most of the time. It puts a tremendous burden on the quarterback to know who's blocked and who's not blocked. Ultimately, it's Jay Cutler's responsibility, when secondary people are coming, he needs to know they're either being picked up by my offensive line and my backs, or I'm responsible for them with hot throws. Regardless of what the issue is, ultimately it falls on Jay Cutler to get the ball out of his hands and to prevent these sacks and the turnovers that come with them." -- ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer

Favre
Brett Favre

The set-up: Favre had the best season of his career last year, posting a 107.2 passer rating, 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions. With his surgically-repaired biceps tendon still intact and after successful offseason ankle surgery, Favre returned for what he hoped would be a repeat performance.

The stumble: Within days of Favre's decision to play, top receiver Sidney Rice was sidelined by hip surgery. Three receivers -- Greg Camarillo, Hank Baskett and Randy Moss -- have been added to the roster since late August. Tendinitis developed last month, the same ailment that sidelined him for almost a month of training camp in 2000. Finally, Favre has spent two weeks dealing with allegations that he sent inappropriate photographs to a former New York Jets sideline reporter in 2008.

By the numbers: In five games, Favre has committed 12 turnovers, been sacked 13 times and completed only 58.7 percent of his passes. He has had a completion percentage of at least 60 percent in eight of the past nine years. And like Cutler and Rodgers, he has struggled on third down, completing only 50 percent of his throws for a 69.1 passer rating that ranks No. 26 among NFL quarterbacks in those situations.

Quotable: "The first couple games, talking with my mom and a couple family members back home, they said: 'You've got to start smiling more.' That's pressure because, I've said this numerous times, say you're down 14-7, I don't want to be on the sidelines doing cartwheels and smiling. I think that sends the wrong message. I want to win. I think sometimes it's almost that I'm too focused." -- Favre

Rodgers
Aaron Rodgers

The set-up: After earning starting honors in the Pro Bowl last season, Rodgers was a trendy preseason MVP candidate this summer. His two years as a starter had proved him to be an exceptionally accurate and careful passer, and he seemed on the verge of ascending to the highest level of NFL quarterbacks.

The stumble: The Packers lost tailback Ryan Grant (ankle) in Week 1 and tight end Jermichael Finley (knee) in Week 5, robbing Rodgers of his running game and his top pass-catching threat. In between, however, Rodgers has displayed uncharacteristic inaccuracy and has taken more chances than normal. He has already thrown seven interceptions, matching his 2009 season total, and is on pace for a career-high 18. In his past two games, Rodgers has taken nine sacks and completed only 57 percent of his passes.

By the numbers: Rodgers was lethal last season against opponents' blitzes, finishing with 13 touchdown passes and a 112.7 passer rating when facing five or more pass-rushers. Pressure has gotten to him more frequently this season, however. He has thrown four of his interceptions against the blitz and has a 77.8 passer rating against it. Meanwhile, the Packers' trio of three-point losses has raised questions about Rodgers' effectiveness in close games. In his career, the Packers are 1-11 in games decided by four or less points. And like Cutler, Rodgers has struggled on some of his most important throws. He has a 59.0 passer rating on third downs, having thrown five interceptions and completed only 51 percent of his passes in those situations.

Quotable: "It's about finding a rhythm for us. When you're not converting those third downs, there's no rhythm. So we've got to play better." -- Rodgers

[+] EnlargeStafford
AP Photo/Andy KingMatthew Stafford has struggled to stay on the field since he was drafted last year.
Matthew Stafford

The set-up: The Lions were hoping for a substantial second-year jump from Stafford, who threw 20 interceptions in 10 starts as a rookie and missed six games with a variety of injuries. The Lions believed they had significantly upgraded the talent around him and identified his biggest problem last season: forcing the ball in near-hopeless third-down situations.

The stumble: Stafford couldn't make it out of the first half of Week 1 before succumbing to injury, landing on his right shoulder following a sack by Bears defensive end Julius Peppers. He has not played since and is hoping to begin football activities during bye week practices this week.

By the numbers: More than anything, Stafford just needs to get on the field. He has missed 11 of a possible 22 career starts because of injury. Since the start of the 2009 season, 25 quarterbacks have attempted more passes than -- including fellow first-round draft pick Josh Freeman of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It doesn't matter how strong-armed, accurate or well-intentioned Stafford is. Being available is the top requirement of any quarterback.

Quotable: "Every chance you have to play is important. Every time that you go out there you learn something. Matt's a smart guy and he's advanced beyond most rookie or second-year quarterbacks. So it's nothing that's going to hold him back over the course of his career. It's something that's gotten him off to a little bit of a slow start, not from an ability standpoint, not from a knowing what to do standpoint, but just from an availability standpoint. He'll put that behind him." -- Lions coach Jim Schwartz

Air and Space: Running on empty

September, 23, 2010
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If it wasn't before, the transition of the NFC North division from Black and Blue to Air and Space will be complete Monday night at Soldier Field. At about 8:30 p.m. ET, you'll see two teams that have started 2-0 with elite quarterbacks behind center and little help from their running games.

[+] EnlargeMatt Forte
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireMatt Forte has racked up 188 yards through the air this season, but just 79 on the ground.
That's right. As the chart illustrates, the Chicago Bears have rushed for 123 yards this season. That total, along with their average of 2.8 yards per carry, ranks No. 28 in the NFL. The Packers, who lost tailback Ryan Grant to a season-ending ankle injury in Week 1, rank 14th with 223 yards but are managing only 3.7 yards per carry and, like the Bears, are one of 10 NFL teams without a run of 20 or more yards.

Those numbers could even out a bit when the weather turns in December, but there are no guarantees as long as Mike Martz is the Bears' offensive coordinator and the Packers continue to field a mishmash committee of tailbacks. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy is well-known for his downfield throwing mentality, but he insisted this week that the Packers need to establish a running game Monday night. Knowing McCarthy, however, he mostly wants to set up play-action passes and protect his drop-back game.

"You have to have the ability to run the football," McCarthy said, "because [the Bears] do a very good job the way their defense is built against drop-back passing. I'm not looking to run the ball just to set up the pass. I'm sure some of you may disagree with me. When we run it, we want to run it very well."

The Bears, meanwhile, are riding the hot hand of quarterback Jay Cutler and -- as many expected from Martz -- have focused their tailbacks more in the passing game than on the ground. Matt Forte leads the team with 12 receptions, 188 yards and three touchdowns, while backup Chester Taylor is tied for third on the team with five receptions. But they have combined for 114 rushing yards on 40 carries.

Of the two teams, the Bears might be more in need of elevating their running game. This essay from KC Joyner suggests that Cutler might never lose the risk-taking mentality that has largely gone dormant this season. If Cutler hits a wild stretch, it would be nice to rely on Forte or Taylor until he settles down.

But that's not how we do it in the Air and Space division, is it?

Air and Space: Bears and Lions response

September, 17, 2010
9/17/10
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Danieal ManningJerry Lai/US PresswireThe Bears' secondary managed to keep the Lions in check on long third downs last Sunday.
We're continuing our weekly look this season at the Air and Space facet of this division, but as promised last week, I'm planning to introduce a second level of pass-happy analysis. How each NFC North team reacts to that shift in offensive focus will be a fascinating, and probably crucial, element to the 2010 season.

So let's jump into that angle right away here in Week 2, using two parameters we set out this spring. Since the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions played our only divisional game last weekend, let's look at how the Bears' defense performed on third-and-long -- one of their 2009 pitfalls -- and how the Lions defense stood up against downfield passes. First up is the Bears.

As you remember last spring, we put forth a theory that suggested the Bears left themselves vulnerable to third-down conversions last season because of over-blitzing. The idea was that too much blitzing left mid-range receivers open too often, providing too-easy third-down opportunities for offenses. Indeed, Bears opponents had the NFL's best passer rating on third-and-8 or longer last season, completing 67.6 percent of those passes and averaging eight yards per attempt.

The Bears brought down those numbers significantly Sunday at Soldier Field. According to ESPN's Stats & Information, the Bears brought an extra pass rusher on 30 percent of their defensive snaps -- down from an average of nearly 43 percent per game last season. As the first chart shows you, what was supposed to be an explosive Lions offense averaged 3.9 yards per attempt on eight passes when facing third-and-8 or longer. They completed five of those passes but converted only one of them for a first down.

The easy explanation is that the addition of defensive end Julius Peppers gave the Bears more confidence in their base pass rush, necessitating fewer blitzes and more defenders devoted to coverage. We'll see if that was a one-game decision or if it becomes a trend for the Bears this season.

Now let's move on to the Lions. As we discussed in the spring, the Lions' pass defense was horrendous on pretty much all levels last season. Particularly galling was their performance against the longest of downfield passes -- those that traveled at least 21 yards in the air. Opponents completed more than half of those throws last season, averaging more than 41 yards per completion.

This spring, we suggested that an improved pass rush could reduce the time required for those passes. On Sunday, it did. The Lions sacked quarterback Jay Cutler four times, and as the second chart shows, only 60 of Cutler's 375 passing yards came on those kinds of downfield throws. (One was the game-winning touchdown, a 28-yard pass to tailback Matt Forte.)

But as it turned out, stopping the downfield pass wasn't enough for the Lions. Cutler, in fact, burned their defense on short-range passes. As the third chart shows, Cutler had a 117.9 passer rating on 24 passes that traveled 10 yards or fewer past the line of scrimmage.

In general, you would rather have teams dinking and dunking than heaving the ball deep. But on Sunday, the Bears moved the ball throughout the game in that fashion and then won the game on a downfield pass.

To be clear, a one-game sample size leaves us nowhere close to drawing any conclusions. Consider this Act I of a 16-act play. (Or something like that.) We'll update these trends in this space periodically through the season, and when it's over we'll see if either team made consistent progress and whether it mattered to the bottom line.
With the New Orleans Saints-Minnesota Vikings matchup just a few hours away, now is the perfect time to pick up our weekly Air and Space analysis. (The timing is fortuitous, too, considering our plan once again is to post this staple every Thursday afternoon.)

The twist for this season: We'll do our best to incorporate the NFC North's collective response to our precedent-setting shift toward the passing game. We obviously don't have any numbers to use for that angle yet. But considering the Saints' tendency toward pressure defense, I thought it would be interesting to re-enforce how each of our starting quarterbacks performed against the blitz last season and compare it to the 2009 blitz frequency of their Week 1 opponents.

(Remember, we define the blitz as five or more pass rushers.)

The first chart shows how three of the quarterbacks actually threw better against the blitz than they did against standard rushers schemes. Only Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre had a lower passer rating against the blitz, and even then it was 96.2.

The second chart lists our Week 1 opponents and how frequently they blitzed in 2009. Tendencies can change over an offseason, but it's worth noting that none of those four teams have changed schemes and only one -- the Chicago Bears -- have a new coordinator. The upshot is that NFC North teams are scheduled to play three of 2009's top six blitzing teams in Week 1.

I'll be especially interested to see how the Philadelphia Eagles approach the Green Bay Packers, who were somewhat of a paradox last season after giving up 50 sacks while also boasting the NFL's top passer against the blitz. Aaron Rodgers completed 68.2 percent of his passes and produced an amazing 9.2 yards per attempt in those situations.

The Eagles defense is coordinated by Sean McDermott -- who runs most of the pressure-heavy schemes of his predecessor, the late Jim Johnson. But in Week 1, any scheme surprise is possible. Hold tight.
In this ESPN Insider piece Insider, Bill Barnwell suggests that quarterbacks from warm-weather hometowns have historically excelled in cold-weather NFL games. That conclusion got me thinking about our Air and Space collection of quarterbacks, three of whom hail from far sunnier environments.

Cold-weather performance is a limited factor for the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions, who play more than half of every season indoors. But it's not uncommon for the division to be determined outdoors in December, be it in Chicago or Green Bay.

To that end, I looked up the career cold-weather performances of all four (presumed) NFC starters. It was an especially interesting exercise when considering that the Packers' Aaron Rodgers (California), the Lions' Matthew Stafford (Dallas) and the Vikings' Brett Favre (Mississippi) all hail from what I would consider warm-weather locales.

Check out the chart below, which compares each quarterback's cold-weather stats (defined as less than 40 degrees) to their career passer rating. Based on information compiled by STATS Inc., we see that Rodgers has matched his career performance -- exactly -- when playing in cold weather. Chicago's Jay Cutler, the only quarterback among the four who hails from a Midwest state, has a slightly better rating in such conditions.

Favre hasn't hidden his distaste for cold-weather games, but on the whole, his play hasn't fallen considerably in those instances. Finally, we shouldn't read too much into Stafford's one-game history in weather less than 40 degrees. That miserable performance came last December in Cincinnati, the final game Stafford played before succumbing to his separated left shoulder.

Air and Space: Rising pass attempts

December, 17, 2009
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The point of this year’s Air and Space feature has been to document the impact of potentially elite quarterback play in the previously rough-and-tumble NFC North. Would Brett Favre, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford join Aaron Rodgers and elevate us into a pass-happy division? Or would we maintain a run-first, grind-it-out mentality?

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireRookie Matthew Stafford has thrown the ball 377 times this season.
I’ll leave a full analysis for after the season, but we have a big enough sample size to start considering the numbers. Here’s the bottom line: Through 13 games, all four of our teams are among the NFL’s top 11 in pass attempts. The breakdown:

5. Detroit Lions (487)
8. Chicago Bears (460)
10. Minnesota Vikings (449)
11. Green Bay Packers (447)

We should keep in mind that the numbers in Detroit and Chicago might be skewed because they’ve played from behind so often. Still, as a whole, we’ve seen a substantial jump not a year-over-year jump for both the Lions and Vikings. For reference, here’s how the four NFC North teams ranked in 2008:

9. Green Bay Packers (541)
14. Chicago Bears (528)
18. Detroit Lions (509)
28. Minnesota Vikings (452)

There’s more to consider here, including how these figures compare to other divisions and the impact on our running games. But unless we witness some dramatic changes over the final three games of the season, we’ll be able to conclude that the NFC North’s style of play took a significant turn in 2009.

Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert


Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler probably has received the short end in recent editions of our Air and Space statistical analysis. After taking a quick look at the numbers, the reason is pretty clear.
 Cutler


Cutler fails to stand out in most NFL rankings because of one 30-minute stretch to start the season. I’m sure you remember it: He threw three interceptions before halftime in the Bears’ opener at Green Bay. But when you look past that half, Cutler has been one of the most efficient and productive NFL quarterbacks ever since.

Consider the chart below. Since halftime of Week 1, Cutler has a 107.8 passer rating. That figure trails only two other quarterbacks over that stretch: Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning (119) and the New York Giants’ Eli Manning (110.4). Cutler’s 70.1 completion percentage in the same time period ranks second to Peyton Manning’s 73.8.

Jay Cutler: First Half at Green Bay
Comp. Att. Pct. Yards TD INT Rating
8 22 36.3 127 0 3 16.9
Jay Cutler: 14 Quarters Since Halftime at Green Bay
Comp. Att. Pct. Yards TD INT Rating
75 107 70.1 774 8 2 107.8


You can safely draw a few conclusions. First, a relatively small sample can minimize the big snapshot of a player’s performance. (Overall this season, Cutler ranks 14th among NFL quarterbacks with an 89.3 passer rating.) Second, Cutler has been arguably the NFC North’s best quarterback over his last 14 quarters -- which represents 87.5 percent of his season.

Cutler’s interceptions were the difference in the loss at Green Bay, but he was a big part of their successive victories over Pittsburgh and Seattle.

There has been a lot of discussion about how the Bears might implement his skills this season. In perusing the exclusive statistics we get from ESPN Stats & Information, one category jumped out.

Cutler is working primarily from a set formation rather than in the shotgun, especially when you compare him to other NFC North quarterbacks. About 65 percent of his passes have come on plays that start under center. Thirty NFL quarterbacks have thrown more shotgun passes than Cutler.

As you can see in the chart below, his passer rating is 80.2 on shotgun throws. When he’s under center, it’s 94.2.

Shotgun Performances
Quarterback Team Shotgun throws NFL rank Shotgun rating
Matthew Stafford Detroit 83 12 70.1
Aaron Rodgers Green Bay 81 13 101.2
Brett Favre Minnesota 67 21 92.9
Jay Cutler Chicago 45 31 80.2


It’s not unusual for NFL quarterbacks to have lower ratings in the shotgun; a high percentage of those plays are in third-and-long situations, which are difficult conversions. But the disparity for Cutler is significant enough to draw a reasonable conclusion about his comfort level.

Frankly, I like the idea of limiting the shotgun unless you’re running a spread offense. The shotgun restricts your options in the running game and gives defenses a jump on the likelihood of your play call. To me, it’s always preferable to succeed from under center.

A perfect example will come Sunday night at the Georgia Dome. In a loud environment, it’s usually better to operate closer to the line of scrimmage so you can communicate best with offensive linemen. Cutler, in fact, dealt the Falcons their only home loss last season while playing for Denver, throwing a game-winning 9-yard touchdown pass to Daniel Graham with 5:35 remaining.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

We've analyzed every word from Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler this summer. We dissected each step Brett Favre made from Mississippi to Minnesota. And all the while, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers has been the sharpest quarterback in the NFC North through the midpoint of the preseason.

Objectively speaking, I don't think you'll find many people who could dispute it. As Cutler works to learn the nuances of his receivers and Favre attempts to learn the names of his, Rodgers quietly has taken his development to the highest levels. He has a 142.3 preseason passer rating, having converted three of his 19 passes for touchdowns. But more importantly, Rodgers has proved to be a case study in the benefits of knowing your receivers.

Both of his touchdown passes to receiver Donald Driver, for instance, required adjustments that wouldn't have occurred if Rodgers didn't know how Driver would react to the coverage and situation.

Rodgers: "The communication has been definitely the best that it's been the past two years that I've been playing. Just come off on the sidelines, and Greg [Jennings] coming over, Donald coming over, and having some real good dialogue about what they're seeing out there. Just the confidence that they have in myself, and the confidence I have in them when they tell me, 'Hey, I saw this out there. If we come back to this play, think about this.' It just gives you the confidence that we're on the same page. I think we're getting real close."

This is not to diminish the work of Cutler or Favre. But as we head into this season of Air and Space in the Black and Blue, Rodgers' deep foundation in the Packers' offense can't be overstated.

With the NFC North arrival of Favre, Cutler and No. 1 overall draft pick Matthew Stafford, I plan to develop the Air and Space theme throughout the season. I'm interested in your suggestions on how to evaluate and compare their performances on a weekly basis. Sometimes traditional statistics don't always tell the story.

For the preseason, however, we'll keep it basic. Here's how the NFC North's quarterbacks compare at this point:

NFC North: Air and Space
Player Team Comp. Att. Pct. Yards TD INT Rating
Aaron Rodgers Green Bay 13 19 68.4 200 3 0 142.3
Jay Cutler Chicago 13 23 56.5 185 1 1 79.1
Matthew Stafford Detroit 12 27 44.4 148 1 2 43.4
Brett Favre Minnesota 1 4 25.0 1 0 0 39.6

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