<
>

Don't let Jay Cutler off hook

Late in the fourth quarter Sunday, with the game so far out of reach that sports writers were already making their way to the locker rooms under the Superdome, Roman Harper was celebrating like he had just won the Super Bowl.

The New Orleans Saints safety had just combined with fellow safety Malcolm Jenkins on a sack of Jay Cutler -- an "act like you've been there before" moment for any defensive player if there ever was one.

But Harper did a little Ray Lewis impersonation, and Jenkins yukked it up with him after they converged on Cutler's fifth sack and umpteenth hit.

Cutler got up on one knee, collected himself and flipped the ball to the referee before heading to the sidelines. It wasn't a dismissive flip, but one of acquiescence.

The sack was on fourth-and-24 with the Bears trailing 30-13 with 4 1/2 minutes to go. For some reason (maybe he pranked Lovie Smith's room at 2 a.m.), Cutler returned to the game after a Saints turnover, and for some reason, the Bears called another passing play, and for a couple of pretty strong reasons, he got sacked again.

He got sacked three straight times with his team down 17 points in the fourth quarter, and six overall. He was hit many more times. It was an ugly end to a putrid day for the Bears quarterback, and no one should be commenting on his hangdog sideline demeanor or any of that aesthetic stuff. Cutler took his beating like a man.

But I don't feel bad for him, and you shouldn't, either. It's not because of Cutler's personality. I've grown to admire his roguish charm.

It's recently become de rigeur to stick up for Cutler and blame his peers for the Bears' shortcomings. Part of this is because his offensive teammates aren't very good. And part of it is the brushback from the unnecessary battering of his manhood this past January and running through today.

But this is the NFL, or as they say on the television, "The National Football League." There is always going to be pressure from abnormally fast and unusually large men, and there's always going to be good coverage, at least when you're playing good teams.

Good teams, and certainly elite quarterbacks, adjust, sometimes instinctually, and counteract what the defense is doing. Sacks are part of the game, but even though it's early and he was playing with a depleted cast, the onus is on Cutler.

Yes, offensive coordinator Mike Martz should have mixed in some runs, especially when the Bears were within a score during the third quarter. But Cutler has to execute Martz's scheme, which leaves options on the table when pressure comes. Maybe the receivers are hanging him out to dry, but all too often Sunday, Cutler looked out of sync.

Maybe it had something to do with a defender kicking him in the neck. That would certainly throw me off my game.

With right tackle Gabe Carimi possibly out for a few weeks with a slight dislocation in his knee, and Roy Williams (groin) and Earl Bennett (chest) unknown for Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers, it's clear Cutler is going to play under steady pressure from Dom Capers' 3-4 confusing defense. Every team is going to be sending defensive backs and linebackers after him.

Playing in an offense with deep drops and complicated receiver patterns, Cutler is going to take a regular beating, and those who watch Cutler enough know he can physically take it.

The question is: Can he overcome the difficulties around him and rise above his station? After just two games, he is ranked 27th in ESPN's new QBR metric, 29th in Football Outsiders' rankings and 21st in standard quarterback rating. There's certainly room to grow.

If Jerry Angelo and Martz are the unwitting masterminds of his demise, he is at least an accessory.

Cutler had a rotten game, and that doesn't mean he won't bounce back against Green Bay. (In fact, I think he will, but only because the Bears delight in being beguiling.) But don't believe it was everyone's fault but his. Angelo didn't surround him with Super Bowl talent, but Cutler is no victim.

Upon rewatching the game, I saw a quarterback in disarray from the beginning. Troy Aikman, who was calling it on Fox along with Joe Buck, provided solid, steady criticism of Cutler's mistakes.

While Cutler was sacked five times in the fourth quarter, he was hit plenty in the first three. Many were the fault of others -- such as Kellen Davis missing Turk McBride, which caused a critical Cutler fumble -- but other times, it was Cutler holding on to the ball too long or rushing a throw or leaving a solid pocket to run into pressure or simply throwing really high. Perhaps this was a blip -- the Superdome and the Saints are tough to face -- but Cutler wasn't lights out in the opener against Atlanta, either.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, New Orleans brought five or more rushers on 39.6 percent of Cutler's dropbacks. He completed just 38.5 percent of his passes in those situations for an average gain of 4.9 yards.
The only play that consistently worked was variations of a screen pass to Matt Forte, who he said he wasn't the intended target on most of his 10 catches for 117 yards.

For the second straight game, Cutler made only a handful of completions downfield. He completed 19 of 45 passes overall, and the Bears went 2-for-12 on third down.

After one failed third-down conversion, on a dropped pass by a then-sitting Devin Hester, Aikman wasted no time in placing blame on both parties, but focusing on Cutler, who rushed the throw.

"You know he's got to make this catch, but Jay Cutler has got to trust protection at some point," he said. "He's dropping back, and he never gets established. He's throwing off his back foot, and he really doesn't have to. That's a ball that has to be caught. You've got to convert that third down."

That's basically Aikman's way of saying: This is a man's league, Jay. Step it up. Of course, that's easy to say from up in the booth, as the announcers admitted.

After the game, several players hinted at what Aikman was saying: Cutler has to get the ball out quicker. Now, that could be on Martz's play calls, too, but there's no question that for much of the game, Cutler's timing was off.


"They were blitzing a lot," Johnny Knox said. "When they're blitzing, you got to get the ball out of the quarterback's hands real quick. But other than that, we just gotta adjust better."

That feeling was repeated by lineman Frank Omiyale, who had a rough go of it after replacing Carimi late in the second quarter.

"You don't want him to take those licks," Omiyale said. "But when the defense brings one more than you block, sometimes we just gotta get it out or get rid of it. But I think everybody did a great job of trying to keep their composure."

Perhaps with Bennett knocked out early in the game with a chest injury, Cutler felt he couldn't rely on anyone else. Knox and Hester aren't the most technically proficient receivers, Sam Hurd looked lost, and Dane Sanzenbacher is a rookie.

"Us as a unit, we've just got to get better when those types of situations come up," he said. "We've got to be able to adjust to it. It's something we didn't do today."

Just because the Bears rose above their inadequacies last season doesn't mean it will happen again. The offense needs to get on the same page before it's too late.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.