Commentary

Will just enough be good enough?

The Bears are winning, but if they want to keep it up, they need more from Jay Cutler

Updated: November 16, 2011, 2:13 AM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Picking on Jay Cutler on the Monday after the Chicago Bears drummed the Detroit Lions 37-13 feels a little like jumping on D.J. Moore for jumping on Matthew Stafford.

It's a little inconsequential, except perhaps to Moore's wallet. As far as Cutler is concerned, as long as the Bears are winning and he isn't making critical mistakes, there is a tendency not to worry about him; to assume that as long as he has Matt Forte, a healthy Earl Bennett and his natural ability, he will be there to win games when necessary.

So why don't I feel entirely comfortable with that assumption?

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhBears quarterback Jay Cutler was 9-for-19 passing for 123 yards with a passer rating of 68.5 against the Lions on Sunday.

As Cutler himself said Sunday: "Didn't have to do much. We were kind of put in a situation just kind of not to lose it, just run out the clock, control the ball."

And indeed, the Bears' defense, as is its custom, carried the load and then some with four interceptions and two fumble recoveries leading to 24 points along with a Devin Hester punt return for another touchdown.

But it was not what you really wanted to see from Cutler after last week's victory against the Eagles, not the upward trajectory Cutler has shown signs of this season but hasn't fully delivered.

A fumbled exchange with Forte led to a Detroit field goal in the second quarter. But, leading 20-6, the Bears lucked out later in the half when Cutler lost the ball following a sack by Cliff Avril. Originally called an incomplete pass, it was later ruled a fumble and declared dead at the Detroit 32.

Cutler completed nine passes on 19 attempts Sunday -- six to his favorite receiver Earl Bennett, who caught all six in which he was targeted. Roy Williams fell on one pass by Cutler that fell at least 10 yards away on a third-and-7 from the Lions' 17 early in the second quarter. Three other receivers caught a pass -- Sam Hurd, Johnny Knox and Forte with one each.

Bennett is obviously reliable -- he has yet to drop a pass from Cutler since returning to the lineup last week -- but Cutler still seems impatient with everyone but Bennett. And he is going to need the others if the Bears' offense is going to hold its own as the season progresses.

While Sunday's victory showed that the Bears can win without their quarterback doing a whole lot, they can't always count on the defense forcing six turnovers or having Hester score on kick returns.

Or maybe they can.

Cutler and the Bears have managed to win when Cutler's QB rating has been down and vice versa. In victories against Carolina, Tampa Bay and Detroit, he finished with subpar ratings of 46.7, 60.2 and 68.5 respectively. In the Bears' first loss to the Lions this season, Cutler finished at 99.6.

But against the Panthers, Forte rushed for 205 yards, Hester returned one punt for a touchdown and another kickoff for 73 yards, and Moore scored on an interception return. Against Tampa, Forte ran for 145 yards and the defense had four interceptions, including a game-saver by Moore.

On Sunday against the Lions, Forte had 64 yards on 18 carries. Take away his long run of 40 yards and he had just 24 yards on 17 carries. The Bears had six carries for loss totaling minus-18 yards.

"It falls squarely on the offensive line," said Bears center Roberto Garza. "We have to do a better job of what we talk about during the season, carrying those techniques on and getting the job done, getting movement at the line of scrimmage, getting on the right guys. It still falls on our shoulders and we have to get that corrected and we will."

They do have to get that corrected. Whether they will, however, is now a bit more questionable with left guard Chris Williams going on IR and thus being out for the season following wrist surgery. But with the defense peaking and oozing with confidence, and the offense generally reliable, it still may be enough to get the Bears to the playoffs.

"I think we're in a good place," Cutler said of the offense overall. "It's hard to get a gauge from this game because it's kind of a different circumstance. We weren't really put in a position where we had to do a lot -- run out the clock for the most part. We're headed in the right direction."

One of the best things about Cutler's season is that he has cut down on interceptions -- from 10 after nine games last season to six this season (including just two in the last five games). And, of course, the offensive line has improved its protection (Cutler was sacked 33 times after nine games in 2010, this year 23, including just five over the last four games).

For Lovie Smith, the fact that Cutler's numbers declined from last week in the Bears' victory over Philadelphia, when he had a QB rating of 96.9, equates to only one thing.

"Winning quarterback two weeks in a row," Smith said. "Of course, his numbers were better last week than they were this week. But Jay did what the team needed him to do this past week. We didn't have a lot of completions, but some of those throws that he did make [were in a] small window [and] just being able to get up. He took a couple of tough shots [Sunday]. But just showing toughness. Just being a leader.

"Each week, there's something different we're asking our quarterback to do, and Jay has filled that role perfectly for a long stretch of time."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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