- Jon Greenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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PITTSBURGH -- The Narrative tells us that Jay Cutler has matured.
A New Jay Cutler!
Every year there's a New Jay Cutler, a cynic says.
It's as if Oprah blessed Chicago with a city full of New Cutlers every fall: "You get a New Cutler and you get a New Cutler!"
This time, as opposed to the New Jay Cutler from the Mike Martz era and the Mike Tice training camp, the New Jay Cutler of the Marc Trestman era just maybe, could be, might be an honest storyline this time.
Chicago really might be New Jay City.
Take Sunday's game, a roller-coaster 40-23 win over the faded Pittsburgh Steelers.
Cutler didn't have the perfect night, but he also didn't have a classic Cutler Night. This wasn't a rerun of Prime-time Follies in Green Bay.
As the game tightened and Pittsburgh clawed back from a 24-3 deficit, the press box wags were still calling for the ol' Cutler Special, a suffocating interception late into the game, undoing the patient (too patient?) Marc Trestman game plan.
But then on one fourth-quarter drive, Cutler ran for a first down on third-and-long, he found Brandon Marshall for 41 yards up the sideline on another third-and-long and then he connected with Earl Bennett in the back of the end zone for a touchdown on another third-down play.
Then the wags stopped wagging and started appreciating what Cutler can do when he's given time and help. He can be very, very good.
Cutler completed 20 of 30 passes for 159 yards, with one enormous fourth-quarter touchdown pass against Pittsburgh on Sunday night, coming through with season-defining throws in the fourth quarter.
Yes, Mr. Fourth Quarter lives on. Long live Mr. Fourth Quarter.
And long live the undefeated Bears, who are now 3-0, thanks to three game-defining fourth-quarter drives.
"You can't count us out," running back Michael Bush said. "You can't count him out."
Facing a still-kicking Blitzburgh defense, the game plan was conservative, to attack the outside with quick passes. That's what the Bears did, or tried to do as Pittsburgh ramped up the pressure during a failed second-half comeback.
The offense stalled and the Steelers nearly stole a win before Cutler came through late.
"Getting up like that, we kind of got in a protective football, slow-it-down mode," Cutler said. "Offensively, I didn't play that great. We just have to keep our foot on the pedal in the second half."
"We didn't really attack them deep," Marshall said. "We took a few shots but our game plan was really to attack the outside lanes, get the ball out quick."
Cutler forced some throws against pressure late -- the kind that gives a defense confidence -- but mostly he played smart, tough, patient football.
Patience, thy name is ... Jay Cutler?
"It's not something I'm used to," Cutler said. "We're preaching ball security a lot. It was that type of game. To get up quickly like that, we didn't want to give them anything easy and force the ball. We didn't want to get them in position in our territory. Just be patient."
Give the Steelers credit for limiting Cutler's opportunities. Cornerback Ike Taylor did a good job on Marshall and the Steelers' 3-4 defense disguises blitzes as well as any team. Cutler was scrambling, but he didn't falter, converting three third downs on what amounted to a game-winning drive in a game during which the Bears never trailed.
"This could have been a very frustrating night," Trestman said. "There were some people in his face. He had to scramble. But we knew going in that it wasn't going to be simple. It wasn't going to be clean on every play, and we tried to give him the quick stuff and get it out of his hands."
Like a frustrated writer on deadline, Cutler is at his best when he has time to go long. His 41-yard pass to Marshall came on third-and-12 on the team's first possession of the fourth quarter as it nursed a 27-23 lead that was once 24-3 after a dominating first half.
On that play, the line gave him time to make the throw, and that's the key. And what a throw it was, a bomb up the left sideline.
"Really it's all Jay," Marshall said. "Jay threw a 50-yard back-shoulder [pass]. I've never seen that happen before. That guy's arm is amazing. Jay, man, he put it in the right place."
Cutler converted on third-and-10 earlier in that drive when he ran for a first down, delivering a shoulder blow to cornerback Robert Golden instead of sliding.
"I was hoping he would slide, but he didn't," Trestman said. "I'm just thankful he got up after taking the shot that he took."
"I wanted to make sure I had the first down," Cutler said. "When you slide, it goes back to where you start to slide. I just wanted to make sure I picked it up. We were struggling on third down, so I wanted to make sure we kept the drive going. We were only up four at that point."
Cutler's final third-down conversion on that drive came when, given ample time to throw, he found Bennett in the back of the end zone. It was initially ruled incomplete, but Trestman made a wise decision to challenge it after getting "unanimous" support from his coaches upstairs. The call was reversed and the Bears led comfortably again, 34-23 with about six minutes to go.
"We had a good scheme upfront blocking-wise," Cutler said. "We kind of maxed out leaving Martellus [Bennett] in [to block]. Three-receiver route, we caught man, hadn't caught a lot of man up to point. I was happy to see man. I thought I was a tick late on it, but Earl made a heckuva catch in the corner for us."
After the game, Cutler was asked what's different this year, even though it's obvious, clear as day.
"The guys around me offensively," he said. "Those are some dudes that can play football."
Cutler was talking about the offensive line, which has been better than expected with two rookies, Kyle Long and Jordan Mills, manning the right side. Cutler felt pressure most of the night, but that's expected against Pittsburgh's defense. He was sacked only twice and once was his fault for holding the ball too long. Matt Forte had a 55-yard run in the first quarter thanks to Mills and Long.
"Those guys are playing great football, protecting me and making plays on the outside," Cutler said.
But the story is about Cutler. For the past four years, he's been a divisive figure in town, known as much for his boorish sideline mannerisms as his arm. There are Cutler defenders and Cutler haters.
But there is no question that we're seeing him play at a level commensurate with his talent. You can credit Trestman for being an "offensive genius" and you can credit general manager Phil Emery for drafting and signing the right players to complement him.
But you also have to credit the guy making the plays when they're needed. That's three fourth-quarter winning drives in three games.
Marshall, the guy who knows Cutler best on the team, marveled at Cutler's flattened learning curve.
"Jay is doing a good job of understanding what Coach Trestman is trying to do," he said. "For us, we're just out there running around. But you listen to some of these protection meetings, some of these game plan meetings Jay sits in on, and I don't see how he's successful right now. It's tough, we're getting a lot thrown at us, but we're doing a great job of moving the football."
It takes a team to win a game like this, but you can't muddle this story. And the story is Jay Cutler, Mr. Fourth Quarter. This Narrative writes itself.
1dEric D. Williams