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Thursday, September 22, 2011
Can Bears' O-line protect Cutler?

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

The Ravens-Steelers may be the NFL's best current rivalry, but the Bears-Packers rivalry is rapidly catching up.

The NFL's longest rivalry (180 games long) went to a new level when the teams met in the NFC Championship Game last season. The Packers won 21-14 and went on to win the Super Bowl. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler couldn't finish the game because of a legitimate knee injury but had to endure an offseason of criticism from those who thought he quit on his team.

Cutler may have taken an unfair verbal beating from fans, players around the league and critics in the media, but he took a physical pounding last week in a loss to the New Orleans Saints. Everyone knows the Bears have offensive line problems. Those problems have been there for years.

Offensive line coach Mike Tice has done his best to coach up a struggling group, but the line simply hasn't been talented enough to hold back the pressure on the quarterback. Last week in the Superdome, Cutler was hit constantly, and his body language was painful to watch. He would walk to the sideline with slumped shoulders after series. He would gesture as if he were helpless when describing the action while sitting on the bench.

Seeing the tape and remembering the championship game, Packers defenders will put a big bull's-eye on Cutler at Soldier Field on Sunday. Bears coach Lovie Smith wasn't happy that offensive coordinator Mike Martz called so many passing plays against the Saints, leaving Cutler vulnerable to the pounding. There were 52 pass calls compared with 11 called runs.

A more balanced approach will be in order Sunday, but what if Aaron Rodgers turns the game into a shootout? The Packers already have played high-scoring games against Drew Brees and Cam Newton. The Packers can better protect Rodgers than the Bears can Cutler.

The Packers-Bears game highlights a week that features eight divisional games, a majority of them in the NFC. Here are the trends and things to look forward to in Week 3.

1. Sure missing Steve Smith: The season-ending loss of wide receiver Domenik Hixon will hurt even more when the New York Giants look across the field Sunday and see Smith wearing a Philadelphia Eagles uniform and available as an extra wide receiver. Doctors thought Smith wouldn't be available until the middle of the season coming off microfracture surgery. During free agency, the Eagles checked him out and thought he would be available immediately. He has caught only two passes in two games because the Eagles are loaded with three top receivers DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant. Just having Smith is an advantage to the Eagles. The Giants' best receiver (Hakeem Nicks) is playing with a bone bruise in his knee. Wide receiver Mario Manningham is questionable coming off a concussion. Hixon became the eighth key member of the Giants to be knocked out for the season with an injury. The Eagles hope Michael Vick will be able to play coming off his concussion. For this game, the Eagles sense blood and want to go in for the kill. They've won their last five meetings against the Giants and know a sixth would further hurt the Giants' standing in the NFC East.

2. Dallas' version of the Alamo: The Cowboys' regular-season home opener has a John Wayne swagger attached. Quarterback Tony Romo pulled out a gutsy come-from-behind victory in San Francisco with a broken rib and a collapsed lung. Wide receivers Miles Austin (hamstring) and Dez Bryant (thigh) are hurt. Austin probably won't play. Running back Felix Jones vows to play with a dislocated shoulder. Offensive line starters Bill Nagy (neck) and Phil Costa (knee) are ailing. Cornerback Terence Newman hopes to make his regular-season debut after being out since the start of training camp with a groin injury. Cornerback Orlando Scandrick is out with a high ankle sprain. Oh, and by the way, the Redskins are coming into Dallas for this Monday night game with a 2-0 record. Where's Davy Crockett when you need him? The Cowboys survived last Sunday with adrenalin. For what expects to be a physical game, they'll need medics on alert.

Josh Freeman
Josh Freeman's penchant for fourth-quarter comebacks is helping to make the Tampa Bay-Atlanta rivalry exciting.
3. Fire those cannons: Thanks to Josh Freeman, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have closed the gap in this budding rivalry in the NFC South. Freeman can match Matt Ryan completion for completion in any kind of fourth-quarter showdown, and that's what this series has become. Freeman almost pulled out a comeback victory last year in Atlanta, and Ryan rallied the Falcons from 10 points behind to beat the Bucs on Dec. 5 in Tampa. Overall, the Falcons have a five-game winning streak against the Bucs, and they are 4-0 against Raheem Morris, the Bucs' coach. Freeman already has eight fourth-quarter comebacks in his brief time as a starter. Like a great NBA game, this one might come down to the last two minutes. At Bucs home games, the team loves firing a cannon in the end zone. There should be plenty of fireworks in this game.

4. Test for the Texans' defense: If the Texans were making Sunday's trip to New Orleans with last year's team, Brees would have had a Sunday afternoon Mardi Gras. The Texans had one of the worst seasons for a secondary in NFL history, which led to the hiring of Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator. His impact already has been felt. The Texans rank ninth in the league in pass defense, giving up 162.5 yards a game on through the air. That's an improvement of 105 yards a game from last year. Of course, Phillips realizes this was against Kerry Collins and Chad Henne. Phillips will find out how good his defensive changes are working against Brees' accurate arm and Sean Payton's sharp play calling.

5. Aggressive versus passive: The Lions come to Mall of the America Field with all the confidence in the world. They've beaten the Bucs on the road and settled an old score with a Kansas City Chiefs team that cost the Lions a draft choice after accusing them of tampering. That's why the Lions didn't mind keeping the scoring going in a 48-3 victory over the Chiefs Sunday. One of the reasons for the Lions' success is their "go-for-it'" mentality. Matthew Stafford is averaging 300 yards a game and 8.3 yards an attempt. The Vikings have been conservative with their new quarterback, Donovan McNabb, not letting him open up the offense. McNabb's yards-per-attempt average is 5.9, lowest since his second year as a pro in Philadelphia in 2000. According to ESPN Stats & Information, McNabb has attempted only 12 passes thrown longer than 11 yards. He has completed only four. Most of his work has been short dump offs; he has completed 21 of 33 passes for 200 yards on attempts 10 yards or fewer.

6. Another offense for Bill Belichick to analyze: In what is probably the biggest home game for Buffalo in years, the Bills and Ryan Fitzpatrick will see if they can continue their offensive magic. The game features the league's two highest-rated quarterbacks in the new QBR formula -- Tom Brady and Fitzpatrick. Two AFC West teams couldn't figure out how to stop the Bills' three- and four-receiver plays. Belichick will now try to find an answer. By spreading the field with receivers and tight end Scott Chandler, the Bills created big creases for Fred Jackson to have back-to-back 100-yard games. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bills lead the league with 108 plays out of three-plus-receiver sets. But a lot of the passes are shorter out of these sets. Fitzpatrick is averaging 6.4 yards an attempt from these spread sets, and the Bills are running the ball 41.6 percent of the time in those formations. Belichick will try to figure out a way to close the spread and limit the big plays. In the meantime, he'll have to adjust his two-tight end offense now that Aaron Hernandez will be out with a knee injury.

Blaine Gabbert
Rookie Blaine Gabbert will get the chance to show what he can do against Carolina.
7. Tale of two rookie quarterbacks: Newton of the Panthers has exploded into the NFL with 422- and 432-yard passing days, respectively. He'll start against Blaine Gabbert, the first-round pick who replaced a struggling Luke McCown as Jacksonville Jaguars QB. Gabbert's job won't be easy. Though he has two dependable targets -- Mike Thomas and Marcedes Lewis -- the Jaguars aren't loaded with great pass-catchers. Lewis has a calf injury, and Jason Hill, the receiver who verbally challenged Darrelle Revis then didn't play, is hurt. Newton leads the NFL, according to ESPN S&I, with 10 of 16 completions for 370 yards on passes thrown at least 21 yards in the air. Gabbert will try a more conservative passing approach.

8. Who got the right QB? A year ago, Seattle and Arizona went after the same quarterbacks -- Charlie Whitehurst (who went to the Seahawks) and Derek Anderson (who went to the Cardinals). Neither worked out, so both teams considered Kevin Kolb this year. The Cardinals got him, giving up a second-round pick and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The Seahawks elected not to use a first-round pick to make that trade and signed Tarvaris Jackson. They used the pick on offensive lineman James Carpenter. In the Seahawks' home opener, both teams will find out who came out better with their decisions. With games coming up against the Falcons and Giants, the Seahawks must win Sunday if they want to prevent a 0-5 start before the bye week.

9. Desperate times: The St. Louis Rams host the Baltimore Ravens and the Miami Dolphins travel to Cleveland trying to prevent 0-3 starts. Things are getting dicey for the Rams and the Dolphins. Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo was 15 minutes late for the postgame press conference Monday because he was being grilled by the Rams' owner after the loss to the Giants. They may not have Steven Jackson because of the quad injury, and Danny Amendola is out with a dislocated elbow. No one can figure out what the Dolphins are doing. They picked up Reggie Bush in a trade to use more spread offense configurations. Last week they went to more of a conventional running attack, and Bush's playing time decreased. A road loss to the Browns could put everyone in the organization on alert.

10. Taking early control of the AFC West: The Chargers figured it would be tough to pull out a road victory in New England. They knew going into the season that Week 3 was vital. They looked to this home game against the Chiefs as a way to wrestle the AFC West crown back to San Diego. What they didn't figure on is that the Chiefs would start so badly. The Chiefs are 0-2 and have been outscored 89-10. If the Chargers can put some distance between them and the Chiefs, they can concentrate on staying ahead of the Raiders and the Broncos and start thinking playoffs.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.