Jay Cutler might be the key to this weekend’s game against the Patriots. If he plays well, like he has during the winning streak, the Bears will have an opportunity to beat the Pats in Chicago. But if Cutler falters, which is a distinct possibility with his track record, the Bears won’t have a chance, particularly against the interception-happy Patriots defense.
Cutler has completed 90-of-137 passes (65.7 percent) for 1,062 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions in the last five games, and that’s an improvement from his 61.3 completion percentage, seven touchdowns and seven interceptions in his first six games of 2010. Cutler, who has the most interceptions in the NFL since he became a starting quarterback with the Broncos in 2007, has clearly cut down on that issue this season.
However, he can still get rattled. He’s been sacked 41 times this season, and he’s playing behind an offensive line that is probably the worst in football, at least in terms of pass protection. If the Patriots can pressure Cutler, like they did with Peyton Manning, they can start the clock on when he’ll start throwing picks.
The Bears don’t have any No. 1 receivers, but Johnny Knox leads the team in receptions and is their biggest down-field threat. Earl Bennett, a teammate of Cutler’s at Vanderbilt, is a crisp route runner who is at his best in the intermediate passing game.
Devin Hester is a pure athlete who isn’t much of a polished receiver, but he’s dangerous with the ball in his hands. However, Hester’s longest reception this season has only gone for 39 yards, so it’s obvious that he isn’t able to kill teams with his physical ability.
Tight end Greg Olsen, who was rumored last offseason to be a trade target of the Patriots, is only fifth on the team with 30 receptions. There are games when Cutler loves Olsen, and there are games when Cutler forgets all about him. However, Olsen leads the Bears with five touchdown catches, so he’s a huge force in the red zone.
Running back Matt Forte has regained the swagger he had during his rookie season in 2008. Forte is averaging 4.2 yards per carry and has amassed 748 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns, despite Chicago’s sketchy offensive line. But Forte is also an asset in the passing game, as he’s third on the team with 36 receptions and 389 yards, and he’s got three receiving touchdowns, too.
The Bears will run a lot of plays that are designed to give Cutler some confidence, such as screens and shorter routes that are aimed at getting the ball into the hands of Chicago’s athletic receivers. Tackling, especially in this cold atmosphere, will be of the utmost importance for New England’s defense.
Chicago’s defensive unit has received a makeover this season due to the arrival of defensive end Julius Peppers and the return of middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who missed 15 games in 2009 with a wrist injury.
Peppers is a pass-rushing force who has seven sacks and an astonishing 19 quarterback pressures (one-third of the Bears’ output in that category). Peppers’ presence has given a huge boost to defensive lineman Israel Idonije, who also has seven sacks, and had just eight sacks in his previous six seasons.
Because the Bears have been able to put so much pressure on quarterbacks with their front four, they haven’t been forced to blitz all that often, and that has helped tremendously in coverage. Along those lines, Urlacher, who is one of the smartest linebackers in the game, has great instincts and is a one-man wrecking crew against the run. He’s got a team-high nine tackles for loss — and is a major factor in the Bears’ second-ranked run defense — and he’s second on the Bears with seven pass breakups. That just shows how well Urlacher is able to read the play, and it’s such a vital asset for the man in the middle of a defense.
One of the most universal compliments paid to the Bears’ secondary this week was how smart they play. Cornerbacks Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman have combined to break up 15 passes, despite four combined interceptions, and safeties Chris Harris and Danieal Manning are two very sound tacklers who typically find themselves around the ball.
The Patriots will need to keep up their efficient ways against Chicago’s defense, which doesn’t leave a whole lot of room in space. There’s going to be little room for error in terms of drops and missed route assignments, and those were two of the offense’s big problems while it adjusted to itself midseason.