Let's not beat around the bush: In 2009, Jay Cutler's handling of defensive pressure was similar to that of Jeff George. His 26 interceptions easily led the league, often severely compromising the Chicago Bears' chance for a win. More often than not, he tried to fit the ball into double or triple coverage, and sometimes just threw passes directly to defenders.
What was even more ominous were his poor passes on plays when there was no pressure. In the end zone, he was a turnover machine, pressure or no pressure. In his two seasons as a starter for the Denver Broncos before coming to Chicago, Cutler threw just 14 and 18 interceptions respectively. So watching him toss 26 picks his first season as a Bear did not breed faith in his ability to progress as a quarterback.
After 2009, the Bears replaced then offensive coordinator Ron Turner with Mike Martz. Many felt his pass-happy schemes would only exacerbate Cutler's tendency toward turnovers. Martz immediately installed his seven-stop drop system, albeit behind a weak offensive line, which led to Cutler being sacked and hurried more than any other NFL quarterback in 2010.
Yet even under constant duress, Cutler managed to cut his interception total last year to just 16 – one less than Peyton Manning and six fewer than Drew Brees. It's going to take a few more seasons of similar production before people forget 2009, but the reality is that season was an aberration, not a trend.
QB Jay Cutler
Pro Football Focus (PFF) recently published an analytical study of which NFL quarterbacks dealt with pressure the best in 2010. It's no surprise Cutler was hurried the most of any QB – on 41.42 percent of his drop backs. For many early games, the offensive line leaked like a sieve. The fact it took until Week 4 against the Giants before Cutler was concussed is something of a miracle in itself.
Yet even with defenders constantly in his face, the Vanderbilt product completed 52.20 percent of his passes while under pressure – only 0.46 behind Matt Ryan, whose nickname "Matty Ice" is derived from his calm in the pocket. Cutler's completion percentage under duress was only 10.97 percent below his completion percentage without pressure. Only four other signal callers had a smaller pressure/no-pressure differential – the best was Kevin Kolb, who only had a 2.24-percent drop. The worst of the bunch was Mark Sanchez, whose completion percentage fell 26.52 percent when the defense got after him.
PFF uses a series of cutting-edge metrics to analyze player performances beyond what is reported in the box scores. They break down every snap of the NFL season and have formulas that derive grades for each position.
In this scenario, PFF applied a set of standards to every play and graded objectively each quarterback. The highest on the list was Aaron Rodgers, whose under-pressure grade was 19.0. This should come as no surprise to anyone that watched him slice up the NFL in last year's playoffs. The worst quarterback with guys in his face was Donovan McNabb, which probably explains why Washington is ready to cut bait with the former Mt. Carmel star.
Cutler ranked 12th on the list with a 7.0 grade – just 0.5 points behind reigning MVP Tom Brady. He graded higher than Eli Manning, Drew Brees, David Garrard, Matt Cassell, Matt Schaub and Kyle Orton, to name a few.
The Bears' signal caller ranked very low in the touchdown-to-interception category (0.71), so we're not saying he can stand in and perform like Dan Marino … yet. What these numbers show is that Cutler is nowhere near as bad as most assume with the defense closing in on him. Chicago did select offensive tackle Gabe Carimi in the first round of this year's draft, but he's more of a run blocker. Unless some other major roster additions come in free agency, it's a safe bet Cutler will again be put under much strain in 2011.
Yet if he continues to progress in this area of his game, other teams may not be as quick to send the blitz, which would really open things up for the offense. Martz must continue to put a priority on protecting his quarterback though and not let these numbers lull him into overconfidence. Seven-step drops with just the front five blocking will skew these numbers greatly. Yet if Martz does stick to the script, Cutler has a good chance of taking his game to the next level.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport com To read him every day, visit BearReport com and become a Chicago Bears insider