With 1:29 left in the first half of yesterday's contest against the Cleveland Browns, the Chicago Bears took control of the ball at their own 34-yard line down 10-3. After throwing two interceptions in the first half – one in the end zone and another that was returned for a touchdown – it can be argued that never during his eight years in the NFL has Jay Cutler been under as much pressure as he was at that moment.
The cacophony of criticism swirled around the organization all week, with some of his own teammates even suggesting Josh McCown should be the starter. Headlines burst forth at the error of Marc Trestman's way, while TV personalities screamed about the mistake in starting Cutler.
In that moment for Cutler, the game was on the line, the team's season was on the line, his starting job was on the line, his contract was on the line and his future in Chicago was on the line. If he continued to struggle under center, everything he worked for could have been taken away from him.
Here's how responded:
With the weight of an entire city on his shoulders, it took Cutler just four plays to move the team 66 yards for a game-tying score. There aren't many quarterbacks that would be able to brush aside all that pressure and calmly drive the offense the length of the field for a touchdown.
"I'd be lying if I didn't say there was [pressure]," Cutler said after the game. "With everything on the outside, and as well as Josh (McCown) has played. This was the plan all along and no one really flinched in our building. Everyone kind of stuck to it, Josh was super supportive, Tress (Coach Trestman) did a great job and the guys out there on the field, they're a great group of guys. They rallied behind me when we started off a little bit slow."
Cutler repeated the heroics in the fourth quarter, throwing two touchdown passes that turned a 17-24 deficit into a 31-24 lead. It wasn't a perfect performance, and many are still criticizing him today after a game in which he had a 102.2 passer rating, but Cutler and the Bears posted 31 points on the Browns' 7th-ranked defense. With Cutler under center there was no drop off in production in comparison to Josh McCown, just as the offense was rolling before Cutler got hurt. Trestman and company carved up one of the best defenses in the league and carried the team to a victory.
The Cutler/McCown debate may rage on this week but it has already lost momentum. Whichever side of the fence you sit on, it's a good problem to have two high-caliber starting quarterbacks on the roster during a playoff run. With either player under center, the Bears are going to score a lot of points. And with Trestman running the show, it'll be that way for many years to come.
The Bears were 9-14 (64 percent) on 3rd down yesterday. The previous week, the team went 8-11 (73 percent) on 3rd down against the Dallas Cowboys. In the two game prior, both losses, Chicago was 8-21 (38 percent) on 3rd down.
On Sunday, the Bears converted 3rd downs of 7, 8, 9 and 11 (twice), while two of Cutler's three touchdowns came on 3rd down.
Yet the biggest conversion came with 3 minutes to play in the game. Chicago faced a 3rd and 9 at their own 36-yard line. The play was a pitch to Matt Forte. With great blocking out front, Forte turned the corner and picked up 24 yards and the first down. On the next play, Michael Bush rumbled 40 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
If it weren't for the team's success on 3rd down the past two weeks, it's unlikely they'd still be in the playoff hunt.
"It's execution," Brandon Marshall said after the game. "I don't think our coaches get enough credit. You hear everyone, this whole week, there has been a lot of noise, a lot of distractions. People want to do stories around Alshon [Jeffery] and myself, the receivers. Matt [Forte] is having his best year ever. The offensive line is playing like studs. Probably in the top five offensive lines in the league and our coaches don't get a lot of credit. They work hard and put us in a position to be successful, and that's tough. I've been around a few places, and our coaches do a great job. It's a lot of hard work and probably the majority of it goes on our coaches, starting with coach Trestman."
The key man on 3rd down has been Jeffery. Since Week 9, he leads the league with 26 targets and 19 catches on 3rd down, with 15 of those going for firsts.
Chicago's offensive line is not getting the credit it deserves. The front five gave up two sacks yesterday. The Bears have now allowed two or fewer sacks in six of the last seven contests, and the third fewest in the league overall.
This is truly a testament to coordinator Aaron Kromer's ability as an offensive line coach. He has taken a cast the includes four new starters, to of whom are rookies, and created one of the best pass-blocking units in the NFL.
And the run blocking has improved dramatically the past month. Matt Forte has rushed for 100 or more yards in three straight and as a team, the Bears rolled up 179 rushing yards against Cleveland's 4th-ranked rushing defense. Chicago has one of the top five offenses in the league and the offensive line is a huge reason for it.
Two Tickets to Hawaii
In the 95-year history of the franchise, the Bears have never sent two wide receivers to the Pro Bowl. That's about to change.
Alshon Jeffery (80 catches, 1,265 yards, 7 TDs) and Brandon Marshall (90 catches, 1,185 yards, 10 TDs) are nearly locks to make the Pro Bowl this season. The two lead the league in combined yardage from a receiving duo (2,450), which is also a franchise record, breaking the 2,347 combined yards of Marcus Robinson and Bobby Engram in 1999.
Marshall and Jeffery are only the second receiver duo in franchise history to have 1,000 yards receiving in the same season – Jeff Graham (1,301) and Curtis Conway (1,037) did it 1995.
Pack up your sunscreen gentlemen. You're going to need it.
Browns cornerback Joe Haden, one of the best players in the NFL at his position, left yesterday's contest due to a hip pointer early in the fourth quarter. The Bears – who were down by seven at that point and were struggling on offense – ran 26 plays with Haden out, resulting in 220 yards and 21 points.
One man does not make a defense but Haden's injury was the catalyst that propelled Chicago's offense into scoring mode.
Run Defense does Exist
Chicago held the Browns to just 93 yards on 17 carries. It was the first time since Week 5 the Bears held an opponent to less than 100 rushing yards.
Cleveland's leading rusher was Edwin Baker, who had just 38 yards on the ground. The Bears had allowed a 100-yard rusher the past six games in a row. A seventh would have been an NFL record, so their performance yesterday kept them out of the record books.
It was a very positive development for Chicago's defense yesterday, one that could give them confidence heading into the final two games of the campaign. Yet the Browns came into the game ranked 28th in the league in rushing and Baker was sitting on his couch a few weeks ago. The Bears still have issues that must be resolved against the run. If they fail to build on this performance, Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy, the NFL's leading rusher, is going to run wild on Sunday night.
Returning to Pro Bowl Form?
Stephen Paea is still nursing a turf toe injury that could linger for the rest of the season. He did not start against the Browns and played jus 16 snaps. In his place, Jeremiah Ratliff (44 snaps, a season high) played a very strong game. He was stout against the run and had two QB hits and three QB hurries.
Ratliff was playing just his third game since last November and showed very good quickness and strength. Remember, Ratliff is a four-time Pro Bowler who was released by the Cowboys due to a lingering groin issue. Chicago has been decimated by injury at defensive tackle but if Ratliff can provide production along the interior, combined with the possible return of Lance Briggs this week, all may not be lost for Chicago's defense. And if Paea can't get healthy, Ratliff becomes even more valuable.
Baby Steps for Bostic
Bears rookie linebacker Jon Bostic is going through some serious growing pains right before our eyes. He has struggled in his reads, his run fits and in protection. It's been tough to watch but yesterday he showed signs of improvement, particularly against the run. He ran past far too many plays and was not consistently stout at the point of attack but Bostic was hitting holes hard and violently.
It was a positive sign as it demonstrated his potential as the team's MLB of the future. He still has a lot of room for improvement but there are plenty of reasons to believe Bostic can develop into a reliable starting middle linebacker down the line.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.