The importance of protecting Jay Cutler

We analyze raw data – including pressure percentages, QB ratings with and without pressure, accuracy percentages and more – to determine how critical it is for the Bears to keep Jay Cutler clean in the pocket.

As the Chicago Bears prepare for 2015 training camp, there are a number of questions surrounding the offensive line. In particular, how well will this year’s front five be able to protect quarterback Jay Cutler?

The main issues revolve around the edge blockers, offensive tackles Jermon Bushrod and Jordan Mills. In 2014, the duo combined to allow 62 QB pressures, while in 2013 they totaled a whopping 104 pressures allowed, per Pro Football Focus (PFF).

In the NFL, when your quarterback is consistently harassed in the pocket, your passing game struggles.

The following chart shows the number of sacks the Bears have allowed in each of the past four seasons, along with their NFL rank in sacks and total passing.

YearSacks AllowedNFL RankPassing Rank

Notice the direct correlation between the number of sacks allowed and the overall production of the passing attack. The rankings are eerily similar, with no larger than a four-point gap between them.

In essence, the more Cutler is sacked, the worse Chicago’s passing offense performs and vice versa.

Based purely on sack totals, it appears imperative the Bears shore up pass protection to have any hope of succeeding in new offensive coordinator Adam Gases’ aerial attack.

That’s a problem, as both Mills and Bushrod missed off-season activities due to injury. When healthy the duo is average at best. When they’re hurt it turns into a hit parade on Cutler.

Sacks not only stall drives but they often give Cutler happy feet, which almost always leads to turnovers. So keeping him off the ground is very important.

With that said, the Bears don’t need to go out of their way to keep their signal caller upright. In fact, a little pressure isn’t all that bad for Cutler.

The following chart shows Cutler’s accuracy percentage under pressure (compiled by PFF) the past four seasons, along with his NFL rank in pressure situations.

YearAccuracy Percentage Under PressureNFL Rank

As we can see, Cutler is actually very good when the pocket is collapsing, ranking in the Top 10 in accuracy percentage under pressure in three of the past four seasons.

To further this point, the following chart shows Cutler’s average time to throw the past four seasons, along with QB ratings under pressure and not under pressure.

YearAverage Time to Throw (NFL Rank)QB Rating (2.5 seconds or less)QB Rating (2.6 seconds or more)
20142.55 (21st)98.375.5
20132.75 (15th)99.280.9
20122.79 (11th)84.577
20112.81 (16th)83.987.1

First off, the Bears have not been in the Top 10 in average time to throw since 2011. So Cutler is used to pressure and understands the methods to beating it.

Second, notice the differential in QB rating between pressured and non-pressured passes. In the past three seasons, Cutler has been a far better passer when forced to get rid of the ball early.

Basically, the more time Cutler spends in the pocket the worse he performs.

So while keeping him off the ground is important, it should not be the main priority for Gase. By no means will he need to deploy numerous max-protect packages, which reduces the number of potential pass catchers on the field.

Instead, Gase can run multiple three- and four-receiver sets, sending running backs and tight ends up the field to attack opposing defenses, instead of passively attempting to keep Cutler off his back.

Gase can take off the kids gloves immediately because, while Cutler isn’t perfect under pressure, he has as much experience as anyone delivering passes with defenders barreling in on him.

Like his predecessor, former Bears head coach Marc Trestman, expect Gase to go heavy on the short passes when opposing defenses try to collapse the pocket.

In two seasons as OC in Denver, Gase worked with Peyton Manning under center. In both 2013 and 2014, Manning had the lowest pressure percentage, per PFF, of all qualifying quarterbacks (21.7 and 22.7 in 2013 and 2014 respectively). That has as much to do with Manning’s ability to get rid of the ball quickly as it does the Broncos’ offensive line.

Manning is one of the hardest passers in the league to sack, despite being about as agile as a road cone, because he knows when to get the ball out of his hands. Gase surely learned from Manning in that respect and should be able to pass some of that along to Cutler.

It’s fair to be concerned about Chicago’s offensive line in 2015 but if Gase is worth his salt, and if Cutler keeps his head on straight, there’s no reason the Bears’ passing attack can’t flourish despite a less-than-ideal front five.

Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.

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