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Jon Scott: Jay Cutler has been both hot and cold since arriving via trade from the Denver Broncos. What is the key to Cutler having a good game, as opposed to one of his meltdowns like we saw against the Redskins?
John Crist: Since he has every physical tool a quarterback could want at the game's highest level, he is capable of playing like a Pro Bowler provided that he is adequately protected and playing with a lead. However, if the pressure becomes unbearable and he's down double digits in the second half, Cutler sometimes lets his impatience get the best of him and makes decisions that can only make Bears fans scratch their heads. Although Chicago hasn't made a lot of big plays downfield during the current five-game winning streak, a streak that has seen its strong-armed signal caller play some of the best football of his career, coordinator Mike Martz has kept the offense on schedule by committing to the ground attack and Cutler has been fine with settling for short- and intermediate-range throws.
When asked why he isn't putting together the eye-popping numbers like he did when he was playing for Mike Shanahan in Denver, he's quick to point out that the Broncos never offered the brand of defense the Bears do this season.
JS: Speaking of new faces, Julius Peppers joined the revamped Bears defense this year after flirting with teams and claiming he'd like to play in a 3-4 defense. How big of an impact has Peppers made to Chicago's front seven, and is he better suited to this defense than, say, one in Pittsburgh or New England?
JC: Even more so than having a healthy Brian Urlacher holding down the fort at the middle linebacker position, Peppers is the single biggest reason why the Bears are near the top of most every important defensive category through 13 weeks. The stat sheet didn't do him any favors early, as he only recorded two sacks in his first nine games, but he was constantly getting pressure on the enemy passer and defended the run much better than perhaps even the Chicago coaching staff expected. His consistency is finally beginning to pay off, with Peppers being credited with five sacks in his last three games and perhaps joining the discussion for Defensive Player of the Year in the NFL.
With regard to the comment he made a year or two ago about possibly wanting to play outside linebacker in a 3-4, he told us the day he signed with the Bears that it was nothing more than a passing fancy, and it's probably just more evidence of how badly he wanted out of Carolina.
JS: It's the late part of the season where injuries, concussions and other bumps and bruises call for roster changes at crucial times for teams. How have injuries impacted the Bears season so far, and who has stepped up to fill in for the team?
G Chris Williams
JC: It's hard to describe how fortunate the Bears have been on the injury front so far this year, so much so that coach Lovie Smith is being asked about it by reporters from other teams during his Wednesday conference calls. The only player of note stuck on injured reserve is Hunter Hillenmeyer, who is nothing more than a backup linebacker and special-teams contributor at this point of his career, and the lone starter that won't be available Sunday at Soldier Field is linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, who had a knee scope just the other day.
Offensively, Cutler skipped one contest with some post-concussion symptoms and Chris Williams set out a month with a hamstring pull that prompted his move from left tackle to left guard. On defense, linebacker Lance Briggs did miss some time with an ankle problem and rookie safety Major Wright battled a few nicks and scrapes earlier in the year. Aside from that, this club has been incredibly healthy all year long.
JS: Johnny Knox spoke to us on the eve of the draft two seasons ago. He was excited for the draft but didn't expect too much, saying he only wanted an opportunity to play. How far has Knox come since the Bears selected him in the fifth round of the 2009 draft out of Abilene Christian, and how does he stack up against the rest of the receiver group?
JC: Because Knox posted 40-yard dash times in the high 4.2s and low 4.3s before the 2009 NFL Draft and came from a small school most people had never heard of before, it was easy to classify him as a track star in pads and not a true receiver. But from the moment he arrived at Halas Hall for rookie minicamp, he showed right away that he could run crisp routes and catch the ball consistently, much more so than third-round pick Juaquin Iglesias, who is wasting away right now on the practice squad. This year, Knox has a shot to be the first 1,000-yard wideout in town since Marty Booker all the way back in 2002, plus the communication issues he had in the past with Cutler are much more infrequent.
The Bears certainly don't have an alpha dog in the passing game, someone you immediately look to for a 9-yard catch on 3rd and 8, but the trio of Knox, Devin Hester and Earl Bennett is better than most experts think, plus tight end Greg Olsen may as well be a receiver half the time.
JS: What is Chicago's Achilles' heel on offense or defense, and how have teams exploited that weakness this season?
JC: No question about, the biggest concern for this team is an offensive line that has already allowed Cutler to be sacked 41 times, including an NFL-record nine times in the first half alone against the Giants back in Week 4. After an injury or two and some reshuffling of positions, most notably kicking Williams, a former first-round pick, inside to left guard and moving unheralded free-agent pickup Frank Omiyale over to left tackle, the current configuration has done a decent job and seems to be developing that cohesiveness. Yes, Cutler was sacked four times in each of the last two games, but considering how bad the blocking was up front the first month or two, four sacks isn't that big of a deal anymore.
Most teams have chosen to exploit the Bears in the trenches by blitzing, blitzing and then blitzing some more, although it's worth noting that this unit was at it worst in the New York game, as the G-Men's front four were overpowering and allowed their back seven to sit in coverage – there were no hot reads available.
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Be on the lookout for Part III of this Behind Enemy Lines series, where John and Jon highlight matchups and make final predictions. Check out Part I, where Jon answered five questions on New England, Click Here.
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