Over the past few weeks, Jay Cutler has openly complained about the lack of protection he has received from his offensive line early in the 2011 season. As the Vikings head to Soldier Field Sunday night, they bring with them the league's second most prolific sack defense.
Jared Allen leads the NFL with 8.5 sacks and Brian Robison has 4.5 sacks to his credit. The Bears are near the bottom in sacks allowed with 18. When one team's strength meets another team's weakness, something has to give, making the game-long battles between Allen and Robison and Bears offensive tackles J'Marcus Webb and Frank Omiyale this week's key matchup.
Taking sacks is nothing new in the Mike Martz offense. His quarterbacks took a beating in St. Louis, Detroit and San Francisco before he arrived in Chicago and, if anything, that propensity has gone up in his two-plus seasons with the Bears. Under the Martz offensive scheme, tight ends are rarely part of the passing game (which is why they traded Pro Bowl-caliber TE Greg Olsen before the start of the season) and, as a result, defenses try to flood the box with blitzers and pass rushers to overpower the Bears O-line and put heat on Cutler. It is a built-in drawback to the Martz offense. A five-yard slant pass can go for an 80-yard touchdown, but the quarterback is often left unprotected and open to big hits that take a toll.
The Vikings have maintained a confidence level in their defensive line to create enough pressure that the team doesn't have to consistently bring blitzes from linebackers and defensive backs because their front four can create enough pressure on its own to drop seven defenders into coverage.
That could be a problem for Cutler. Last month, he complained at one of his Monday press conferences that he didn't know if he would last the entire season because not only has taken 18 sacks through five games, he has been knocked down just as many times on passes he was able to get off before defenders swarmed over him. This week, he said the problem has gone from being one of a physical question to one of a mental question.
"You talk to any quarterback," Cutler said. "Whenever you're getting a lot of pressure and you're getting flushed (out of the pocket) and you're getting hit a lot, that clock in your head is going to be tinkered a little bit. It's going to start ticking a little bit faster. Even sometimes when you do have a good amount of time, you're going to be feeling it even if it's not there."
Some call that syndrome Happy Feet. Others called it Shellshock. Either way, it's planting the germ of an idea in a quarterback's head that he has to rush the pass and get it out of his hand quicker than the play is designed for, which can often lead to disaster.
Compounding the problem is that the players assigned to protect Cutler from Allen and Robison are inexperienced and ineffective. Webb is in his second year and Omiyale was so bad Monday night that he got pulled. They can be overwhelmed and, given the lack of a consistent tight end presence in the offense, the Bears will either leave both players on an island with the Vikings pass-rush specialists or change their entire offense to include "max protect" formations, which will most likely leave only two or three downfield receiving options on many plays.
Despite a brutal start to the 2011 season in the win-loss column, the Vikings' lack of success can't be blamed on the play of Allen or Robison. Even with high expectations, both have exceeded what was expected of them. Allen is on pace for a record-setting 27 sacks and Robison is on pace for 14 more. They are creating sacks at the level of the heyday of the Purple People Eaters and the Bears look like the ultimate mismatch for their skill set.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Key matchup: Excelling ends vs. tepid tackles
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