By Adam Hoge-
(CBS) Two weeks into the regular season, no two stats stand out more for the Chicago Bears than these:
One sack, zero pre-snap penalties.
The naked eye could see that the Bears’ offensive line played better in the first two games this season than it ever did last year or even the year before that.
So you may be surprised to hear that the Bears’ offensive line was ranked 27th last week in the Pro Football Focus Pass Blocking Efficiency ratings. The unit was sixth in Week 1 and now stands at 19th overall through two weeks.
Sunday’s rating actually isn’t all that surprising if you watched the game closely. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod struggled with Vikings defensive end Jared Allen and right tackle Jordan Mills had an even worse time trying to block Bryan Robison on the other side. I pointed out both of their struggles in my Week 2 Rewind Monday (Mills graded out as the worst Bear on the field against the Vikings), and Pro Football Focus handed both of them negative pass blocking grades on the day (-1.5 for Bushrod and -2.5 for Mills).
And yet, Cutler was only sacked once — a sack that he took the blame for because he didn’t get rid of the ball quick enough.
So how did the Bears get away with just one sack allowed? Because two important things happened: 1) While the line gave up 15 quarterback hurries, there was only one free shot allowed (Robison got Mills on an inside move), and 2) Cutler got rid of the ball quick enough to only take two hits on the day.
Let’s stay on that topic of getting rid of the ball quickly. Per Pro Football Focus, through two games, Cutler has released the football in 2.5 seconds or less on exactly half of his drop backs (37 of 74). On those plays, he has a quarterback rating of 112.0. By comparison, when he releases the ball in 2.6 seconds or more, his rating is only 82.4 (it should be noted that 82.4 is still better than his overall rating of 81.3 last season).
But that’s how it should be, right? If you’re getting rid of the ball faster, you’re most likely throwing to an open guy on a shorter route and thus attempting a pass that has a greater chance of being successful.
So let’s compare these numbers to 2012, when Cutler posted the second worst overall passer rating of his career (81.3).
While he’s getting rid of the ball at an average of 2.61 seconds so far this season, that number was actually at 2.57 a year ago, so a little bit lower. In fact, he got rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds or less on 50.2 percent of his drop backs (249/496), which is pretty much the same as what he’s doing this season. The difference is that his quarterback rating was only 84.5 on those plays last year and just 77.0 when it took him longer than 2.5 seconds to release the football.
So why is he having much more success this year when getting rid of the ball quickly?
For one, Marc Trestman’s West Coast offense is better suited to get receivers open quicker. Cutler may have been getting rid of it in 2.5 seconds or less on over 50 percent of his drop backs last season, but he was also throwing to more covered targets. And the pass protection is to blame for that too. Cutler didn’t trust his offensive line as much and frequently saw unblocked pass rushers, forcing him to throw the ball away quickly to avoid a sack (he still took 37 of them on the season). The difference between giving up a free shot and at least redirecting the route of the pass rush is huge and we saw that difference against the Vikings when Cutler was still able to complete passes despite 15 hurries.
The addition of Martellus Bennett has helped the cause as well. He and Matt Forte are making it very hard for defenses to overload coverage to Brandon Marshall, which is contributing to Cutler seeing more open targets within 2.5 seconds.
Of course, Cutler deserves a lot of credit too. He’s making the right decisions for the most part and has been very accurate so far this season.
But it certainly helps when you’re getting rid of the football because you can, not only because you have to.
Why The Steelers’ Defense Works
By now you’ve heard all about Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 defense, but exactly WHY is it so effective?
Marc Trestman, Aaron Kromer and Kyle Long all did a really good job Thursday of explaining what the Steelers’ do in their zone-blitzing scheme to create havoc. Long even went into detail about a specific technique their linemen use at the line of scrimmage. You can read my full story on how the Bears’ offensive line will handle the Steelers’ pressure here.
Long said the Steelers are a “button-press” team, which means instead of trying to get into the backfield as soon as the ball is snapped, the linemen will try to extend their arms to gain leverage and wait to see what the offense is doing before making their move. In other words, instead of trying to shoot the gaps, they’ll simply keep gap control, wait to see how the play develops and then go to the football. Trestman also talked about how “they’re rushing the passer to stop the run” instead of defending the run on their way to the quarterback.
This All-22 look shows both of these concepts:
As you can see, all three linemen plus Lamarr Woodley (No. 56) are in the button-press technique waiting to see if it’s a run or pass. Jarvis Jones (circled) brings the pressure on the outside in a classic case of rushing the passer to stop the run. His eyes are on the ball and he’s able to drop BenJarvus Green-Ellis in the backfield for a loss.
Then there’s the confusion the Steelers are able to cause on third downs. LeBeau does a great job of disguising his pressures, keeping the offensive line and the quarterback guessing on where the pressure is coming from.
In this look, Troy Polamalu is showing blitz:, but he’ll actually back up into zone coverage and pick up the crossing route:
Now, the Steelers still rush five and because it’s a zone-blitzing scheme, there is usually at least one hole left open for the quarterback to exploit. In this case, with Polamalu jumping the crossing route and the Steelers playing two-man on Jermaine Gresham at the top of the screen, tight end Tyler Eifert is left wide open, but the overloaded pressure from the left side still gets to Andy Dalton quickly and forces him to throw a high, incomplete pass.
Hopefully that adds a little context to everything you’ve read and heard about the Steelers’ 3-4 defense this week. It’s definitely a major departure from what the Bears have seen so far, but it’s also beatable if the offensive line protects and the quarterback recognizes where the pressure is coming from.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.