By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Jay Cutler’s performance against the Cleveland Browns personified the trite sports cliche of it’s not how you start, but how you finish.
After an early red zone interception, Cutler detractors had their knives out, only having to sheath them by game’s end. Cutler posted a perfect passer rating on third down and led three fourth-quarter touchdown drives in a 38-31 win to keep the Bears playoff hopes alive.
Early on, Cutler (22/31, 265, 3 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 102.2 passer efficiency rating) looked like a quarterback who hadn’t started a game in a month.
While his arm strength was there, Cutler was a click late with his decision making, and off in his protection calls. Cutler’s first interception stymied a solid opening drive, and his second was returned for a touchdown. On both interceptions (both intended for Marshall), Cutler didn’t fully complete his delivery, which leads to the ball sailing.
As expected, the Browns deployed a variety of defensive fronts and blitz packages, but the Bears protection held up and their weapons were able to win individual matchups down the field.
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Cutler targeted Brandon Marshall (6 receptions, 95 yards, 1 touchdown) on 10 of his 19 first-half attempts, but effectively spread the ball around in the second half.
Alshon Jeffery (5 receptions, 72 yards, 1 touchdown) continues to make highlight-reel touchdown catches, this time bailing out Cutler on a pass that should’ve been intercepted. Given the situation, third-and-long outside of field goal range, this pass could be considered low-risk, but Jeffery squashed the hypotheticals making an in-air adjustment to snag a ball that cleared the outreached fingertips of Tashaun Gipson.
Coming into today’s game, the Browns ranked eighth in the league in run defense, but the Bears found cracks in their front. Matt Forte (24 carries, 127 yards) became the first individual running back to go over 88 yards against the Browns this season. Against an aggressive defensive front, the Bears utilized the flip toss-crack scheme to perfection, building a variation on the jet sweep package they run with Jeffery.
On these plays, the Bears use two player actions to hold the linebackers: first, Cutler’s reverse pivot; second, Alshon Jeffery’s motion across the formation. The reverse pivot creates flow to the opposite direction and Jeffery’s motion holds the linebackers. The Bears crack block with the wide receiver and pull Jermon Bushrod to the boundary as a lead blocker for Forte.
This concept was a staple of the Saints running game, highlighting Aaron Kromer’s influence on the offense. With four minutes left in a one possession game, the Bears went to this play on a third-and-long, which illustrates both their confidence in the execution, and how dialed in Trestman was to how the Browns were defending that package.
For a team trying to make the playoffs, the Bears need to tighten up their ball security and pre-snap penalties. Cutler’s interceptions took points off the board and led to 10 Browns points, Martellus Bennett’s fumble was returned for a touchdown, and the Bears had four pre-snap penalties.
Sparked by some strong individual performances, the Bears held an opponent under 100 rushing yards for the first time since Week 5 against New Orleans.
The in-season signing of defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff is paying dividends. Over the past three games, Ratliff has been the most disruptive force on the defensive line, playing stout against the run, and displaying lateral quickness to collapse the pocket from the inside.
Rookie Jon Bostic rebounded from a series of tough games, showing the explosive athleticism that intrigued the Bears’ scouting department. Bostic was quicker with his play recognition, reading his keys and showcasing his burst to close explosiveness. Bostic also generated some A-gap pressure on Jason Campbell when sent on blitzes from their “mug” look.
In the secondary, Zack Bowman capitalized on Campbell’s inaccuracy, hauling in two interceptions, taking one to the house on a pick-six. On the pick-six, Bowman was the beneficiary of a miscue between Campbell and wide receiver Greg Little. Bowman was playing with outside leverage and Little ran a deep in/curl while Campbell threw the comeback into the waiting arms of Bowman.
Additionally, the Bears did an excellent job corralling wide receiver Josh Gordon. Save for his late-game 43-yard touchdown, which falls on free safety Chris Conte not being deep enough and taking a flat angle to the ball, Gordon was held to two catches for 24 yards to that point in the game. Campbell’s woeful inaccuracy contributed to Gordon’s pedestrian totals.
The Browns were the first team to run the “wildcat” and “veer” read-option against the Bears and had great success with it. Targeting the discipline of defensive ends Shea McClellin and David Bass, the Browns ripped off 30 yards on two straight carries, setting up a two-yard, game-tying touchdown by Edwin Baker. Just three days prior, Baker was on the street, so the Bears run defense continues to make dreams come true for little known running backs in 2013.
Another week, another gaffe by the Bears special teams. Corey Wootton’s holding penalty negated a Robbie Gould field goal. The Bears were also unable to come up with a muffed return on the opening kickoff of the second half.
However, Devin Hester’s kickoff returns were a bright spot, returning two for 39+ yards.
In one of the most anticipated games in recent memory, the Bears were able to pull out a win. Switching from the “hot hand” of Josh McCown to the mercurial Cutler divided the fan base.
With a defense as poor as the Bears, some prefer McCown’s game manager style. Cutler’s early misfires provided even more ammunition, but he settled down and delivered when the game was on the line.
The Minnesota Vikings did the Bears a favor by knocking off next week’s opponent – the Philadelphia Eagles – raising the stakes for next Sunday night’s matchup even more. My Know Your Opponent blog will be up this Wednesday.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @djdurkin