**This article was written by Dave Jenis**
Management for the Chicago Bears wasted very little time this past offseason when it came to making a decision on Jay Cutler and a contract extension. Despite the strong play as a backup by Josh McCown, the Bears are committed to the guy they traded for five years ago. When you look at the statistics, it is hard to argue with his productivity. In fact, a healthy Cutler could make the Bears the most efficient offense in fantasy football in 2014.
Last season, Chicago finished 5th in the NFL in passing yards, and 16th in rushing. They return all their key pieces from a season ago, and at the beginning of the season, they will be healthy as well. Cutler has only led the Bears to the playoffs in one of his first five seasons with the club, but he will have his best supporting cast in his career heading into 2014.
People in fantasy football already know about established veterans like wide receiver Brandon Marshall and running back Matt Forte, but others stepped up in 2014 as well. Alshon Jeffery actually had more receiving yards than Marshall in 2013, despite only finding the end zone seven time. Martellus Bennett had his best fantasy football season of his career as well at tight end, catching 65 passes for 759 yards and five touchdowns.
Throughout the history of the team, defense has been a calling card. With the current roster setup, it is going to be hard to get that reputation back any time soon. They are decent at stopping the passing game, but they finished last in the NFL with their rush defense in 2013, giving up 161.4 yards per game.
Cutler missed five games last year, and the play of McCown had some people wondering if he would ultimately lose his job in Chicago. Management has faith in him, and fans should do. He has the weapons to have a monster season in 2014.
**I realize it’s been a couple of months since my last post, and I apologize. I got busy and I got lazy, but Monday night’s win gave me some of my mojo back. After two long months, the hiatus has been lifted for the time being, starting with a recap of the Bears’ beat down of the Cowboys.**
Punt, punt, punt, pick six, touchdown, pick, pick six, field goal, pick, pick. This is how each of the ten Tony Romo-led drives ended for America’s beloved Cowboys on Monday night. It was a statement game for both Chicago and Dallas, and it was Chicago who rose to the occasion and then some. The Bears simply embarrassed the Cowboys, and it all started with a defense that continues to shit in the mouths of any and every doubter that said it’s too old to continue its greatness this past off-season.
In a three-hour clinic, the grizzled veterans of the Chicago Bears defense let the world know that age doesn’t mean jack. Sure, Urlacher, Briggs, Peppers and Tillman are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning, but with age comes wisdom, and it’s that very wisdom and knowledge that has helped this defense make up for any lost speed and athleticism.
Briggs and Tillman took two of Romo’s five interceptions to the house, while Urlacher and Peppers continued to hold down the fort and establish themselves as two of the greatest defensive leaders that we have in this game. They’ve anchored a front seven that has been in complete shut-down mode since Week 1, allowing a measly 67.2 rushing yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry to opposing running backs, good for third in the NFL. That front seven includes third-year tackle Henry Melton, who has been bull rushing his way through offensive lines like this streaker through a tennis court had he been successful (I may or may not have forced that analogy just so you can watch that video – it’s too funny). He recorded a team-leading fourth sack Monday night, as well as a tackle for a loss, and he was the direct cause of the Briggs interception to top it off. Dude’s been a beast. Straight up.
The younger guys in the secondary, including Tim Jennings (single-handedly caused another interception) and Major Wright (two interceptions) are playing out of their minds, and it doesn’t seem like they’re going to stop. Before Monday’s game, Tim Jennings was arguably the best cornerback in football over the first three weeks; opposing quarterbacks had posted an absolutely ridiculous passer rating of 4.9 when throwing his way. Through four games, he has four interceptions, nine pass deflections and 16 tackles. He may not have been as impressive in Dallas, but he sure as hell has been as important as anyone to this unit’s success thus far. I can’t say enough about how far that man has come. As for Major Wright, he’s finally healthy (fingers crossed). Maybe that’s all it takes for him to play good, smart football.
We can go on and on about the Bears’ defense and their inspired efforts, constantly keeping us in games over the years even when we have no business winning. However, I can’t move forward without mentioning the solid (not fantastic, but solid) performance by the offense. Most people who know me know I’ve never been a Jay Cutler fan. The fact that we are both Type 1 Diabetics is the only thing that keeps me sane when talking about him sometimes (people don’t realize how unbelievably impressive and tough it is for anyone to play quarterback in the NFL with a disease like that). That being said, I really only care about the Bears scoring points and winning football games, and Cutler has proved very little throughout his career from a success standpoint (1 playoff appearance, 1 playoff win). I want to see a Super Bowl appearance before I start fully supporting him after the awfulness and poor demeanor he displays on the field sometimes.
With that awfulness, though, comes occasional greatness (read Grantland’s Bill Barnwell’s dead-on perception of Cutler from the other week here). Monday night was one of those occasions. It was one of Cutler’s most efficient performances in a Bears uniform, as he completed 75% of his passes (18 of 24) and threw two touchdowns to give him a passer rating of 140.1 and a QBR (ESPN’s QB Rating metric) of 81.1. Time and time again, he found Brandon Marshall over the middle of the field (Marshall reeled in seven of his eight targets), allowing the offense to move the chains and maintain a consistent offensive balance (28 rushes to 24 passes). The running game may have been a little weak (3.7 YPC for the running backs), but given the fact that Forte re-tweaked his ankle on his first run and is still trying to get his rhythm back, I can live with it.
The offensive game plan was nothing short of magnificent, so for the first time this season, I applaud Mike Tice (the beat down of the Colts doesn’t count; it’s not hard to score points on that horrendous defense without its best player in Dwight Freeney). He called a flawless game, and most importantly, he found a solution to the offensive line woes (at least for the time being) that every fan has been begging for: use our tight end blocking machines, Matt Spaeth and Kyle Adams, to help chip in during pass protection, otherwise known as “Max Protect” (essentially dedicating more personnel to protecting the quarterback and taking pressure off the offensive line). There was no doubt in my mind that Tice would eventually figure it all out, like he did as our Offensive Line Coach the past two years, but it takes balls to swallow your pride, realize what you’re doing wrong as a coach/coordinator and actually fix it.
If Tice hadn’t finally implemented this game plan, the NFL’s best defensive player in DeMarcus Ware (yes, the best defensive player – 104.5 sacks in just over seven seasons is no joke, people) would’ve made J’Marcus Webb his personal bitch. I legitimately lost sleep all last week thinking about Ware ripping Cutler’s head off and posting it on a stick for Kristen Cavallari and their newborn son to come home to, Joffrey Baratheon-style (Game of Thrones reference and spoiler alert; do yourself a favor and watch that show if you don’t already). But thankfully, that wasn’t the case. Besides one sack and a forced fumble that happened to be Cutler’s fault and not Webb’s, Ware, along with the rest of the Dallas front line, mind you, was relatively quiet all night. Snaps to Mike Tice for finally implementing a game plan that played to the strengths of the offense and covered up the glaring vulnerabilities that it has demonstrated. Here’s to hoping he and the rest of the unit continue down this path to collective stardom. The sky is the limit for this offense, and accomplishing what it did against a very underrated and much improved Cowboys defense should make us all feel comfortable.
We’ve all seen this before with the Bears – looking terrible one week and fans acting like the world is about to end, then winning a huge game in extremely convincing fashion the next – I get that. But so goes the roller coaster that is Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears’ offense. The lows get so low that we actually feel like vomiting, while the highs get so high that we never want to get off and can’t help but feel better about our lives – there’s never a medium. As long as we can accept that, let’s all just buckle up for the ride, pray the offense can continue playing like this consistently and allow the defense to remain our blueprint. If all goes well, this ride may very well lead us straight into the Superdome on February 3rd.
The Chicago Bears had arguably the worst corps of receivers in the NFL last season. Even after missing four games, Matt Forte still led the team, from the backfield, with 52 receptions. The top two receivers on the depth chart, Johnny Knox and Roy Williams, caught 37 balls a piece, good for 109th in the league. Knox finished with a team-high 727 receiving yards. More importantly, the Bears haven’t had a single 1000-yard receiver since Marty Booker in 2002. In fact, this franchise has only produced 11 1000-yard receivers EVER. The Arizona Cardinals had three of them on THE SAME TEAM just four years ago. I can go on and on about this, but one thing is clear: the Bears have lacked a playmaker (outside of running back) for as long as most of us can remember. It’s probably no coincidence that we’ve only won one Super Bowl in its 46-year existence (and that happened to be the best defensive team in the history of the NFL). Jerry Angelo, the worst man ever, didn’t seem to understand this. Hence his firing after the season.
Insert Phil Emery. What was his first move? He went out and got us a dangerous playmaker in Brandon Marshall. And Jay Cutler went from a very unhappy person to just an unhappy person, which says a lot. With the news of Marshall finally being cleared of any wrongdoing for a nightclub incident in March, I figured there’s no better time than to breakdown what kind of impact he should have on Cutler and this Bears team going forward. Below is a chart of Marshall’s numbers over the past five seasons:
The touchdown numbers may scare you, I know. However, that has more to do with Cutler, Orton, Henne and Moore, all of whom are known to be poor red zone quarterbacks, than it does Marshall. He finished in the top five in both targets and red zone targets during his three full seasons in Denver, and he finished in the top 12 in targets and top 6 in red zone targets during his two seasons with Miami. Simply put, quarterbacks trust Marshall, especially inside the 20 yard line. The numbers alone show you that he is as reliable a wide receiver as there is in this game. It is very difficult to maintain the consistency that Marshall has at the professional level. Even with terrible quarterbacks throwing him the ball in Miami, he still managed to put up very solid numbers.
Now, think about the impact Marshall had on Cutler. During their two full seasons together in Denver, Cutler targeted Marshall an average of 186 times. That’s unheard of. Consider the fact that Denver was 10th in the NFL in total yards per game (346.3) in 2007 and 2nd in 2008 (395.6), and you realize that the Cutler-Marshall combo is a perfect marriage (if you think a supporting cast of Eddie Royal, a running back by committee and Tony Scheffler is scarier than Forte/Bush, Alshon Jeffery, Earl Bennett, Devin Hester and a healthy Johnny Knox, you’re sadly mistaken). With Cutler at the helm during his first three seasons in Chicago, the offense averaged just 217.1, 194.1 and 231.9 yards per game, respectively. His completion percentage went from 62.9% as a full-time starter for the Broncos to 59.9% with the Bears. And finally, his interception rate has gone from 0.89 picks per game to 1.20. The argument can be made that the Bears offensive line has been horrendous, so obviously Cutler’s numbers were going to take a hit. However, a lot of that had to do with the way Mike Martz ran his offense. His outrageous stubbornness to establish a balanced offense and actually allow the Bears to play to their strengths (running the ball) put a ton of pressure on Cutler, leading him to force throws way more often than he should have. There will also be no more seven-step-drops, so the sack/rush/hurry numbers will undoubtedly go down.
Just having Marshall on the field completely changes the way defenses will have to game plan for us. Plus, the Bears did themselves justice by going out and signing Michael Bush, the former Oakland Raiders running back. He’s a straight beast inside the 5-yard line, something Matt Forte certainly can’t consider himself thus far. Adding these guys will only take the pressure off of Cutler and Forte to carry the load. Marshall will help stretch the field and open up opportunities for other guys to make plays. With extra weapons and more time in the pocket without Martz calling the shots, there will be less forced throws, so Cutler’s decision-making, particularly in the red zone, should (hopefully) improve (he ranked next-to-last in bad decision rating in 2011). No more holding our breath, praying our below-average receivers run the correct routes and make the plays that NFL receivers are supposed to make. If Alshon Jeffery lives up to his potential (put up 88-1517-9 during his sophomore season with South Carolina), the Bears could own one of the scariest offenses in the NFL. Consider this stat that Peter King came up with in yesterday’s Monday Morning Quarterback:
The Chicago Bears could field the tallest set of receivers in club history — and, in fact, one of the tallest ever to take the field — this year, depending on the play-calling whimsy of offensive coordinator Mike Tice.
If the Bears line up in a five-receiver set, with two tight ends and three wide receivers, here’s how they could threaten the opposition:
At wideout: The 6-4½ Brandon Marshall and 6-3 rookie Alshon Jeffery could line up split out, with 6-0 Earl Bennett or 5-11 Dane Sanzenbacher the third receiver; Sanzenbacher is more suited to play inside. This is dependent, too, on the recovery of 5-11 Johnny Knox from a severe late-2011 back injury.
At tight end: Returning are 6-7 Matt Spaeth and 6-6½ Kellen Davis, who could be used as sixth, or sixth and seventh linemen to buttress a shaky line. And fourth-round pick Evan Rodriguez, an athletic 6-2 tight end, could get some playing time if he proves his worth as a receiver too.
Conjures memories of the Chargers two years ago, when they could send three receivers 6-4 or taller downfield — Vincent Jackson, Malcolm Floyd and tight end Antonio Gates — with the 6-2 Legedu Naanee in reserve.
That’s pretty incredible to think about. Provided Cutler and Marshall don’t skip a beat, Mike Tice patches up the offensive line, and Forte’s knee heals up, the Bears offense will finally be able to keep the defense off the field longer and may very well turn itself into a juggernaut.
Only 2.5 months ’til training camp. CAN’T WAIT!