Commentary

Jay Cutler aware of Packers' DBs

Updated: January 19, 2011, 5:21 PM ET
By Michael C. Wright | ESPNChicago.com

Hair flowing in the freezing air, Clay Matthews screaming off the flanks poses a frightening threat in pass protection for the Chicago Bears' offensive line.

Cutler They're going to show you a lot of different looks. They're going to fool you. They're going to bring a lot of different things at the snap of the ball. They do a good job of trying to disrupt you.

-- Jay Cutler

But based on the numbers, the pass-rushing linebacker -- although a substantial concern -- isn't the most pressing one for the Bears' offense headed into Sunday's NFC title game against the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field.

The most pressing concern is the defensive backs. The more the messier in terms of performance for quarterback Jay Cutler.

"It is more of a challenge when you play a team like that," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "They have one of the best rushers in the game in Matthews, but not just him. [Packers defensive coordinator] Dom Capers does a great job with their defense. We know them; we expect it. Our guys are looking forward to the challenge."

Will they rise this time? They didn't in the season finale. Interestingly, Green Bay's defensive strength seems to be Chicago's greatest weakness on offense. The Packers lined up with five or more defensive backs on the field for 75.1 percent of their defensive snaps this season, which ranks as the highest rate in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Coincidentally, Cutler threw 15 of his 16 interceptions this season against nickel (defensive sets with five defensive backs) and dime (six defensive backs) alignments.

"They're going to show you a lot of different looks," Cutler said. "They're going to fool you. They're going to bring a lot of different things at the snap of the ball. They do a good job of trying to disrupt you."

Look no further for evidence of that than Cutler's two previous games against the Packers.

Cutler passed for nine touchdowns and only one interception in the regular season and the playoffs against the standard alignment of four defensive backs, with a passer rating of 106.5 and a completion percentage of 64.4. Those numbers dropped against nickel and dime looks (58.2 percent completions, touchdown-to-interception ratio of 16 to 15 and a passer rating of 80.3).

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Jim PrischingJay Cutler was sacked eight times against the Packers this season.

In two games against Green Bay, Cutler's numbers hit near rock bottom in situations involving extra defensive backs. In addition to absorbing eight sacks against the Packers, the quarterback passed for only one touchdown and threw three interceptions while producing a passer rating of 62.5.

Of the 52 sacks Cutler suffered in the regular season, 20 came against nickel and dime looks.

Adding to the concerns for Sunday's contest is the gradual improvement of Green Bay's secondary, which was out of sync for a short spell after losing veteran Al Harris in November, 2009 to a torn ACL. But the secondary, which was inexperienced to start this season, has made continuous strides after a slow start.

"[They're] getting better," Smith said. "Of course when you lose a player earlier in the year like they did [you'll struggle at first], but [Tramon] Williams has really stepped up. [Rookie Sam] Shields has really stepped up. So the brand of football they play also [makes the secondary difficult to contend with]."

The brand to which Smith refers is a confusing blend of multiple coverages and blitzes that heavily involves the secondary and linebackers. Defensive backs -- Williams and Charles Woodson -- were responsible for just two of the eight sacks Cutler suffered in two outings against the Packers. But the secondary's role in the overall scheme can't be diminished.

Williams has intercepted three passes so far in the playoffs, running one back 70 yards for a touchdown during the team's trouncing of the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round.

"We play so much sub [packages, as opposed to going with the base defense]," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "When these playoffs and the Super Bowl are completed, everybody in the country is going to know who Tramon Williams is. That's the type of level he's playing at. I think we have more talent [than in years past in the secondary]. I think our secondary is much improved from last year."

Not only do the defensive backs chase down plays from the back side in the running game out of nickel and dime looks, they also frazzle Chicago's protection schemes with a penchant for blitzing from the slot, which has opened up rushing lanes for defensive linemen such as ends Cullen Jenkins and Jarius Wynn (a combined 1½ sacks in two outings against the Bears) and linebackers Matthews, A.J. Hawk, Frank Zombo and Erik Walden (5½ sacks against the Bears).

The synergy between the elements -- anchored by the secondary -- was on full display during the season finale at Lambeau Field with the Packers' playoff hopes on the line.

The Packers' pressure packages and noisy playoff atmosphere on Jan. 2 made relaying line calls along the Bears' offensive line difficult while affecting communication between Cutler and the receivers on sight adjustments.

Although the Bears lost 10-3, the offensive line came away encouraged because it picked up pointers that can be taken into Sunday's game on the team's home turf. The Packers played with five or more defensive backs on 43 of the Bears' 48 snaps in Week 3. In Week 17, the Packers blitzed the Bears with a defensive back 16 times in the second half and 19 times total to sack Cutler six times.

"It's a matchup everybody wants to see," Bears center Olin Kreutz said. By Capers throwing "everything he had at us" in the season finale, it provided the offensive line "the kind of experience we couldn't have gotten just by practicing."

Will it help? It's hard to say. Of the four quarterbacks remaining in the playoffs, Cutler is the worst against blitzes featuring defensive backs in passer rating (72.4), sacks (14) and interceptions (3). Under those same conditions, New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez has thrown four touchdowns and no interceptions and has produced a passer rating of 94.8. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has a 95.3 passer rating against defensive back pressure, and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has five touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 107.4 against the secondary blitz, but he's suffered 11 sacks.

"Cutler, I think if he gets under pressure, he'll just start slinging that sucker around like free loaves of bread in the hood, man," Fox NFL analyst Michael Strahan said Tuesday night on "The T.Ocho Show" on the Versus network. "I don't think that he's gonna sit back there, and just hold it and be cool with it."

Cutler can do it, though, if the Bears find a way to diminish the impact of the speedy Packers secondary featuring Woodson and Williams (who reportedly runs a 4.4-second 40-yard dash) at the corners and Charlie Peprah and Nick Collins (a reported 4.36 in the 40) at safety. On passing downs, Woodson drops down into the slot -- where he often blitzes -- and Shields (a reported 4.26 in the 40) moves into his place when the team uses nickel personnel.

In addition to its impact in Green Bay's blitz packages, the secondary allowed just 16 passing touchdowns -- No. 4 in the NFL during the regular season -- in addition to picking off 24 passes for the league's best differential in touchdown allowed to interceptions.

"The way we're playing right now, we feel we can pretty much match up well against anybody," Williams said. "[This game is] not going to be much different [than the other two]. It's one of those deals where you know someone so [well] that you know the game is going to be a battle. It's going to come down to the small details."

Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.

Michael C. Wright

ESPN Chicago Bears reporter

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