SUNDAY PLAYBOOK: Everyone focused on Jay Cutler, but he’s focused on Browns
BY ADAM L. JAHNS Staff Reporter December 14, 2013 12:03AM
Updated: January 16, 2014 6:36AM
Jay Cutler seemed happy that the topic of conversation turned from his return, his sprained ankle, his backup’s play, his rust and so on to the Browns.
He has been focusing on them as much as everyone else seems to be focusing on him replacing Josh McCown as the Bears’ starting quarterback.
‘‘They have a really good defense,’’ Cutler said, ‘‘so we’ve got our hands full.’’
And no one will have his hands full more than Cutler. Every move he makes will be dissected for public debate.
But Cutler shouldn’t be judged on his final numbers against the Browns on a wintry day in Cleveland. All that matters is that the Bears find a way to win and stay in the playoff race.
So many things suggest Cutler is in for a long day — and none of them deals specifically with him. A similar argument could be made about McCown facing the Browns’ defense. If McCown were starting, the Browns would be the best statistical defense he would have faced this season.
‘‘[The Browns are] one of the top 10 teams in the league defensively, [No. 4] against the run,’’ coach Marc Trestman said. ‘‘They’re thick up front. They’re good tacklers. They play well on the perimeter. They’re doing a lot of things well right now on both sides of the ball, and as [Browns coach Rob Chudzinski] said [last] week, they feel like they can play with anybody. And that’s certainly the case when you look at the tape.’’
The bad news looks like this: Heading into Week 15, the Browns are seventh in total defense (320.4 yards allowed), fourth against the run (98), eighth against the pass (222.4), second in average yards per play allowed (4.6), ninth in sacks (37) and first in players notching sacks (15).
The Browns’ Joe Haden is one of the best cornerbacks in the league, allowing 4.2 catches and 45.5 yards per game, according to team statistics. He should give Brandon Marshall or Alshon Jeffery plenty of problems.
‘‘We’re still kind of working through what we like game plan-wise, but by Sunday we’ll have it hammered out,’’ Cutler said.
There is some good news, though. The Browns’ defense ranks 26th on third downs (41.5 percent) and 30th in the red zone (touchdowns scored 65.8 percent of the time). If Cutler is able to succeed in those crucial situations, the Bears should be all right.
Cutler did his best to shrug off questions about the pressure he’s facing, but he agreed the Bears’ offense progressed without him.
‘‘I think [Trestman] for the last month has really got a bead and got a feel for what he likes to call, what we’re running well, what we feel comfortable with [and] what the offensive line likes in the running game,’’ he said. ‘‘[Offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer has] done a good job of mixing that stuff up.
“So we’re moving along, but it’s a different week each and every week. Cleveland is a tough team. We’re going to have to get ready for them.’’
Defensive coordiantor Mel Tucker looks at Browns receiver Josh Gordon
The Bears have faced plenty of big-name receivers this season, such as the Bengals’ A.J. Green, the Giants’ Victor Cruz, the Steelers’ Antonio Brown, the Cowboys’ Dez Bryant and the Lions’ Calvin Johnson (twice).
But is it possible the Browns’ Josh Gordon is the best of them all?
Well, he’s definitely the hottest receiver in the league right now. Gordon leads the NFL with 1,400 receiving yards, which is a team record. That includes 774 yards in his last four games, which is the most in NFL history during a four-game span. Gordon also has five touchdown catches in those four games.
Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said Gordon has big-play ability.
‘‘He has a large catch radius,’’ Tucker said. ‘‘He’s fast. He can take a five-yard slant and turn it into a 60-yard touchdown. Really, he’s playing with a lot of confidence. The quarterbacks have confidence in him to go up and make plays.’’
In other words, Gordon is the Browns’ version of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. It’ll take an excellent performance from cornerback Tim Jennings, who had success last week against Bryant, and some help from safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte to stop him.
‘‘[Gordon] can catch the ball in a crowd and win the contested one-on-one battle,’’ Tucker said. ‘‘He’s a really good player — really good.’’
Right tackle Jordan Mills, No. 67
The eye test tells you that rookie right tackle Jordan Mills has been an upgrade from what the Bears have had in recent seasons, but it also tells you that he still is learning on the job. Mills, though, might be on the verge of his best football at the best time.
Mills is coming off arguably his best game of the season against the Cowboys. Even Pro Football Focus, his harshest critic, saw good things from him. PFF gave him a 3.9 grade against the Cowboys, his best of the season.
‘‘I felt pretty good,’’ said Mills, who only has been responsible for three sacks in PFF’s reviews. ‘‘Obviously, I made some mistakes. That’s every game. But after watching the film, I think I did a pretty good job.’’
Mills also called playing in the frigid cold something to learn from.
‘‘I was so cold after playing,’’ Mills said. ‘‘That’s the coldest game I’ve ever played. But some of the veterans said that’s one of many you’re going to have, so you better get used to it.’’
Seeing quarterback Jason Campbell (right) having individual success with the Browns — a decent 88.0 passer rating, a 58.9 completion percentage and nine touchdown passes (against three interceptions) — is a further indictment of what the Bears were running offensively last season.
Campbell took the high road when asked about his one-year stint with the Bears, saying he enjoyed it.
But he did offer this sound bite when talking about coach Marc Trestman: ‘‘I can just tell from last year to this year, from an offensive point of view, [the Bears are] making big strides.’’
Yes, they are, Jason.
Defensive tackle Stephen Paea’s playing time is worth watching this week. Paea, who has been dealing with a nagging turf toe, got only 18 snaps against the Cowboys. A productive Paea is needed if the Bears are going to stop the run.
‘‘We rolled him a bit, and that was the plan — to make sure we rolled the guys in there based upon the flow of the game and things like that,’’ defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. ‘‘We’re going to need him to play well for us moving forward.’’
Weekly stat to consider: The Bears are averaging 285.9 gross passing yards per game, the highest in a single season in team history. Will quarterback Jay Cutler come close to reaching that against the Browns?