Sunday playbook: With better protection, Jay Cutler has displayed better mechanics
BY ADAM L. JAHNS Staff Reporter September 28, 2013 1:32AM
Better protection has made quarterback Jay Cutler more confident in the pocket and has led to better mechanics and decision-making. | Gene J. Puskar/AP
Updated: October 30, 2013 6:23AM
Jay Cutler’s hands are whacked in every practice. He drops back — whack. A few more times — whack, whack, whack.
On and on it goes until quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh puts down his padded bat and moves on to the next drill.
‘‘The most important thing is to take care of the football,’’ coach Marc Trestman said. ‘‘That’s No. 1. Where the ball is carried and how it’s carried is critically important.’’
So there’s a focus on the fundamentals and mechanics; hence, the whacking drills.
Since Cutler arrived in Chicago, that’s an area in which he has struggled. There have been too many back-foot throws to say otherwise.
But Trestman didn’t set out to ‘‘fix’’ Cutler’s mechanics; Cutler’s days with the Broncos showed a ‘‘fix’’ wasn’t necessary. The fixes were needed in front of him.
‘‘I never thought about fixing or using the word ‘fix,’ ’’ Trestman said. ‘‘This is a highly evolved quarterback that we walked into this locker room with, both football intelligence and skill set.
‘‘The first thing we wanted to do was clean up the pocket for him and give him a chance to be more comfortable in there, so he could have the mechanics that he needed to have and not be concerned with what’s going on around him.
‘‘The reason that he’s better [with his mechanics] is because [general manager] Phil [Emery] brought in better players. [Jermon] Bushrod, [Matt] Slauson and the two young guys [Kyle Long and Jordan Mills] are playing well, and the way they’re being coached is the primary reason that we’re seeing a more effective Jay Cutler.’’
But there are noticeable differences in Cutler, too. He is holding the ball higher now than in the past. Why?
‘‘It improves the quickness because he doesn’t have as far to get it up and out,’’ Trestman said.
A quick-strike, quick-decision offense is exactly what the Bears have been working to establish in Trestman’s version of the West Coast. It’s something the Bears think Cutler can do because of his previous success with the Broncos.
‘‘We had seen him do it,’’ Trestman said. ‘‘We had watched him do it over the years. It wasn’t that we had him change things; we just had to try to get him to do it on a consistent basis.’’
And that goes back to Cutler’s lack of protection. In his first four seasons with the Bears, Cutler was sacked 148 times. When he was a Pro Bowler with the Broncos in 2008, he was sacked only 11 times. So far this season, Cutler has been sacked three times — the second-fewest in the NFL — on 101 attempts.
No wonder Cutler talks about being more comfortable this season. As a result, his footwork has been to Trestman’s liking.
“I don’t think you can have good mechanics unless you are taking less hits and you’re feeling comfortable in the pocket and able to step up,’’ Cutler said. ‘‘You ask any quarterback: It’s hard to get hit early in a game — and hit often — and still be able to sit in there and have good mechanics.’’
BEARS COACH MARC TRESTMAN ON LIONS QB MATTHEW STAFFORD
It has been only three games, but Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford appears to be back on the Pro Bowl track after his disappointing 2012 season.
Bears coach Marc Trestman, who is renowned for his work with quarterbacks, has seen plenty of good things from Stafford on film. Stafford has completed 63.6 percent of his passes for 1,020 yards, six touchdowns and a 99.9 passer rating.
‘‘He’s making awkward throws, throwing under duress, obviously gotten very comfortable in the offense,’’ Trestman said. ‘‘He’s got a 99 rating this year, thrown for over 1,000 yards so far. He’s got a good group to work with. Just [receiver] Calvin [Johnson] alone, and then with [tight end Brandon] Pettigrew and the two backs [Reggie Bush and Joique Bell], there’s a lot of guys there to work with.’’
The Lions’ revamped offensive line has been just as good as the Bears’, too. Stafford has been sacked only twice this season. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has been sacked three times.
‘‘[Stafford] just seems very comfortable,’’ Trestman said. ‘‘[And] he’s not afraid to put the ball down and run with it. He’s ascending as a quarterback. He’s got maybe an 85 rating for his career, but he’s picked it up in the first three games.’’
Trestman said Stafford has progressed with ‘‘the way he just makes decisions on the field.’’
‘‘I just think he is getting better and is on his way to being one of the top quarterbacks in the league,’’ Trestman said.
TE STEVE MANERI • No. 87
Steve Maneri might not attract a crowd, like fellow tight end Martellus Bennett does, but he is handling the role he was signed to do just fine.
‘‘Whatever they tell me to do, I’m doing it, and we’re winning,’’ Maneri said.
That typically entails blocking. When the Steelers sent different kinds of pressure at Jay Cutler last week, Maneri got more playing time to help protect him. Maneri played 27 offensive snaps in Pittsburgh after playing 33 in the first two weeks combined.
After spending last season with the 2-14 Chiefs, Maneri finds being with the Bears rejuvenating.
‘‘The margin for error in the NFL is so small,’’ Maneri said. ‘‘People don’t realize the slightest things make a block. You can take a wrong a step, and that can ruin a play. It can turn a play from 50 yards to minus-1 yard.’’
Lions running back Reggie Bush (right) has been overlooked in the buildup to the game Sunday. He has been mentioned and considered, but not like receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh have been.
But Bush might prove to be the biggest difference-maker. Bush is to the Lions what Matt Forte is to the Bears. No running back has more catches than Bush since he entered the NFL in 2006.
Linebackers Lance Briggs and James Anderson have been very good in coverage, but Bush is the best pass-catching running back they have faced so far.
‘‘He can create mismatches if you split him out and put him against some linebackers,’’ Briggs said. ‘‘He’s someone that you need to be aware of and know where he is on the field.’’
Defensive end Julius Peppers isn’t known as a vocal leader. But on Wednesday, he gathered the Bears and spoke to them about keeping their focus despite their 3-0 start.
‘‘There isn’t anybody in this building who doesn’t respect Julius Peppers as a player and a man,’’ coach Marc Trestman said. ‘‘He’s not somebody who says a lot.
‘‘I can’t speak for the players, for how they think and what they do, but I know this: When Julius Peppers has something to say, it must be important.’’