Bears providing more protection for Jay Cutler
BY SEAN JENSEN email@example.com August 10, 2011 10:48PM
Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz talks with quarterback Jay Cutler during training camp at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill. | Nam Y. Huh~AP
Updated: November 16, 2011 1:19AM
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — Bears quarterback Jay Cutler didn’t finish the 2010 season, leaving the NFC Championship Game with a Grade II tear of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee early in the third quarter.
But it’s a wonder he lasted that long.
Cutler was sacked or knocked down 79 times, tops in the league according to Pro Football Focus, and he can’t be expected to endure that much duress again in 2011.
“It takes its toll on guys,” Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz said. “I’ve seen that before with quarterbacks.”
Like a movie on a loop.
In 11 seasons in which he either has been the offensive coordinator or head coach, a Martz-led offense has ranked in the top 10 for most quarterback knockdowns nine times, according to STATS. Cutler, though, has the distinction of being Martz’s only quarterback to lead the league in that category.
“On the offensive line, your job is to protect the quarterback,” Bears center Roberto Garza said. “We have to get better at that, we have to get better at running the football, we have to get better at everything.”
The Bears still are installing basics of Martz’s offense, but there are indications that they will do more to protect Cutler this year.
The Bears’ offense finished 30th in the league in yards last season, but the unit was markedly better late in the year, except against the Green Bay Packers.
With changes to the offensive line, Martz said the focus was solely on winning.
“We had to play ‘Star Wars’ last year,” Martz said. “Then kind of mirrors and smoke and stuff. But once we got squared off on the offensive line, then we got to playing football again.”
The Bears averaged nearly 38 points in their last three victories, against the Seattle Seahawks, New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings, and Martz expects to build on that momentum.
“We feel like we should be able to continue to improve from where we left off and make a quantum leap in some other areas,” Martz said. “With the number of receivers we have and the quality there, I would think we’d be much better there.”
While they’ve been dogged for not doing enough, the Bears believe they’ve upgraded their pass protection with first-round draft pick Gabe Carimi and free-agent tight end Matt Spaeth. And while starting tight end Kellen Davis isn’t new, he’ll be an upgrade as a blocker over Greg Olsen.
“That’s going to help,” Martz said of the tweaks. “We’ve also got another runner, so we can take some of that pressure off of [Cutler].”
That runner is Marion Barber, who has a reputation for churning out tough yards.
The Bears also added veteran center Chris Spencer, who still could find his way into the starting lineup if one of the other interior linemen falters. Left guard Chris Williams has looked the shakiest, but he has been holding his ground better.
Recently, Bears offensive line coach Mike Tice got snappy when asked about his unit’s view on curbing the league-high 52 sacks Cutler endured last season.
“When we looked at the whole season and we evaluated who belonged to what hits and what sacks, they weren’t 100 percent to the line,” Tice said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”
With his voluminous playbook, Martz has number of plays to ease Cutler’s burden. But the most obvious will be the use of Spaeth and Davis in two-tight-end formations. The Bears are confident that both are more reliable blockers than Olsen and Brandon Manumaleuna, yet they also are effective receivers.
One of the more effective plays in training camp has been a “hot route” to Davis, a play in which, with the threat of a heavy pass rush, Cutler drops back quickly and darts the ball to the tight end in stride, barely off the line of scrimmage.
“Kellen has stepped to the forefront and established himself not just as a blocker, but also a pretty dynamic receiver in practice,” Martz said. “There are some things coming out of this that you get pretty excited about.”
As for Cutler, he said his command of the offense is “night and day.”
“I feel more comfortable with the reads and where I’m going with the ball,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting the offense line worked out and giving me and the receivers time.”
Later, though, he concluded the thought by adding of the offensive line, “Those guys, I think, they might surprise some people.”
He certainly is counting on it.