By Nick Whalen
Nick Whalen is a former high school quarterback with experience as an assistant student coach with Drake University, Carthage College, and Montana State. He also spent two years as an assistant student coach with Western Kentucky. He has been a quarterback, wide receiver, and defensive back coach for three different high school teams. Whalen is a writer at Dynasty Rogues. Here’s his RSP Writer’s Team and Q&A. He’s sharing an enlightening take on my favorite quarterback anti-hero, Jay Cutler.
Special moments in life are associated with where you were when they happened. First kiss. 9/11. Hearing about the death of someone close. But a new one for me happened on April 2nd 2009: The day the Chicago Bears traded for Jay Cutler.
I had just finished watching film from spring practice when I turned on ESPN.com and experienced instant euphoria. As a Bears fan living in Wisconsin, my lifelong pain of watching Cade McNown, Henry Burris, Rick Mirer, Chad Hutchinson, Shane Mathews, Jim Miller, and Kordell Stewart was over. The Bears had finally acquired a quarterback capable of leading the team and not simply “managing” the game.
Or so I thought.
During Jay Cutler’s first three years, I found myself making excuses for his play. His offensive line is bad. His weapons aren’t talented. His offensive coaches aren’t playing to his strengths. No more excuses. I decided to break down Jay Cutler’s game versus Green Bay to illustrate what he needs to fix.
3rd-and-nine at the 18 yard line in the 1st quarter with the score 0-0
Green Bay is in a Cover 2 Man scheme with four pass rushers. Chicago sends wide receivers Brandon Marshall on top and Alshon Jeffery on the bottom on clearing 9 routes. Tight end Kellen Davis has a deep out route versus cornerback Charles Woodson and running back Matt Forte has an angle route versus a linebacker. The Forte and Davis route combination is the read for Cutler. Wide receiver Earl Bennett is a safety valve with a hitch and is mainly occupying the defensive back out of the area of this photo.
As the play develops, Marshall and Jeffery take the defensive backs out of play and Bennett occupies his opponent. Cutler has time in the pocket to deliver the ball and make his read to consider the merits of Forte or Davis. However he makes the throw to Forte that appears predetermined.
Although Forte is a mismatch for a linebacker, he hasn’t cleared the defender. The running back is actually interfered with on the play. Taking momentum into the equation, Forte would need to gain an additional seven yards after the catch to convert into a first down.
Now look at Charles Woodson’s eyes and body in the blue circle. He’s focused on Matt Forte and the running back’s route takes Woodson out of position to cover Kellen Davis on the deep out. If Cutler throws it to Davis, he would simply have to catch it for a first down.
Predetermining routes is a common mistake for young players with strong arms. Cutler, like Brett Favre, has a rare arm. However, even a cannon won’t always make up tipping off your routes or forcing the ball into a spot. Sometimes there has to be a balance between letting what happens on the field be what guides a quarterback and making something happen regardless of circumstance.
1st and 10 and the 20 in the 1st quarter with the score 0-0
This play is a 2×2 receivers running four verticals. Jeffery on the bottom converts his vertical to a comeback after he fails to get on top of the defender. Cutler decides to target Kellen Davis and the result of the play is a 24-yard gain due to pass interference. A good outcome, but the process is still lacking. A closer reveals that it’s Cutler’s mechanics that are at fault for the failure to earn a completion to the tight end.
He has plenty of time to deliver the football – just look at the space in the pocket to step into the pass. Instead his foot work to finish a quality pass is poor. His feet are almost parallel, which is not the most advantageous position for accurate passes.
Cutler’s sloppy mechanics result in a misplaced pass. If Cutler places this ball on the outside shoulder of Davis, it could have generated a reception and a much better result. Kellen Davis is 6’7, and 265 lbs. with separation on D.J. Smith – a 5’11, 235 lb. linebacker. If Cutler places this pass anywhere not inside it’s a catch by Davis because he can use his back to shield the ball from Smith.
1st and 10 on the 44 yard line in the 1st Quarter and the score 0-0
This is the next play after the pass interference call. This play demonstrates Cutler’s poor pocket awareness. What happens before the analysis below is Cutler reading the Smash combination – a hitch and corner route being run by Earl Bennett and Kellen Davis. The Packers pass rush gets to Cutler before any Bears player gets open. Let’s look at why Cutler’s pocket awareness is the issue and not the pass rush.
Linebacker Clay Mathews, who is in the middle of the line of scrimmage is completing a successful twist with nose tackle B.J. Raji, which creates pressure up the middle. Linebacker Erik Walden and defensive end Ryan Pickett are going wide of Cutler’s right tackle Gabe Carimi and the left tackle Webb has safely secured the quarterback’s blindside.
At this moment, Cutler is unaware of Mathews’ pressure coming up the middle. Most good quarterbacks simply have a feel for the bodies around them and if polished players, they will sidestep the pressure to buy more time in the pocket. Not Cutler.
This is the same play a second later. Cutler still has an opportunity to avoid the pressure ( move left Jay!) with Mathews directly ahead and Walden has beaten Carimi to the edge. He doesn’t move until a split second later and gets sacked by both Mathews and Walden. One easy step would’ve avoided a 10-yard sack on 1st and 10, killing Chicago drive.
2nd and 10, at the 37 yard line with 1:13 in the 2nd quarter and down 0-10
Green Bay plays Cover 2 man to the two-receiver side and Cover 2 zone to the single receiver side. Chicago is working a smash-combination route, which allows Earl Bennett to run to the middle of the field if he’s covered. Cutler makes no less than four errors on this play.
Alshon Jeffery clears the Packers cornerback in the flat who is playing zone. The phrase “if he’s even, he’s leaving” is valid in this example. Jeffery has a step on the defender and the safety is deep enough to fit in a pass for a first down completion that could lead to a bigger play if Jeffery does something good as a runner or the defensive back takes a poor angle. Cutler is looking to that half of the field and based on the locations of the players I’m not sure what else he needs to pull the trigger.
As the play develops the pocket begins to collapse. Pressure off the right edge is what Cutler senses, but he decides to move to the right. Looking at the pocket, Walden is applying pressure from the right and Raji defeats a block up the middle by going to the right. Looking at the left side of the line, there is no pressure because there are three upright blockers providing safety. It’s a tight pocket on the left side but the space on the right is deceiving. Although a common occurrence for a quarterback to go towards the rush because of the open space, it is not a great decision.
When Raji gets into Cutler’s face and Walden is two steps away the Bears quarterback spots his safety blanket Bennett working across the middle and the Packers defensive back is attempting to undercut the route. The only place Cutler shouldn’t throw this football is short and/or behind Bennett because this placement will give the defender an opportunity to make a play on the ball. However, that’s exactly what he does on this throw.
Cutler’s momentum is going to the right and he is attempting to throw it across his body to the left. Even the casual watcher of games listens to broadcast analysts mention this as the cardinal sin of quarterbacking (think Brett Favre’s final meaningful play of his career in the NFC Championship game against the Saints).
Finally, look at Cutler’s technique with his footwork. I mentioned this before but always worth saying again: it is difficult to be accurate with poor footwork.
This last shot reveals the poor location of the pass. Earl Bennett is slowing down and bending over in an attempt to retrieve it, because the ball is low and slightly behind the trajectory of Bennett’s route. The defensive back makes a great, diving catch for the interception. If Cutler puts the pass higher and further head of Bennett so the receiver can continue sprinting down field this would have resulted in a reception and an opportunity to gain another 20 yards after the catch.
2nd and seven at the 23 yard line in the 3rd quarter and the score 3-13
The Green Bay defense is in a Cover 4 zone with Chicago running different levels of hitches. Cutler will decide to throw the ball to tight end Matt Spaeth, who is at the left side of the line. However, Jeffery and Marshall to Spaeth’s left are both wide open.
The pressure comes fast on this play and is Cutler has defenders in his face at a point where it is difficult to fault him. However, he doesn’t even look at Jeffery standing by himself at the 27 and Marshall breaking back to the ball beyond the first down marker. Both receivers look like better options than Spaeth.
After four years of Jay Cutler as the Bears quarterback, I’m beginning to hedge on my expectations. Cutler has fundamental issues that show up repeatedly on the field: bad footwork, questionable reads, poor pocket awareness, and inaccurate passes. Many of these issues are related, but they are costing Chicago negative plays, drives, points, and ultimately wins.