Continuing to improve on his every-down passing mechanics and avoiding critical mistakes are just a few ways that Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler can improve on an otherwise impressive Week 1 performance against the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday.
Further development as a passer should now be expected of Cutler, who already took a number of encouraging steps forward in his first regular-season contest under new head coach Marc Trestman.
The ball came out of Cutler's hand quicker and, for the most part, he handled pressure and blitzers without panicked decision-making. His rocket right arm and underrated athleticism were on display but in control, especially over the final 30 minutes.
However, there were a few moments, particularly in the first half and at one critical juncture in the second half, when Cutler returned to his bad tendencies.
On the first series of the game, the Bengals blitzed off the right side of the line and got a free run at Cutler. He likely didn't have the time nor space to sidestep the rush, so instead of taking the sack on third down, Cutler threw off his back foot in the area of Alshon Jeffery, who had one-on-one coverage to the outside.
Here is a screen shot of Cutler delivering off balance with the blitzer in his face:
Cutler nearly completed the pass, as Jeffery came out of his short route and was open and the ball probably should have been caught. Yet considering the mechanics of Cutler's heave, it's not surprising that the pass wasn't pin-point accurate, and the Bears were forced to punt after Jeffery's attempt was ruled incomplete.
Trestman can likely live with Cutler's decision here. In a perfect world, Cutler would have either identified the free blitzer in the pre-snap process or evaded the rush by breaking pocket containment to the outside. In both scenarios, Cutler would likely have made an easy pitch-and-catch to Jeffery and extended Chicago's first drive of the 2013 season.
However, free blitzers will happen on occasion, especially with two rookies playing on the right side of the offensive line. Cutler's throw was defendable for two reasons. First, his hurried attempt wasn't forced into double coverage, which Cutler has seemingly done a hundred times since arriving in Chicago. Secondly, Jeffery's route called for him to come back to the football, so Cutler likely had every reason to think his receiver would be the only one with a chance to make a play.
Still, Trestman and the Bears don't want to see Cutler throwing off his back foot in either case. When quarterbacks' hurried decisions are combined with poor mechanics, game-changing turnovers happen. Cutler was mostly safe here, but he's been burned too many times in the past for these tendencies to continue.
To Cutler's credit, off-balance throws were mostly a rarity for him in Week 1. He stepped into a high percentage of his passes, even when the pocket was muddied or collapsing. Now, Cutler has to make sure he's plays spotless in that regard moving forward.
Without much doubt, Cutler's worst decision and throw of the afternoon came when Vontaze Burfict intercepted his fourth-quarter toss in Bears' territory.
Here's a look at the pre-snap screenshot, with the eventual routes for each receiver drawn out:
Cutler's first progression in this look is clearly tight end Martellus Bennett, who is running a quick slant to the inside from the slot. The rest of the route concepts become moot, as Cutler will eventually lock on to Bennett and throw the interception.
In the snapshot below, we see what Cutler is looking at as he's releasing the football:
Clearly, Cutler identified one of two things before the snap. Either he read zone coverage, in which he thought he could fit a pass to Bennett in the tight window between Burfict and the cornerback and safety, or his read was man coverage, and he didn't see Burfict or thought the middle linebacker would jump Michael Bush's underneath route.
The guess here is that Cutler correctly identified zone coverage, saw Bennett was close to flashing open and fired. But the throw was woefully behind and short of his most likely target, and Burfict had an easy interception in which it appeared no Bears receiver was even close to the vicinity of the pass.
However, it would not be fair to discount the impact of the Bengals' closing defender, who extends his arm towards Cutler as he delivers the football. This distraction and slight nudge could have forced the poor throw, either by hurrying up Cutler's delivery or by altering the release point with contact.
Either way, the result was the same: Cutler's interception set up the Bengals with advantageous field position and a chance to build on their four-point lead. Had Cincinnati marched down the short field and scored, the narrative surrounding Sunday's opener could have been much different for Cutler.
But that "what if" scenario was also the beauty of Cutler's performance. Instead of watching the Bengals potentially take a 10-point lead off of Cutler's turnover, Bears cornerback Tim Jennings forced a fumble on the ensuing drive and gave Cutler another chance to take over the game, which is exactly what he did on the next series.
On 3rd-and-3, Cutler delivered his prettiest pass of the afternoon—a Cover-2 buster to Brandon Marshall down the sidelines—that was good for 38 yards.
Following a holding penalty, Cutler evaded pressure and scrambled for 18 yards, which turned a 2nd-and-20 into 3rd-and-2. Two plays later, Matt Forte rumbled off the right side of the rookie offensive line to convert on fourth down.
On the next snap, Cutler fired a frozen rope to Marshall in the end zone to give the Bears a 24-21 lead. It ended up being the game-winning score.
Overall, Cutler finished his season opener completing 21 of 33 passes for 242 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. His passer rating was 93.2—good, but not great, in this age of passing the football.
But the surface numbers really didn't do Cutler's performance justice. His work against pressure was a far cry from anything he produced in previous years.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, via Michael C. Wright of ESPN Chicago, Cutler faced five or more pass-rushers on 10 dropbacks against the Bengals. He completed eight of 10 passes for 94 yards and a touchdown in those situations and he wasn't sacked. Last season, Cutler completed only 50 percent of his attempts against five-man pressure fronts and tossed six interceptions.
Trestman's playcalling helped speed up Cutler's trigger. Instead of sitting in the pocket and waiting for long-developing pass plays to open up, Cutler made quick, accurate decisions against blitzes. Trestman helped by giving his quarterback underneath options.
Cutler also twice bought himself time against pressure and made big plays—once to Bennett on a late third down and another to Forte, who snuck out from the backfield in the fourth quarter. Cutler beat the pressure on both occasions with his legs and delivered accurate throws outside the pocket.
The improvisational plays were a big reason for Cutler's strong finish in ESPN.com's QBR, a stat which combines a breadth of quarterbacking aspects into one representative figure of the position's worth to a given game. He ended Week 1 with the fourth-best QBR, as his 85.7 mark beat even Peyton Manning, who threw seven touchdowns in the NFL opener last Thursday night.
PFF provided telling evidence for their high grade. For one, Cutler was 9-of-12 for 179 yards and two touchdowns on passes traveling over 10 yards. When he was blitzed, Cutler's passer rating was a sparkling 134.1.
Cutler and the Bears' offense weren't always great over the 60 minutes, but that's to be expected in the first full game in a new offense. The Bengals' defense isn't a pushover, either. Cincinnati has finished in the top half of the league in yards allowed during every season in which Mike Zimmer has been the defensive coordinator, going back to 2008.
Encouraging signs otherwise poured out of the Bears' performance, especially from Cutler's end. If he can continue cleaning up some of his old habits—like throwing off balance against pressure and making the one big mistake at a critical point—the Bears will be an offense worth watching, and fearing, under Trestman's guidance.