Just a season ago, the Detroit Lions battered Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler to the tune of seven sacks in two games. On Sunday, when the 3-0 Bears travel to Detroit for an early-season matchup in the NFC North, Chicago will be better prepared to protect its streaking quarterback.
Thanks to four new faces along the offensive line and an offense predicated on getting the football out quickly, the Bears have seen vast improvements in keeping Cutler safe from intense pressure.
While a fast start has provided hope that past problems are fading, Chicago's progress in protecting Cutler will need to continue this week against one of the very best front fours in football.
Led by the game's most fearsome defensive tackle duo in Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, plus a never-ending supply of edge rushers, the Lions might have the most talented and disruptive defensive line in the NFL. And if any one factor could shift this Week 4 matchup Detroit's way, it'd likely be the Lions continually finding their way into Cutler's lap.
Although the Bears won both contests against Detroit last season, the Lions were still able to tally a combined seven sacks, 10 quarterback hits and 16 hurries. As a result, Cutler averaged just over 200 yards a game while completing less than 55 percent of his passes versus Detroit in 2012.
Overall, the Lions have sacked Cutler 20 times in the last six meetings.
Unexpected successes against a difficult early-season schedule should provide the rebuilt Bears offensive line some rare confidence ahead of Sunday's contest. With free-agent signings Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson solidifying the left side and rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills developing into a strong duo on the right, the Bears have stood tall against three different tests to start this season.
Cutler, who was sacked 38 times (8.1 percent of drop backs) last season, has taken just three (2.9 percent) through three games in 2013. Only Matthew Stafford (two) has been sacked less among starting quarterbacks this season.
It certainly would have been easy to envision the Bears struggling to protect Cutler early on.
A Cincinnati Bengals front featuring All-Pro Geno Atkins and two big-money defensive ends (Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap) could have given the Bears' young, gelling offensive line all kinds of problems in Week 1. But Cutler got through a hard-fought win without a sack taken, and there were very few plays where pressure caused a negative play.
While Atkins—maybe the best comparison available to Suh—provided a few hurries, he wasn't a significant factor in the game. Johnson and Dunlap were also contained on the edge.
Jared Allen, Brian Robison and the rest of the Minnesota Vikings front four gave the Bears a harder time in Week 2, and Cutler was forced to improvise outside the pocket on a number of occasions. However, he took only one sack, and the pressure had no effect on his ability to lead his second game-winning drive in as many weeks.
Even Dick LeBeau's Pittsburgh Steelers couldn't rattle Cutler. While blitzes accounted for two sacks overall in Week 3, the Bears still totaled 40 points, including a late touchdown pass from Cutler that sealed the win.
Overall, Cutler has a 108.3 passer rating with zero sacks taken in the fourth quarter this season.
The new additions have certainly factored into the progress. Bushrod may not be an elite left tackle, but he's been a significant upgrade over J'Marcus Webb, who allowed 42 pressures in 2012. Long and Mills have been a pleasant surprise as a rookie tandem on the right side.
But a switch in offensive philosophy can't be disregarded for the improvement either. The introduction of Marc Trestman to the Bears offense has also had a profound impact on keeping the sack numbers down.
In 2012, Cutler averaged 2.79 seconds from snap to throw, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That time is down to 2.71 seconds this season. Even more telling, he is completing nearly 74 percent of his passes when throwing under 2.5 seconds in 2013, which is up almost 10 percent from last season.
The numbers confirm that Cutler is not only getting the ball out faster under Trestman, but he's also attempting high-percentage passes. It can only be expected that the Bears will utilize a similar offensive approach against the Lions aggressive front four Sunday.
The Bears may not be able to keep Cutler completely clean over 60 minutes Sunday, as Suh (21 pressures), Fairley and the rest of the Lions front four—which has combined for 66 pressures in 2013, per PFF—are simply too talented to keep down for an entire game. But three weeks' worth of improvements along the offensive line has certainly showcased how much better equipped the Bears are to handle top pass rushes.
The outcome of Sunday's game could very well hinge on whether or not Chicago's new offensive line is up to another stiff challenge. Early-season progress points toward the Bears answering the call in Week 4.