Can the Chicago Bears Weather Jay Cutler's Absence?

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Can the Chicago Bears Weather Jay Cutler's Absence?
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In back-to-back seasons, an injury to quarterback Jay Cutler signaled the beginning of the end for the Chicago Bears' playoff hopes.

In 2011, Cutler suffered a fractured thumb and needed season-ending surgery. After fashioning a 7-3 record with Cutler, the Bears limped home to an 8-8 mark without him. A year later, Cutler's concussion in Week 10 set off a run of five losses in six games for the once 7-1 Bears. A 10-6 finish wasn't good enough to make the postseason or save Lovie Smith's job.

In 2013, a serious injury to Cutler has come much earlier and with the Bears already in free fall.

Cutler left Sunday's loss to the Washington Redskins with a groin injury. According to the Bears' official Twitter account, an MRI performed Monday morning revealed that Cutler tore a muscle in his groin, and he is now expected to miss at least four weeks.

Head coach Marc Trestman was encouraged by the timetable, via Rich Campbell and Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune. 

"I'm only confident by what they've told me," Trestman said Monday. "This is a minimum of four weeks. Then he'll be evaluated week to week."

Call it deja vu of sorts for the Bears, who are still 4-3 but now feature a beat-up roster that has lost three of the last four games.

Avoiding another season-ending stretch of losses following a Cutler injury will require the Bears to suddenly get healthy on defense and backup Josh McCown to turn his one-game magic act against the Redskins into a month-long affair. Neither will be easy.

Cutler or no Cutler, the Bears defense has been several shades of awful in 2013. Once a proud unit capable of stuffing the run, getting after the quarterback and creating turnovers, the Bears are now a leaky unit with statistics befitting of one of the league's bottom-dwellers.

Through seven games, the Bears are 28th in points (29.4) and 25th in yards (391.0) allowed per game. They've given up the 27th-most passing yards, 24th-most rushing yards and 23rd-most first downs. The defense's nine sacks are more than just two teams and have put the Bears on pace to record one of their lowest single-season sack totals in franchise history.

A Hurting Unit: The Bears Defense in Week 7 and 2013
Points Yards Pass Rush First Downs
Week 7 vs. WAS 45 499 290 209 28
2013 Averages 29.4 391.0 273.7 117.3 21

Source: Pro Football Reference

The worst performance of this season came Sunday for the Bears defense.

The Redskins scored a season-high 45 points and came within a single yard of 500. Washington had 28 first downs, 209 yards rushing and five touchdown drives of 74 or more yards, including the game-winner late in the fourth quarter. 

Save for a Charles Tillman interception, the Bears defense simply couldn't muster a response to Robert Griffin III's offensive onslaught.

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Including Sunday, Chicago has now allowed at least 21 points and 340 total yards in all seven games this season. Snapping that streak will be a tall task considering how banged up the Bears are on that side of the football.

While Cutler limped off Sunday, so did Tillman (knee) and Lance Briggs (shoulder). The two defenders may be the most important on a Bears defense that has already lost Henry Melton (ACL), Nate Collins (ACL) and D.J. Williams (pectoral) to season-ending injuries.

Add the injuries to a vanishing pass rush, underwhelming linebackers and maybe the worst set of safeties in the NFL, and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has his work cut out for him the rest of this season. This is a defense that is either approaching or has already reached its breaking point.

The Bears are likely going to need much more on that side of the ball, especially if McCown can't continue his hot start over an extended period without Cutler available.

An 11-year veteran, McCown came into Sunday's contest with a career passer rating of just 71.2. He hadn't played in a regular-season game since 2011. Still, he performed surprisingly well after replacing Cutler in the second quarter.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

McCown completed 14 of 20 passes (70 percent) for 204 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. His passer rating of 119.6 was the second-highest of his career. In an offense full of playmakers, McCown became a middle man who was making all the right decisions.

With Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett comprising the skill players in Chicago's offense, it's reasonable to think McCown can remain relatively effective over a long stretch of games. Trestman and his play-calling should also add a steadying presence that has been mostly absent in previous years.

However, there should be no discounting how bad of a defense McCown faced Sunday. Washington is currently 29th in points against and 24th in yards against. As little resistance as the Bears provided Sunday, the Redskins were nearly their equal.

Rare will be the defense that is as soft as Washington's on Chicago's remaining schedule. In fact, the Bears come out of the bye week to face the Green Bay Packers, who are 12th in points allowed and 15th in yards allowed this season.

A major reason for the Bears falling off without Cutler the last two years has been the atrocious play of the backup quarterbacks.

Missing Jay Cutler: Bears Backup QBs in 2011, 2012
W-L Cmp/Att Yards TD/INT Rating
2011 (Hanie, McCown) 1-5 86/157 1,027 5/13 51.1
2012 (Campbell) 0-1 32/51 265 2/2 72.8
Totals 1-6 118/208 1,292 7/15 56.4

Source: Pro Football Reference

Over four starts from Caleb Hanie and two from McCown in 2011, Chicago averaged just 141.8 passing yards and nearly three turnovers a game. The next season, Jason Campbell threw for 102 yards and two interceptions in a blowout loss to the San Francisco 49ers. He finished his 2012 playing time with a passer rating of just 72.8.

With Trestman on board and the weapons around him improved, McCown appears better suited in 2013 to play an effective backup role.

However, the Bears likely can't survive unless McCown plays at a level at or near Sunday's surprising performance and the defense suddenly gets healthy both on the training table and in effectiveness. Expecting both seems overly optimistic at this point.

Unfortunately, the Bears know this dance.

Chicago is currently 4-3 and in a tie for second place in the NFC North. Four games against winning teams and five contests away from Soldier Field remain on the 2013 schedule. There isn't even a cushion to lean back on this time around.

Without Cutler for a month, the Bears might be looking at a third straight lost season.

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