While caution must be exercised in extracting any level of certainty from the preseason, Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has been as sharp through two exhibition games as anyone in the Bears organization could have hoped.
Head coach Marc Trestman has given Cutler just two series in each game, although the plan was likely for Cutler and the first-team offense to get three series against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday night. However, Eric Weems fumbled away a first-quarter kickoff, canceling Chicago's second opportunity at the football.
Cutler has made the most of his four drives.
The 31-year-old quarterback has completed 16 of 22 passes for 160 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. His preseason passer rating is a sizzling 123.3, which trails only Carson Palmer and Ryan Tannehill among quarterbacks expected to start in Week 1. Palmer and Tannehill have played just one game, while Cutler has two appearances.
|Jay Cutler Through Two Preseason Games, 2013 and 2014|
|2013: at CAR||6/8||56||0/1||54.2||1|
|2013: vs. SD||4/5||38||1/1||98.3||2|
|2014: vs. PHI||9/13||85||1/0||112.7||0|
|2014: vs. JAC||7/9||75||1/0||138.4||0|
|*Finished 2013 preseason with a 80.0 passer rating|
Of his six incompletions, two can be considered drops, and another was deflected at the line of scrimmage. Only three of his throws so far this preseason would be labeled as inaccurate.
“Jay has been incredible,” starting guard Matt Slauson said, via Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times. “The way he has taken ownership in this offense and the way he leads us as a team has been great. And his play on the field has been really great.”
Against the Philadelphia Eagles, Cutler rebounded from an opening series three-and-out to lead the Bears on a 13-play, 69-yard scoring drive that took over six-and-a-half minutes.
On the drive's second play, Cutler launched from a difficult arm angle to connect with Alshon Jeffery for a 40-yard gain behind the coverage. The play was nullified by offsetting penalties.
Cutler then dug the offense out of several difficult positions.
Three plays after Jeffery's long gain was wiped out, Cutler made another tough throw to Brandon Marshall along the sidelines to convert on third-and-11. He then found Dante Rosario for 24 yards on a perfect touch pass down the seam to pick up another 3rd-and-long.
Cutler's best throw of the preseason to date put the Bears in the end zone. His back-shoulder toss to tight end Zach Miller beat the trailing linebacker and closing safety for a touchdown that looked much easier than it actually was.
Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen broke down the play in wonderful detail here:
Even with the proper Cover 2 technique from Ryans (and the safety breaking on the throw to overlap the seam), the Eagles still get beat because of Cutler's pass. The Bears quarterback puts this ball on Miller's back shoulder (away from the defender’s leverage) and gives his tight end an opportunity to finish the play for six points in the back of the end zone.
Facing the Jaguars on Thursday night, Cutler again shook off an early three-and-out and a long wait on the sidelines to get the offense moving.
The Bears had nearly a nine-minute gap in between their first and second offensive series, thanks to Weems' fumble and a first-team defense that struggled to get off the field. However, Cutler still found a rhythm on the second possession and again got the Bears into the end zone.
He stepped up in the pocket to avoid pressure on 3rd-and-10, hitting tight end Martellus Bennett for 25 yards down the middle of the field to move the sticks. This is the Cutler the Bears want to see: calm under pressure, while keeping his eyes down the field and his decisions safe.
After a penalty for illegal use of the hands gave Chicago another first down, Cutler connected with Jeffery for 17 yards and Matt Forte for gains of 13 and eight to set the Bears up at the Jacksonville 4-yard line.
On 3rd-and-goal, Cutler sat all alone in the pocket before finding Marshall in the back of the end zone for the touchdown. After waiting around patiently, he anticipated the opening and delivered an accurate throw.
Credit the Bears offensive line. Cutler hasn't been sacked this preseason. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), only five of Cutler's 22 dropbacks have dealt with pressure, or roughly 23 percent. Against the rare instances of pressure, he has completed 3 of 5 passes, with zero turnovers.
The result has been accuracy and poise to all levels of the field.
Cutler has completed eight of his 10 passes under 10 yards. Even more impressive has been his intermediate accuracy. Between 10-19 yards downfield, Cutler is 6 of 7 for 70 yards and two touchdowns.
On throws 20 or more yards downfield, he is 2 of 4 for 48 yards.
He's also been effective without much help from the running game. Starter Matt Forte has rushed seven times for negative-seven yards, meaning Cutler and the passing game has done pretty much all the heavy lifting for the offense through two preseason games.
Again, the preseason is prime time for overreaction. Cutler has played only four series, and two of those series have ended in three-and-outs. But the quick series are far outweighed by the good from the two scoring drives. Most importantly, Cutler has displayed poise, accuracy and good decision-making, which might be the three most important aspects of playing the position.
At the very least, Cutler's two preseason games represent a strong start to 2014.
There is very little doubt that Cutler enters this season with the massive burden of expectation. He showed improvement during his first season with Trestman, and general manager Phil Emery gave Cutler the organizational seal of approval with a massive contract containing $54 million guaranteed.
The regular season is now on the horizon. The Bears hope Cutler's sizzling start to the preseason will carry over to the games that really matter.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.