Friday, December 13, 2013

Bearish on the Browns

Those of you who watched the Chicago Bears thump the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football this past Monday got a sneak preview of what the Browns’ defense will have to deal with Sunday in the home finale.

All the key elements in that victory will be in place for the Bears when they take the field against Cleveland. Except one.

Throughout this week, the Browns had no idea who would be under center for the Bears. Speculation centered on the return of Jay Cutler, who has missed the last several games with an ankle injury.

In Cutler’s absence, however, the Bears’ offense played at a such a high peak under Josh McCown, speculation was rampant that he would play at least one more game in order to allow Cutler to sufficiently heal.

And why not? Under McCown, the Bears’ offense has performed so well that many fans – and at least one ex-Bear great – strongly suggested that Bears coach Marc Trestman stick with his backup quarterback for at least one more game.

Retired Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher called for Trestman to thumb his nose at conventional wisdom and keep the hottest quarterback in the National Football League right where he was. The coach didn’t listen.

Believing in the notion that a starter should never lose his job to injury, Trestman warned all week that “when (Cutler) is good and can have a full week of practice, he’ll be our quarterback.” He did not waver as Cutler did exactly that.

So Trestman is taking a quarterback who in six games this season has thrown for 1,747 yards, 13 touchdowns and one interception and is 3-2 as a starter and benching him.

In the last four games, McCown, whose younger brother, Luke, played momentarily for the Browns in 2004, has completed 70% of his 150 passes for 1.271 yards and nine touchdowns, run for another and compiled three straight 300-yard games.

That quarterback will be holding a clipboard against the Browns Sunday. And that, considering how quarterbacks have been ravaging the Cleveland defense lately, is a break. Cutler is having a so-so season with 13 touchdown passes and eight interceptions.

He has also placed the Bears in a unique position. He will be a free agent next season and the Bears very well could be using the final three games of the season as a stage to determine exactly what to do with him. They could (a) let him test the market, (b) slap a franchise tag on him or (c) sign him to a long-term contract.

In any event, Cutler, who is nearly four years younger than McCown at 30, gets the call against the Browns, a team he has faced once and defeated, 30-6, back in 2009.

That was when the Bears had a decent defense. This season, however, it’s the offense that has carried them to a 7-6 record and kept them in contention for the NFC North championship.

The defense, which has allowed 360 points (27.7 a game), surrenders 157 yards a game on the ground and another 225 a game through the air. It can be easily scored on, but it also can be lethal against the pass. The Chicago secondary has picked off 15 passes, returning five for scores.

Considering the Bears’ obvious weakness against the run, this game should tell us once and for all just where the Cleveland ground game stands. If it can’t generate anything against the NFL’s worst, then that speaks volumes on just what the club’s top priority should be in the next college football draft or free agency period.

If not for the Chicago offense, which has scored 332 of the team’s 368 points, there’s no telling how far out of the playoffs hunt they would be. There’s no question they  can move the ball. They didn’t punt once in the Dallas victory.

That offense features a trio of receivers who will give the smallish Cleveland secondary fits. With the likes of 6-4 Brandon Marshall, 6-3 Alshon Jeffery and 6-6 tight end Martellus Bennett on the receiving end of Cutler’s passes, that defensive backfield will be kept busy.

This trio has accounted for 212 receptions, 2,871 yards and 20 of the Bears’ 26 offensive touchdowns. Throw in the talents of running back Matt Forte and the Cleveland defense might face its sternest challenge of the season.

Whether he’s running the ball or catching it, Forte is the glue of this offense. He has touched the ball 299 times this season (including 65 pass receptions), totaling 1,591 yards and nine touchdowns, seven on the ground. He touches the ball 35.7% of the time and averages 5.32 yards per touch.

He presents a monumental problem for Browns inside linebackers D’Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson, who also will be responsible for Bennett.

Trestman obviously believes Cutler will have no problem knocking off the rust following his lengthy absence. But will Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton gamble and employ the blitz coming off the bus against him in an effort to take advantage of his long layoff?

That’s about the only way the Cleveland defense can disrupt any rhythm Cutler hopes to establish. What do the Browns have to lose by resorting to this strategy on defense? Another loss? Big deal. They are 4-9 and headed for yet another double-digit loss season, anyway.

The season is drowning once again in losses, No reason to be passive. Same for the offense. Take advantage of the porous Chicago defense. Again, what do they have to lose? What’s the difference between 4-9 and 4-10?

Turn the J Crew – Jason Campbell, Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron – loose. Have some fun. Maybe some of that will rub off on the defense. Then again, maybe not.

It’s so tempting to pick the Browns here with Cutler back for the Bears. But somehow I think the coaches won’t take advantage and will allow Cutler to WD-40 his way back into rhythm. However, the home finale will be highly entertaining for the fans from an offensive standpoint. Make it:

Bears 37, Browns 27


  1. If Ray Horton hopes to become a head coach, turning the Dawgs loose may be a great way to advertise himself. He was talked about as the hot candidate earlier this year and in the pre-season, but you don't hear his name being tossed about much anymore. He needs a jolt just like the defense needs a jolt. All of these exotic blitz packages we heard about in the off season seem to be missing. Let's hope we can find them before the season is over.

  2. Right on, Keith. For someone as boastful about his defense as Horton was, I'm not seeing any evidence of that aggression lately.

    Horton, because of the Rooney Rule, will get some attention for head coaching vacancies. But right now, he falls into the same category as Rob Ryan: Boastful with results that do not warrant that that attitude.

    As I wrote, there's nothing to lose on both sides of the ball now with the season heading toward where the others have ended the last dozen or so years. Might as well let it all hang out.