This week, Kyle Long is entering his fourth game as an NFL starter and only his eighth game as a starter at the professional and collegiate level combined. In only seven games, Kyle Long has made a name for himself, and it’s not because of his father Howie or his brother Chris.
“You watch him play and you wouldn’t think he’s played as little football as he has,” Jay Cutler said at his press conference Thursday.
In three games as a pro, he’s put himself in the conversation for offensive rookie of the year as an offensive guard. His presence at that spot has changed the whole dynamic of the Bears’ running and passing attacks.
Truthfully, Chicago’s entire offensive line has improved drastically from last year to this with just three sacks allowed on Jay Cutler. Simple math might have told you that’s just one sack per game. At this point last year, Clay Matthews alone had 3.5 sacks against the Bears’ line. That should tell you all you need to know.
But just in case it doesn’t …
In 2012, the Bears had allowed 11 sacks through their first three weeks. A year earlier, in 2011, Chicago allowed 12 sacks on Cutler through Week-3. And as if it weren’t obvious enough, Jay Cutler has not played a full 16-game season since 2009 — many, not all, of his missed time coming off sack-related injuries.
But this season is already different, and it also shouldn’t go unstated that the Bears’ have faced some stiff competition with regard to pass rush against the Bengals, Vikings and Steelers.
But here’s the point that may be going unrecognized: Much of the Bears’ success in keeping Jay Cutler upright may have to do with Cutler’s own performance as much as it does his offensive line’s.
According to Pro Football Focus data, Jay Cutler has been under pressure on 37.6% of his drop-backs thus far, which is very similar to 2012 (37.5%). The difference this year is that he has only been sacked on 7.3% of plays he has been under pressure (the second-lowest rate in the league), where last year he was sacked on 19.9% (sixth-highest).
So what gives? Some of it is Cutler making plays and smarter decisions; some of it is Marc Trestman’s system; and some of it is the afore-mentioned improved play of the offensive line. But what it all boils down to collectively is a more functional offense as a whole. And that’s a very good sign.
As they say, “it all starts up front,” and the Bears are seeing the trickle-down effect of an improved front.
The NFL is buying into their new and improved offense, and more importantly Jay Cutler has completely bought in to it. Cutler has often raved about his protection, and said on Thursday that “the protection is improving week by week.”
The extra time to throw has quickly shown how much more effective Jay Cutler can be. The talent level we’ve known existed that we have desperately wanted to see come to life is happening. Cutler’s not just managing games better, he’s winning them by making plays. And a big part of it can be traced back to the extra second he has to make reads and deliver his throw.
Now, part of the reason I brought up Kyle Long to begin with is not only his exceptional play in pass protection and run blocking, but because this weekend he gets his first look at Ndamukong Suh in Detroit. The Bears will be tested — once again — by one of the more surprising front-fours in the league, despite the loss of defensive end Cliff Avril to Seattle.
Detroit has been a force up the middle on defense, and it’s due to the rejuvenating play of Suh. He hasn't recorded a sack this season, but he has disrupted plays on a large chunk of snaps. Suh, in combination with Nick Fairley, who is having an excellent start to the season in his own right, have made Detroit a dangerous matchup for offensive guards around the league.
The play of Suh and Fairley has led to a more balanced game plan on defense for the Lions, allowing them to play more zone and drop more into coverage. The Lions, through three games, have five interceptions — already half way to their 2012 season total of 11. The pressure up front by the tackles, and even by the rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah, have caused major problems for opposing quarterbacks.
Suh is the prototypical 3-technique defensive tackle and an athlete you rarely see at the position. He will command double teams, leaving Slauson one-on-one with Fairley and Bushrod on Ansah. The game will come down to how the Bears handle the pressure through the B-gap, and if they can get their running game going on the edge.
Chicago handled one of the more effective defensive tackles in the NFL in Geno Atkins in Week-1 and limited the rest of the Bengals’ line to no sacks. The improvement starts in the middle with Garza, who is having one of his best seasons as a Bear and it moves out to Long and Slauson. The interior line has held up and given Cutler the time and pocket he needs to complete his throws.
The Lions’ defensive scheme these first three weeks has been dependent on their ability to get in the back field with four up front. The battle at the line of scrimmage should dictate how this game plays out in the end.
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Adam Oestmann contributed to this post.