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Cutler off to quality start and exerting leadership

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LAKE FOREST, Ill. — UFOs, the Lochness Monster, Big Foot, and chupacabra rank high on the all-time unconfirmed sighting list.

Right next to them is the fabled “new Jay Cutler.”

Every time Cutler achieves a stretch of consistency, reports of sightings occur. After two straight comeback victories, Cutler is again drawing rave reviews as a changed player within a new coaching regime.

He’ll have another chance to prove it’s the real thing Sunday when the Chicago Bears travel to Detroit seeking a third straight win following an 0-3 start.

Bears head coach John Fox has no frame of reference when it comes to Cutler, it being his first year in Chicago. However, he is impressed.

“I look at it on tape but it’s (tape) like robots move around,” he said. “You don’t really know the emotion, know some of the dynamics involved in the performance.

“I can just tell you that he’s attacked it as far as learning what we’re trying to teach, what we’re trying to execute, and that’s all you can ask of any player.”

The picture often painted of Cutler is a shoulder shrugger. He’s portrayed often as a guy with bad body language for a field leader, and someone who refuses to accept responsibility.

Fox said he has seen anything but this, and pointed to the back-to-back fourth-quarter comebacks engineered by Cutler as proof.

“I think sometimes the mindset and the attitude that you have when you step in to a huddle in that situation … is critical and I think he’s done a good job with it,” Fox said.

Teammates are seeing a Cutler who inspires rather than backs down in difficult situations. They’re pointing to the two comebacks as a sign of this.

“He’s the type of guy that never gives up,” wide receiver Marquess Wilson said. “He’s battling through some things and he’s just able to keep this offense balanced – whether we go three and out for a few drives or we come back and put some points on the board.

“He’s that kind of guy that’s going to make us fight.”

Probably the most impressive aspect of Cutler’s play has been minimizing silly interceptions in 3 1/2 games with only three total.

If there’s one person responsible for harnessing the inner accuracy in Cutler, it might be offensive coordinator Adam Gase.

“I think he does a great job of taking care of quarterbacks on game day, just the way he calls plays, first downs, second downs, second-and-long, third-and-long,” Cutler said. “He protects you. He makes sure he’s not putting you in bad spots.

“It makes a diffrence. He gets you through the game, he talks to you. It’s an enjoyable experience.”

Certainly an enjoyable experience doesn’t describe Cutler’s relationship with some former offensive coordinators, like Mike Martz, or former head coach Marc Trestman and any number of past Bears quarterbacks coaches or offensive coordinators.

Nevertheless, he still had past stretches of games like the current one.

In 2010 under Martz, Cutler went five games with three interceptions and had another five-game stretch with four interceptions. The Bears wound up in the NFC Championship Game.

He had seven the next year in 10 games before a season-ending thumb injury derailed a 7-3 start. In 2012, he had four in one six-game stretch as they went on to a 10-6 season.

The old Cutler always resurfaced in the past. Each good stretch only seemed to mean the old Cutler was only an interception or two away.

Cutler has also engineered past fourth-quarter comebacks for wins in the past. He’s had 24 of them, in fact.

This time, teammates are raving about his leadership in addition to his passing during comebacks.

“He leads those guys,” defensive end Jarvis Jenkins said. “He has the offense calm and they just drove right down. They were talking about believing. That’s one thing I saw different in this offense.

“In the third quarter you could see Jay up on the sideline coaching (the offense) up.”

The comebacks came with a lineup best described as tattered. Cutler hasn’t had his top four wide receivers available at the same time once, and No. 1 receiver Alshon Jeffery played only one game due to an injured hamstring.

Will this type of play continue? Or will the old Jay Cutler resurface?

There couldn’t be a better place to find out than Ford Field and a better time than Sunday. Cutler has thrown five interceptions there in his last two visits.

SERIES HISTORY: 171st regular-season meeting. Bears lead series 96-69-5. The Lions have won four straight in the series, their longest winning streak in the series since winning five straight from 1971-73. There was one playoff game in the series, a 9-0 Bears win over the then-Portsmouth Spartans in 1932 on a dirt field in Chicago Stadium.

GAME PLAN

–Standing in the pocket and firing away at the Detroit Lions defense will not work, even if the Lions gave up 42 points last week at home to the Arizona Cardinals. The way to take advantage of Detroit’s defense is to run first, and do it largely against the interior of the line. Detroit’s tackles have been more effective caving in the line of scrimmage on the pass rush than at stopping up the middle, and they won’t have defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who has already been ruled out with a calf injury. So running Matt Forte running behind his guards or using play-action passes to tight end Martellus Bennett — or whichever wide receiver happens to be healthy for a change — will allow Jay Cutler time to stand in against a Lions front that hasn’t had a lot of pass-rush success. Backup running backs Jeremy Langford and Ka’Deem Carey might even inflict damage in this one since both seem more adaptable to one-cut, downhill styles that would work better against the Lions’ 4-3. The Bears might even be able to get intermediate or cover-2 beaters deep against the Lions with play-action. This will depend largely on whether they finally do get Alshon Jeffery back, and if Cutler can continue to find Marquess Wilson as in the past two games.

Defensively, coordinator Vic Fangio might want to consider letting cornerback Tracy Porter tail Calvin Johnson all over the field because he did this effectively against Oakland’s Amari Cooper. Porter held Cooper to four catches for 49 yards after he made 20 catches for 290 yards the first three weeks. Although Lions quarterback Matt Stafford has been frazzled by pass rushes, the Bears can’t afford to spend much time blitzing from the inside. They’ll need to have inside linebackers at home to protect against the screen, and using running back Ameer Abdullah out of the backfield. Bears safeties have been largely untested despite both starters being rookies, and the Lions can be certain to try to get them moving around with the screen game. Pass coverage, in general, will need to emphasize zone to keep the young safeties from being exposed one-on-one deep. If the Bears do come with the blitz and man-to-man pressure, it should be early to get Stafford concerned.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

–Bears CB Tracy Porter, who has started the last two games for Alan Ball, vs. Lions WR Calvin Johnson, who hasn’t had a TD catch in three games and has just one on the year.

Ball is giving up six inches and 50 pounds, which doesn’t seem like a good situation for the Bears. But he has been able to stay with bigger receivers. He’s adept at getting tight and being physical with a receiver, much like the plan Charles Tillman pursued while covering Johnson one-on-one for years with the Bears. If the Bears silence Johnson, Detroit doesn’t have enough other weapons to consistently beat them.

–Bears LT Jermon Bushrod, who has missed two straight games with a concussion, vs. Lions DE Ezekiel Ansah, who has five sacks. Bushrod also had a shoulder injury to work through, but now appears ready to return. He cleared the concussion protocol. It’s a difficult assignment to return from a shoulder injury because Ansah is as adept with the bull rush as he is getting around the edge. Playing on artificial turf will make Ansah all the more dangerous. When the Bears shut off the perimeter rush last week in the second half, their offense started to move.

–Bears TE Martellus Bennett, who is coming off his worst game of the year with four catches and a few drops, vs. Lions SS James Ihedigbo, who hasn’t had an interception this season.

Bennett was blanketed by Eric Berry in Kansas City last week, but no one will confuse Ihedigbo with Berry. Ihedigbo did have a strong year last year with four interceptions, but is a journeyman type who has been with four teams in eight years. The Bears could look to the seam route more with Bennett, who dropped one on such a play last week. If they can lean on Bennett in the passing game, they’ll open up the Lions secondary for wide receivers and running back Matt Forte to be exploited in the passing game, as well. Bennett’s blocking on the edge in the running game will be big in this one.


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