I'm going with a safe pick this week after last week's swing and miss. Whoops. I should have known better than to trust Bill Belichick. Onward.
Evaluating the Chicago Bears is pretty easy this year. When quarterback Jay Cutler performs well and takes care of the ball, they win. When he slips into "Bad Jay" mode -- i.e., lots of turnovers, moody sulking and inefficiency -- they lose. In the Bears' six losses this season, Cutler has turned the ball over 14 times, while in their five wins he has only four turnovers (only two of which are interceptions).
The thing about Cutler is that he is a great quarterback on paper. Even while turning the ball over and putting the Bears in a hole, Cutler puts up decent numbers. He has put up only two quarterback ratings this season under 80 and is in the top half of the league in passing yards and touchdowns. The Bears' first game of the season, an overtime loss to Buffalo, is a great example of this. Cutler turned the ball over three times in the game, giving the Bills field position in Bears territory twice and killing a potentially game-winning drive. The Bills scored 13 points off of those turnovers, and the Bears could not overcome that swing. Still, Cutler finished the game with a quarterback rating of 86.2 and 349 yards. Not too bad, right?
Looking beyond Cutler's numbers is telling. Cutler has a completion percentage of 66.8 percent on the year, seventh-best among starting quarterbacks. However, that number is buoyed by the fact that Cutler's best success on the year has been dump-offs to his receivers and letting them do the hard work.
For instance, Cutler has targeted running back Matt Forte 89 times this year, 19 more targets than any other running back in the league. Forte has caught 72 of these targets for an 80 percent completion percentage. When you take Forte away from Cutler's stats to account for the fact that these attempts came via easy, short throws like screens and checkdowns, Cutler's completion percentage drops down to 62 percent.
In addition, of Forte's 598 yards on the season, 573 of them came after the catch. This heavy contribution to Cutler's passing totals is not unique to the running back position. When combining Cutler's top four receivers -- Forte, tight end Martellus Bennett and receivers Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall -- who account for all but about 200 of Cutler's passing yards, yards after the catch make up 53 percent of Cutler's yardage total. For comparison's sake, 40.8 percent of Matthew Stafford's passing yards to his top four receivers have come after the catch.
What does all this mean? Two things.
First, Cutler turns the ball over a lot. He has thrown the second-most interceptions in the league with 12, and his six fumbles are the most in the league and made worse by the fact that he has fumbled an additional five times, but the Bears were able to recover those. As discussed by Jeremy Reisman this week, the Detroit Lions should be able to deliver a lot of interior pressure thanks to an injury to starting left guard Matt Slauson and the poor play of his replacement, Brian de la Puente. Cutler has a history of forcing throws under pressure and taking strip-sacks after holding on to the ball, so pressure by the defensive line is critical to turning Jay into Bad Jay.
On the other hand, one of Cutler's best attributes as a quarterback is that he has the memory of a goldfish and occasionally thrives under pressure. He is not afraid to stare down pressure or make the tough throw despite his recent successes or failures. That sword cuts both ways, so the Lions need to reach him early and prepare to take advantage of his forced throws.
Second, look for a ton of screens and checkdowns as Cutler tries to avoid the Lions' pass rush. He has already stated in an interview that he will try to get the ball out early, and doing so fits with the pattern he has established this season. The Bears have been piling as many touches on Forte as he can handle in both the running and passing game, so look for a lot of that in the form of screens and checkdowns. The Bears also run a lot of bubble screens and slant patterns for Jeffery and even some for Bennett. Marshall has been their only pure deep-threat receiver this year. While the Lions rank as one of the top passing defenses in the league, even after last week, they have been susceptible to big plays of more than 40 yards, so they cannot fall asleep while defending the Bears' underneath passing game and allow Marshall or Jeffery behind the defense.
Bottom line: Forcing Cutler turnovers, discipline while rushing the passer to defend screens, team tackling to avoid yards after the catch and not falling asleep when Chicago does take its deep shots will be the biggest keys in shutting down Cutler and the Bears.