A win changes everything.
Sunday morning, a team can't do a single thing well. By Sunday night, they're headed in the right direction. Demands for a new head coach become appeals for patience. The starting quarterback isn't emotional and mediocre; he's passionate and productive.
This happens every week in every NFL market. In Denver, fans are wondering whether a shocking loss to the St. Louis Rams is a fluke or a trend. In Washington, head coach Jay Gruden has indirectly suggested his franchise quarterback's job is on the line. And in Chicago, conversation about Xs and Os has temporarily replaced intense scrutiny of Jay Cutler's facial expressions.
It's easy to understand why the national discourse on football is so bipolar. The game, after all, is full of chaos and confusion, so we — including the guy who typed this — analyze every pass, every run, every hit and search for clues that can help us find meaning amid the noise.
After six sacks against Washington, has the Buccaneers defense turned a corner? Or was Robert Griffin III just that awful? After throwing three touchdowns against the Minnesota Vikings, can Jay Cutler lead the Bears back into the playoff picture? And while we're at it, just what did that blink mean after the incompletion on 2nd-and-6?
Fortunately, All-22 tape exists to guide us through these questions. As former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski writes in The Games That Changed the Game: Game film is the great truth teller.
So, what does the tape tell us about this Sunday's Buccaneers-Bears game? It shows us that Jay Cutler is likely to shred the Buccaneers, and that Brandon Marshall is a very strong receiver.
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Cutler, even though he's having a slightly worse season than last, will not make the same mistakes as Griffin, who left a lot of plays on the field last Sunday against the Buccaneers (as we covered in Monday morning's Turning Point). Consider the damage he did to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 6: He completed 68.4 percent of his passes for 381 yards and one touchdown and averaged 10 yards per attempt.
Like the Bucs, the Falcons run primarily a 4-3 (four linemen, three linebackers), zone-based defense, and the Bears' passing game challenged them horizontally and vertically all game long.
The Bears went on the attack right from the get-go, hitting Brandon Marshall over the middle for a 20-yard gain. Let's go to the All-22 coaches film for a closer look.
After a false start, the Bears come to the line of scrimmage on 1st-and-15 in a singleback formation, but they shift to an I formation by motioning tight end Martellus Bennett from the slot to the backfield. The Falcons are thinking run as safety Kemal Ishmael creeps toward the line, while Dwight Lowery hangs back as the lone safety deep.
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Cutler fakes the handoff to running back Matt Forte, which draws Ishmael and linebackers Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow closer and creates wide open space for Marshall, who runs up 10 yards and then in over the middle.
Cornerback Robert Alford doesn't keep his shoulders square very long and almost immediately abandons his backpedal. In trying to protect against the deep pass, he surrenders the middle underneath.
That was just a taste of what was to come. On a drive that resulted in a field goal just before the end of the first half, the Bears continued beating the Falcons on crossing routes.
In fact, they upped the ante and ran two of them on the first play of the drive.
With just more than four minutes left in the half, the Bears begin pinned against their own end zone. Expecting pressure, they bring in an additional offensive lineman, Eben Britton. Britton takes his place to the left of tackle Michael Ola, and Bennett lines up to the left of Britton.
Receivers Marshall and Alshon Jeffery set tight to the offensive line. This arrangement gives Marshall, lined up to Cutler's right, room when he runs a deep corner route toward the sideline. Jeffery runs his crossing route underneath Marshall, and Bennett runs his crossing route underneath Jeffery.
The Falcons defense is in Cover 3, which means that three defensive backs are each responsible for covering one-third of the field. So, when Cutler's three receiving options — Bennett close, Jeffery intermediate and Marshall deep — approach the numbers on the right of the field, there's bound to be a mismatch. There simply aren't enough defensive backs.
Sure enough, the Bears get that mismatch as the only man between Cutler and Jeffery is a linebacker, Worrilow. Cutler could check down to Bennett, but he chooses the deeper Jeffery, hitting him in stride for a 26-yard gain, and thus begins a 12-play, 84-yard scoring drive.
The Bears run a similar concept for a 74-yard pickup with about six minutes left in the third quarter.
Just as on the first play of the game, they motion Bennett behind Cutler. They're in the I formation with Britton in as an extra lineman, so the Falcons have to honor the possibility of a run, especially with two-time Pro Bowler Forte in the backfield.
Jeffery — lined up to Cutler's right — runs a deep corner route, while Marshall — lined up to Cutler's left — runs across the middle of the field underneath Jeffery. The Falcons defense is in Cover 3 again and suffers a game-changing breakdown that leaves Jeffery open.
Only one safety is supposed to stay deep with cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. Instead, Ishmael runs alongside Jeffery. Meanwhile, Marshall's crossing route leads both Lowery and Trufant to abandon their positions. Instead of Jeffery having to beat two defensive backs in a well-executed Cover 3, he's free once he gains a step on Ishmael.
Unlike Griffin on Sunday against the Buccaneers, Cutler does not overthrow his receiver. The throw is right on the money and would have been a touchdown had Jeffery not stumbled after the catch. The touchdown, though, is inevitable, and on the next play Forte runs into the end zone from 6 yards out to score what turns out to be the game-winner.
One reason for the Bears' success against the Falcons was great play design that stretched the defense across the field and down the field. It also can be attributed to Cutler's quick decisionmaking. Yes, he can be prone to turnovers, but he owns one of the better release times in the NFL this season. Among quarterbacks who have dropped back to throw at least 120 times, his average time to throw of 2.57 seconds ranks in the top 10. By comparison, Griffin's average time of 3.04 seconds is fourth-worst. So while Griffin looked hesitant against the Buccaneers, Cutler is likely to strike sooner.
It also helps that the Bears offense features a running back that doesn't have to come off the field, unlike Washington, who often replaces Alfred Morris with Roy Helu on passing downs. Against the Falcons, Cutler frequently checked down to Forte, who caught 10 passes for 77 yards. His 67 receptions this season are tied with Denver's Emmanuel Sanders and Atlanta's Julio Jones for fourth-most in the league.
• • •
Marshall is not only a threat to beat defenders deep but also a threat to just plain beat them up.
Late in the first quarter — on 1st-and-10 from the Atlanta 14-yard line — Cutler swings a pass out wide to Marshall, who catches it, stiff arms Alford to the ground and then cuts it back over the middle for a 7-yard gain. That's nasty.
Against the Minnesota Vikings last week, when Marshall sees 5-foot-10, 199-pound Josh Robinson lined up across from him, he demonstratively flaps his arms. Cutler throws it high where only the 6-4 Marshall can get it.
Marshall isn't Chicago's only imposing receiving threat — Jeffery stands at 6-3 and Bennett at 6-6. It makes you wonder whether it's too late for the Buccaneers to give Lowry Park Zoo a call and see about trading 5-10 cornerback Alterraun Verner for a giraffe or two.
• • •
If the Buccaneers want to win in Lovie Smith's and Josh McCown's return to Chicago on Sunday, applying pressure to Cutler isn't necessarily the answer. This season, he's nearly as productive under pressure than when not under pressure.
It's more likely that the offense will need to keep pace, and it's in a much better position to do so now than it was several weeks ago, thanks to two rookies assuming larger roles. In Charles Sims (listed as questionable), they now have a running back that's also a viable pass catcher. And in Mike Evans, they have another 6-5 receiving option beside Vincent Jackson who's capable of busting a game open if defenses don't adequately account for him, as Washington failed to do when it left him one-on-one with linebacker Perry Riley on a 56-yard touchdown.
Chicago is no juggernaut, but it's a better team than what the Buccaneers faced last week. Cutler has had some messy games this season, but he's a couple of tiers better than Griffin. Forte, Marshall, Jeffery and Bennett present more matchup problems than the Buccaneers can overcome. The pick: Bears.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at email@example.com. Follow @tbassfootball.