Cutler vs. Rodgers Remains in Focus

QB Jay Cutler (Joe Robbins/Getty)

The sexiest battle of the NFC Championship Game is the one at the quarterback position, as Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears and Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers are both hot in the postseason.

In a league that has become overwhelmingly quarterback-driven, that position takes on even more importance in the postseason.

That's true as much for the Bears with Jay Cutler as it is for the Packers with Aaron Rodgers.

"Quarterbacks now are normally the difference," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "You have some guys that blend in and are great, and then you have the quarterbacks that need to make plays. And Jay is capable. He's a playmaker. Whether it's them getting pressure and him having to use his feet to get out to buy time to get a throw off, Jay Cutler does it as well as anyone. Of course, Aaron Rodgers is great at that also. Once you get to these games, it is a quarterback's game. When they have open receivers, hitting them, standing in the pocket, taking a couple hits if you have to, just being that leader that the team sees is out front making plays."

Sunday at Soldier Field, the Bears need to shut down the Packers' newly productive ground game so they can devote their undivided attention to Rodgers, whose career passer rating of 98.4 is the highest in NFL history.

On the other side of the ball, the Bears must establish running back Matt Forte so as to diminish the intensity and frequency of the Packers' dangerous blitz packages that will be dialed up by defensive coordinator Dom Capers.

The Bears have contained Rodgers this year better than most teams. He played well against the Bears in the two earlier games this season, but he wasn't scary good. He posted passer ratings of 92.5 in Week 3 and 89.7 in Week 17, throwing a combined two touchdown passes and two interceptions. The Bears can live – and survive – with numbers like that.

They won't advance to Super Bowl XLV if Rodgers stays as hot as he's been in the Packers' two postseason wins, both on the road. The 27-year-old, six-year veteran has completed 77.8 percent of his passes (49 of 63) for 546 yards, six touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 134.5.

That's partly the result of James Starks rushing for 189 yards in those two games on 48 carries. The Bears held Rodgers in check because they allowed Green Bay's running backs a total of 82 rushing yards on 29 attempts, an average of just 2.8 yards per carry.

Making the Packers one-dimensional is the key to success against Rodgers.

"It has everything to do with it," Smith said. "You go into every game trying to do that. Rodgers is a great player, and they have a lot of weapons on the offensive side, but Starks has really given them a boost with their running game. It's tough on a defense when you're thinking about the run as much as you're thinking about the pass. Lately, they're harder to defend because of that."

On the flip side, the Bears have had major problems protecting Cutler from the Packers' pass rush. In two games this season, Cutler has been sacked nine times for minus-73 yards. He was sacked five times by Green Bay last year. Cutler's passer ratings against the Packers, starting with the first game last year, have been 43.2, 74.9, 82.5 and 43.5. Fortunately for the Bears, the two higher ratings came at Soldier Field.

They inexplicably abandoned the run game in Week 17 after having a higher ratio of run plays to pass plays over the previous eight weeks. Forte averaged 6.1 yards per carry in that game but got just 15 attempts.

"I did not do a good job calling the game at all," offensive coordinator Mike Martz said. "Probably got away from some things. We tried to create some things on first down in the passing game that I thought would be good, and we just didn't execute very well. We didn't play very well and certainly didn't coach very well in that game. It was uncharacteristic of who we are."

Getting the ball in Forte's hands early and often for productive runs is the best way to keep the blitzers at bay.

"They're going to blitz, and they're going to bring pressure," Cutler said. "We know that, and we expect that. We ran the ball well in the first half [at Green Bay], but we kind of got away from it a little bit. Matt has been running hard. The O-line has been doing a great job in the run blocking and the schemes and fits. It's going to be huge. It's going to be big to get him going as part of our offense."

Mike Martz
Jonathan Daniel/Getty

Both quarterbacks bring the mobility dimension to Sunday's game, and Cutler and Rodgers are athletic enough to escape the rush and run for important yardage, turning a negative play into a positive one.

Cutler's 43 rushing yards last week against the Seahawks were a career high. Rodgers' 356 rushing yards for the season were second only to the Eagles' Michael Vick.

"His decision to take off and go without the hesitation is big," Martz said of Cutler. "He makes plays with his feet. I haven't had a quarterback like that before. He's made some really big plays for us. He's kept us in games and got us in position to score. Last week, we had a couple plays for him in the game plan that we actually designed to run in the playoffs."

Cutler usually chooses not to protect himself by sliding feet first, but the Bears are more likely to take a risk in the playoffs.

"He's just such a gifted athlete with the ball in his hands, and he is a threat," Martz said. "The more you look at him on tape, the more you realize he does have some real speed."

Cutler has 12 runs of 10 yards or longer this season, second on the team only to Forte, including last week's 21-yard scamper, along with touchdown runs of six and nine yards. His 232 rushing yards this season were a career best.

Cutler said there are times when yardage is there for the quarterback's taking, and he's not afraid to run for it.

"You can't account for a quarterback like that, especially on third downs and in serious passing situations," he said. "When you can break the pocket and keep the play alive, it just gives your guys another opportunity to make a play, and Aaron has done a fabulous job of that this year."

As proficient as Cutler has been as a runner this season, Martz would prefer to have him stay in the pocket. He doesn't mind a little improvisation by his quarterback when the time is right, but he'd also just as soon not think about it.

"We don't coach the impromptu at all," said Martz. "We'd just as soon he not do that, to be honest with you. If he doesn't run at all, I'd be a happy guy. That means that things are going great and everything comes out clean. Boom, you complete the ball. The ball's out of there. We don't talk about it a whole lot. We don't discourage him, but we don't encourage him either. It's just kind of a fine line there. He's very smart about it. He just doesn't break and run [for no reason]. He does a real good job with that. He's not careless about it at all. I just don't talk to him about it a lot, really." ...

Smith had just one complaint at his Wednesday afternoon press conference as he discussed the team's defense, which was No. 4 in the league in fewest points allowed.

"Defensively, I'm not pleased with the amount of takeaways we've gotten lately, but that's about the only thing I can complain about," Smith said. "They come to work each day, showed up every game."

The Bears had no takeaways in their divisional-round playoff victory over the Seahawks, and they were also blanked in that department back to back in Weeks 13 and 14. But they still finished tied for third in the league with 35 takeaways.

Smith acknowledged the return of middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and defensive end Julius Peppers as major reasons for this season's improvement.

"Getting Brian Urlacher back, we were a 7-9 team last year," Smith said. "Getting a player like Brian Urlacher back has meant the world to our team. Julius Peppers has been everything we wanted him to be. He's played as advertised. We've had our role players who have stepped up and filled our roles and our stars have played that way each week, and that's why we're here." ...

Martz has to constantly refute the idea that he hates running the football.

While the Bears were excessively pass-heavy in the first seven weeks, they were more balanced between run and pass than any team in the NFL for the next eight weeks.

"I've always been very pragmatic about football and how you impact a team offensively," Martz said. "You have to do what you have to do to move the football, score points and win. We've got what I think is the best back (Forte) in the league, the offensive line has gotten better every week, our tight ends are terrific on the edge [and] allow us to get around the edge. It's a lot more fun and it's a lot easier to call plays when you can mix it up like we've been doing."

"They're my résumé. How they play is how good of a job I've done. If they play like crap, then I'm a crappy coach and I deserve the heat." – Bears offensive line coach Mike Tice on his unit.

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