Through the first two weeks of the 2013 campaign, the Chicago Bears and quarterback Jay Cutler were forced to erase fourth-quarter deficits in order to win. The tables were turned in tonight's contest, with the Bears having to hold off a late-game rally from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
After exploding out of the gates, racking up a 24-3 lead midway through the second quarter, the Bears seemed to lose life after Anthony Walters was called for roughing the kicker. The Steelers used that penalty to cut the lead to 24-10 going into the half and then used that momentum to further trim the margin to 27-23 with 10:43 in the game.
Cutler and Chicago's offense took over at their own 26-yard line and were quickly faced with a 3rd and 10. A punt at that point would have given the Steelers the ball with an opportunity to take the lead. Cutler dropped back to pass but protection broke down, forcing him out of the pocket. He scrambled away from the pass rush and took off down the field.
As soon as Cutler cleared the line, it was obvious he would be able to pick up the first down. As he crossed the marker, three Steelers defenders closed in on him. Cutler looked as if he was about to slide but then dropped his shoulder at the last second and lowered the boom on safety Robert Golden, rocking the defender onto his back.
Instantly, life fused back in the team.
"I had to make sure I got the first down," Cutler said after the game. "We had been off the field a lot. We didn't play that well in the second half, especially on third down. I just wanted to make sure I picked it up and a little collision happened. We got the first down and we kept rolling."
And roll they did. Three plays later, the Bears faced a 3rd and 12. Cutler found Brandon Marshall on a deep go route that picked up 41 yards.
"It's all Jay," Marshall said "Jay threw a 50-yard back-shoulder [pass]. I've never seen that happen before. His arm is amazing. Jay put it in the right place."
Three plays later, Earl Bennett made an amazing catch in the back corner of the end zone to give the Bears an insurmountable two-score lead.
On three straight third-down plays on a crucial fourth-quarter drive, Cutler rose up and again carried his team to victory. It was the third time in as many weeks that Cutler was able to make a late-game play when the team needed him the most.
Yet it was the shoulder he lowered into Golden that truly sparked his team and lit a fire under his teammates.
"He took a vicious hit right in front of the bench," said Marc Trestman. "I was hoping he would slide, he didn't. I was thankful he got up after taking the shot that he took."
Cutler said his teammates were also concerned about him laying the lumber.
"They were all yelling at me when I got back in the huddle to get down so I don't think they were too pleased with that."
Yet Cutler's decision to explode into a defender in lieu of sliding meant more than just picking up a first down. It shows a hungry player, one who has matured to the point where he's willing to do whatever it takes to get a win. It also shows a seasoned player willing to lead by example. Think about it, if Cutler is willing to sacrifice himself in that manner for the good of the team, why wouldn't anyone else?
After a play like that, only the most naïve would question his toughness, and his teammates know that. He's willing to fight for them so you can be sure they are going to fight for him going forward.
Cutler came into this season, a contract year, with all eyes on him to finally produce to his potential. He has a GM who has loaded the offense with talent and a head coach who has a long history of success with NFL quarterbacks. If Cutler didn't show up this year, there would have been no one else left to blame.
Through three weeks, he's shown that he's not only taking this challenge seriously but that he's also willing to go the extra mile to secure victories. If that rubs off on his teammates, this could be a special season for an undefeated Bears team.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.