It's time to have that talk, Bears fans. The one about "protection."
Former offensive coordinator Mike Martz was not a big believer in pass protection. He figured that if you spread the field with great skill-position players, defenses would be too busy trying to cover them to get to your quarterback. That worked well when Martz coached the Rams and Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt were running routes, with Orlando Pace blocking for Kurt Warner. It does not work quite so well with a roster populated mostly by mortals. That's why Bears quarterbacks suffered 49 sacks last season, and Jay Cutler spent the second half of the year on the sideline.
New offensive coordinator Mike Tice is much more protection-oriented. The difference was obvious every time the Bears dropped to pass last Sunday against the Colts. Last season, Martz used four-receiver sets 15 percent of the time, the third-highest percentage in the NFL, and the Bears lined up without a tight end on 20 percent of snaps, the second-lowest figure in the league. On Sunday, tight end Kellen Davis, a blocker by trade who was only targeted for one pass, was on the field for 75 of the Bears' 77 offensive plays, as many as receivers Alshon Jeffery (42) and Devin Hester (33) combined.
With Davis on the field, Tice had the opportunity to use more six-, seven- and even eight-man protection schemes than Martz would never dream of calling. The table below breaks down the Bears' pass protection for Sunday's game and for Cutler's drop-backs from last year. The numbers for the Bears' 2011 backups are omitted because Martz suddenly became serious about protection with Caleb Hanie and Josh McCown on the field, like a fighter curling into a ball when he is helpless on the ground.
Bears' Pass Protection
|# of Blockers||Cutler 2011||Cutler 2012|
A seven-man pass-protection scheme is usually called "max protect." So what does it mean when a team uses eight pass protectors? In the Bears' case, it means they really, really want to keep Cutler healthy for all 16 games this year, and hopefully more.
The Bears' attempts to keep Cutler upright in the first quarter had mixed results. Cutler endured a sack near his own end zone (despite seven blockers) and was chased from the pocket on several other occasions. The Bears do not have exceptional talent on the offensive line: Left tackle J'Marcus Webb is a perennial problem, and right tackle Gabe Carimi is a top prospect who was making just his third NFL start Sunday. The Colts have a radical new 3-4 defense designed to get star pass rushers like Robert Mathis isolated against overmatched blockers. Knowing a seven-man blocking package might not be enough, Tice sometimes went into hyper-protective mode.
Figure 1 shows the Bears in a second-and-eight situation midway through the second quarter. Tight end Davis (87), fullback Evan Rodriquez (48) and halfback Michael Bush (29) all stay in to block after a play-action handoff. Davis takes on Mathis (98 on the Colts), while Rodriquez blocks a blitzing linebacker on the offensive right. The Bears anticipate a blitz on the left as well, but when the Colts linebackers drop into coverage on that side, it leaves Bush and two linemen blocking one defender, which is overkill. Mathis actually gets pressure on this play, but the rest of the Colts' defense is so stymied that Cutler could step up if he needed to.
Eight blockers leave just two pass receivers, Brandon Marshall and Jeffery (17). Jeffery does not get open by much on this play, but Cutler has one of the strongest arms in the NFL, and he can fire the ball into tight spots when he isn't waist-deep in pass rushers. That's what happens here: Cutler just blasts the ball to Jeffery before the Colts can converge, and the rookie gains 15 yards to get the Bears into field-goal range.
The Bears used eight-man schemes like this one three times against the Colts. The third time was a charm: With eight protectors and all afternoon to throw, Cutler was able to loiter in the pocket until Jeffery got open for a 42-yard touchdown. Still, no team can consistently throw the ball with just two receivers running patterns. After a shaky start, the Bears were able to use their seven-man package to great effect, even when the desperate Colts got blitz-happy.
Jailbreak Locked Down
Figure 2 shows the Bears facing third-and-eight with the Colts crowding four pass rushers on the offensive right in a not-so-subtle hint that they plan to blitz. Davis is on the right side of the offensive line to help with the impending jailbreak, but Matt Forte (22) has an equally important task. The whole offensive line must fan to the right, leaving Forte to take on any defenders who use the confusion to attack from the left.
The red lines in the diagram show just how wacky this Colts blitz was, with seven defenders attacking from seven different angles. (One defender -- the safety -- only rushes when he is certain Davis will stay in to block.) Because of the extra protection, the Bears have little trouble picking up the blitz. Forte has the toughest assignment, and he barely manages to cut-block his blitzing linebacker, but it is enough. The Colts have no choice but to play man coverage behind this flash mob of a blitz, and their cornerbacks are no match for Brandon Marshall (15).
Forte stayed in to block on many pass plays, and despite his difficulty on this play, he is an excellent protector. On the play before the one in the diagram, Forte crunched a blitzing linebacker so hard that the "pop" could be heard on the television broadcast. Forte is a great receiver, too, but Tice's commitment to pass protection will mean that Forte catches fewer short passes so Marshall, Jeffery, and the other wide receivers can catch more long ones.
All Seven, And We'll Watch Them Fall
The Bears face a Packers defense that has much in common with the Colts defense they faced last week. The Packers have a handful of elite pass rushers, they love to bring exotic blitzes off the edge and their secondary can be exploited if the quarterback doesn't get pulverized.
The Bears did a good job keeping Packers defenders away from their quarterbacks last year (three sacks in two games), but the 2011 NFC Championship Game turned when Cutler's ankle turned against the Packers. By keeping seven protectors -- or even eight -- around his quarterback, Tice can take the pressure off Cutler and put it on the Packers' cornerbacks.
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