Fast forward one year and two weeks, and now the Packers are trying to turn Cutler’s season the other way after a hot start under new offensive coordinator Mike Martz that has helped the Bears post a 2-0 record heading into Monday night’s NFC North showdown at Soldier Field.
“We have to make sure we’re not going into the game with the mentality that they’re the same team as last year, because they’re not,” Packers defensive end Cullen Jenkins said.
“It looks like he’s really gotten into a rhythm in that offense. It looks like he’s throwing a lot better with a lot more confidence back there and he just looks like he’s having a whole lot better year this year. It looks like he’s back to his old self now.”
Initial evidence indicates Cutler’s turnover-plagued 2009 was an aberration for the former Denver Broncos’ Pro Bowler. In just two games running Martz’s wide-open, aggressive system, he’s the top-rated quarterback in the league with a 121.2 passer rating. He has completed nearly 70 percent of his throws (44-of-64, 68.8 percent) for 649 yards with five touchdowns and just one interception.
Cutler credits one year of familiarity with the Bears’ offensive personnel along with the tutelage of Martz for the dramatic turnaround. He says he’s impressed with the way Martz finds favorable matchups for his skill players and the way he’s able to “adjust on the fly” to what a defense is doing.
For example, last week in the Bears’ big win in Dallas, Cutler took a handful of hits early in the game from the Cowboys as Chicago lost left tackle Chris Williams to an injury. Right tackle Frank Omiyale was moved over to the left side and Kevin Shaffer was inserted on the right, and there were some early struggles, including one sack.
But Martz changed up some plays to allow Cutler to get the ball out faster, there were no sacks after the early one, and Cutler went on to an impressive day – 21-of-29 for 277 yards with three TDs and no INTs.
“It will take any team a little time to recover and regroup, which we did,” Bears head coach Lovie Smith said. “Most of the time it’s about how you finish the game, and we finished strong.”
Cutler’s confidence in Martz and the new system has produced two key abilities within Chicago’s offense – hitting the big play and spreading the ball around.
Cutler already has six completions of 25 yards or more this season, which ranks tied for No. 2 in the league, and three of them have gone for scores – an 89-yard screen pass to running back Matt Forté, a 28-yard strike to Forté on a wheel route out of the backfield, and a 39-yard catch-and-run by tight end Greg Olsen against a blitz.
Cutler also has completed at least five passes to seven different receivers thus far, impressive ball distribution through just two contests. Forté is the team leader with 12 receptions for 188 yards (15.7 avg.) and three TDs, doing more damage thus far catching the ball than running it (27 carries, 79 yards, 2.9 avg.) while serving as a valuable go-to as well as check-down guy for Cutler.
“It’s hard to throw the ball to one guy 10, 12 times,” Cutler said. “Defenses are going to try to take stuff away. You’ve got to have answers, and Mike has done a good job of having answers and solutions to every coverage we see.”
Now it’s up to the Packers to have an answer for Cutler and Martz. In his first season-plus running the Green Bay defense, coordinator Dom Capers has shown some creativity with pressure packages and may need to have something up his sleeve for Cutler.
Last year Capers unveiled the five-linebacker “Psycho” nickel package in Chicago in Week 14, so while the Packers may still use it this week, there’s no element of surprise against the Bears. Capers certainly will study what the Cowboys did early on last week and how the Bears adjusted, as well as how the Lions pressured Cutler in Week 1. Despite Cutler’s 372-yard day, Detroit was able to sack him four times, forcing one fumble and getting one interception.
“I don’t know if there’s any key to rattling him, but with any quarterback, especially being a D-lineman, you want to apply some pressure to him and try to get him thinking about the pass rush,” Jenkins said. “Hopefully it will take his mind off some of the routes that are going on and make him a little cloudy in his thought process.”
The Packers have 10 sacks through two games, making that aspect of their defensive game the most noteworthy so far. Green Bay has given up just 233 net passing yards this season, third best in the league.
Defensive end Ryan Pickett played in St. Louis when Martz, both as the Rams’ offensive coordinator and head coach, ran one of the league’s most feared and explosive units, so he knows first-hand the challenge that awaits Monday night.
And it doesn’t resemble the one the Packers faced 54 weeks ago.
“Just watching them, they’re a different team than they were last year,” Pickett said.
“Cutler is already a good quarterback, and whatever Martz is doing is to his strengths. They’re hitting big plays down the field. They’re clicking on all cylinders right now, and it’s up to us to slow them down.”
Additional coverage – Sept. 23