Tuesday November 25th, 2014

Every season there are players and teams that disappoint in the NFL, and this year there may be no greater disappointment than the Chicago Bears and their quarterback, Jay Cutler. The Bears were supposed to feature a dominant, high-octane offense, with Cutler acting as the sun in a universe full of talented weapons. Instead, the Bears rank 16th in yards per game and 19 in points per game, and are just 5-6 after back-to-back wins over the Vikings and Buccaneers. Matt Forte has largely lived up to fantasy expectations, but Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery have not. Cutler ranks 11th in fantasy points per game in standard-scoring leagues, while Marshall is 15th and Jeffery is 13th. They may not be outright busts, but they were all supposed to be top-10 players at their respective positions. Marshall and Jeffery were off the board within the first 30 picks of likely every single draft back in August. Now they’re plodding along as WR2s. This is not how they drew it up over the summer.

Fact: The Bears are not who we thought they were, and it starts with Cutler

Almost everyone expected the Bears to take off this year, due in part to their ability to get big plays in the passing game. Marshall and Jeffery combined for 34 catches of at least 20 yards last year. Through 11 games this season, they have just 16. Cutler attempted 355 passes last year, and had 29 completions of at least 20 yards and seven of at least 40 yards. He has already attempted 400 passes this season, yet those completion numbers are at 28 and seven, respectively. On 12.7 percent more attempts, he has hit on the same number of big plays. That is a problem.

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Chicago’s inability to push the ball down the field was on display in their win over Tampa Bay on Sunday. Despite the win, the Bears managed just 204 total yards, including an anemic 112 through the air. However, there were plays to be made. Cutler simply missed on them.

The Bears had a 3rd-and-11 from their own 19-yard-line on the first possession of the game. They came out in a typical alignment for them in on this down and distance, with Cutler in shotgun, Forte the lone back, and two receivers -- one of which being tight end Martellus Bennett -- to either side of the formation. Here’s what it looks like at the start. Keep an eye on Bennett, who is nearest the line to the right.

Cutler ended up checking down to Forte for nine yards, which brought on the punt team. If he had held the ball for another split second, something he had plenty of time to do, Bennett was coming wide open across the middle for what would have been a first down.

Bennett is inside the black circle in the above screenshot. He’s already clearing the linebacker, and the safety is too deep to drive on the route to break up the pass. If Cutler hits Bennett, the Bears move the chains and sustain the drive. They also send a shot across the Buccaneers’ bow on the first drive of the game by showing an ability to hit on plays down the field.

With a little more than two minutes remaining in the first half, the Bears trailed 7-0 but had a decent opportunity to put some points on the board before the end of the half. They started with the ball outside their own 30-yard-line with all three timeouts remaining and, as you’ll recall, two premier deep threats to target down the field. On 2nd-and-10, after Cutler bounced a pass to an open Bennett on first down, the Bears came out in an empty back, shot gun set. This time, Forte was lined up outside the numbers, Bennett was tight to the left side of the line, joined over there by both Marshall and Jeffery. Marshall is the man to watch this time.

You can see in the screenshot above that the man who was lined up over Marshall began to vacate the area at the snap. That gave him a free release for what ended up being a corner route. He was wide open for what should have been a completion that may have taken him into Tampa Bay territory. Instead, Cutler went to his checkdown again, completing a pass to Bennett for six yards.

Not only would Marshall have picked up at least 15 yards on this play, he almost certainly would have gotten out of bounds, giving the Bears another play before the two-minute warning. Instead, they faced a 3rd-and-4 coming out of the two-minute warning, which resulted in an incomplete pass to Marquess Wilson. Tampa Bay put a field goal on the board to end the half, taking a 10-0 lead to the locker room.

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The first two plays here were bad decisions from Cutler. Let’s look at one final play that is simply a bad throw. It comes in the fourth quarter after the Bears used two takeaways to score 21 straight points and take a lead they would not relinquish. The Bears had a 3rd-and-8 from their own 40-yard-line with about one minute of the fourth expired. Another touchdown would essentially have put the game away, but even a field goal would have given the Bears a ton of breathing room. They’re in their usual shotgun set, this time with three receivers to the left of the formation. Marshall, who ended up being the intended receiver, was the first man off the line.

The Buccaneers only rushed four, and the Bears’ line did a great job giving Cutler a clean pocket. He had plenty of time to let Marshall work down the field, and had room to step up and deliver a nice ball. The series of screenshots below tell an unfortunate story. 

As you can see in the second screenshot, Marshall was wide open. All Cutler had to do was lead him to the sideline, and this would have been a huge play for the Bears. At worst, it puts them just outside Robbie Gould’s range. Even if they don’t pick up another yard, they’ll be able to take a couple more minutes off the clock, then pin the Buccaneers deep in their own territory. It’s not the easiest throw given the respective locations of Cutler and Marshall, but one he’ll tell anyone he needs to make. And he just simply missed it. 

Cutler certainly isn’t the only problem with the 2014 Bears, and they would definitely be worse off without him, unless they could figure out a way to suspend reality and get Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning to call Soldier Field home. However, he was also supposed to be directing a potent offense the way Rodgers does in Green Bay and Manning does in Denver, and that just has not been the case this season.

Fiction: Giovani Bernard is a better fantasy back than Jeremy Hill

Hill was one of the best fantasy backs in the league during his three-game stint as the Cincinnati starter, running for 361 yards and two touchdowns on 63 carries. He did fumble twice during that span, but he also carved out a permanent role in the offense, according to offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. Still, fantasy owners were understandably a little skittish about his value with Bernard making his return in Week 12. Hill likely calmed those fears on Sunday.

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The rookie out of LSU ran for 87 yards and a touchdown in Cincinnati’s win over Houston. Bernard got 17 carries of his own, but picked up just 45 yards on the ground. He also caught two passes for 22 yards. While Bernard was likely a bit rusty, there was little doubt as to who was the better running back last week. The two alternated drives, and Hill may have lucked out with the touchdown, as the defense set up the offense with an interception deep in Houston’s territory for a drive that belonged to him. It doesn’t change the fact that he was clearly Cincinnati’s most effective weapon out of the backfield.

Unfortunately for Hill owners, that doesn’t mean he’s going to lead the team in carries for the rest of the season. Bernard brings more to the table in the passing game, and has been a strong runner at other points of the season. He had more carries inside the 20-yard-line than Hill, spelling the rookie in the red zone on drives that Hill started out in the backfield. Despite Hill’s performance over the last month, Bernard remains atop the depth chart.

Bernard is not a better fantasy back than Hill, but that does not mean Hill is head and shoulders above him. Both are going to get their fair share of touches, and while they would each benefit individually from the other going away, both will be fantasy assets for the remainder of the season. The Bengals’ remaining fantasy schedule includes the Buccaneers, Steelers, Browns and Broncos. Only that last game can be considered a bad matchup for the running back duo. As such, both should be considered RB2s or strong flex options for the rest of the year.

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