After studying under Tampa 2 master Lovie Smith, you might think Ron Rivera would be happy to have his defense play base coverages in this first preseason outing. Just like Lovie, however, Rivera has schooled his defense in the fine art of confusing a quarterback with pre-snap motions, feints, and last-second changes, something I expect they will be trying out in their first taste of live game action this season Let's dissect one play from last season's tilt between the Bears and Panthers and see what to watch for when we get a first look at the Bears' new offense.
The West Coast passing game is based around the idea that the QB should always go through his progressions - deep route, intermediate receiver, check-down option. But with Luke Kuechly patrolling center field for the Panthers and the rest of the defense swirling around him, will Cutler see the coverages in time to make the right read? Jay struggled with his reads at times the last time these two teams met. Let's take a first look at the very first play from that 2012 matchup, a blown pass play that ended up as a sack. First, a look at the pre-snap motion from the overhead coaches' view:
With the Bears coming out in a two tight end set that looked ready to pound the ball, the Panthers responded by readying an extra player to attack the Bears' unbalanced front. Cutler sees the CB ready to contain the edge, and with Brandon Marshall on the outside already in obvious man coverage, Jay figures he has man across the board. Cutler wisely switched the call to a pass in response. TE Kellen Davis motions across the formation, and yep, the Panthers are still looking ready to play the run: the front seven is lined up gap-by-gap across the line, and the CB is playing a game of chicken in front of the remaining TE to Cutler's left, Evan Rodriguez.
One problem - Cutler's read of man coverage was correct only to a point. Brandon Marshall was indeed in one-on-one coverage, but Davis only starts in single coverage. After the snap, Kuechly quickly attacks the running lane that develops, but the second he sees the running back pop out without the ball, he retreats into a short zone to guard against the play action. Davis, now bracketed, went from being in the perfect position to make a play to being smothered in coverage. With his first read taken away, Cutler's protection fails before he can take a look at Marshall's crossing route. As it stood, Cutler is taken down for a sack and a loss of seven.
Luke Kuechly has been compared to Brian Urlacher with good reason - he has the same combination of football smarts and speed that made #54 deadly in his prime. With Kuechly squaring off against a "rookie" offense, it could get ugly. As long as the offense emerges uninjured, however, I'll be happy that Cutler got to test his stuff against one of the best 4-3 MLBs in the business.
About that Cutler staying healthy - he did get dropped to the turf pretty hard on this one thanks to Kuechly's read and reaction to the play. One thing I'm keyed in on this week is to watch Cutler make his progressions - how often is he throwing to the second or third guy he looks at? He won't have the time to take that second look if the line can't buy it for him.
How exactly Jay Cutler got sacked is the main concern here. It strikes me as odd that TE Evan Rodriguez was on his own against a defensive end, but it's impossible to say if that one-on-one matchup was intentional without knowing the exact call. If the question "Who blew that blocking assignment?" is repeatedly asked on Friday - like it has to be asked here - that would be somewhat of a concern for me.
J'Marcus Webb was famously surprised the 2011 pre-season opener when Shawne Merriman did something he hadn't seen in training camp: actually try to rush the quarterback. Some growing pains along the offensive line are to be expected, but if those growing pains become Jay Cutler's body pains, we might be seeing Matt Blanchard sooner than we expected.