NFL Preview - Chicago (7-6) at Cleveland (4-9)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Marc Trestman is navigating through some choppy waters these days.
The first-year Chicago Bears coach has his team in the thick of the NFC North race as it prepares to visit Cleveland on Sunday thanks in large part to the play of backup quarterback Josh McCown.
Franchise signal caller Jay Cutler, however, a potential free agent after the season, has been cleared to practice and wants his old job back.
Trestman chose Cutler on Thursday, confirming the veteran's injured ankle is well enough for him to play against the Browns.
"We'll work (Cutler) through drops," Trestman said when taking about the plan for practice this week. "We'll redirect him in the pocket, move him up and down, and try to get as much suddenness as we can."
It's hard to justify pulling McCown, who has thrown for 1,809 yards, 13 touchdowns and one interception in seven games (five starts) this year and was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week following his performance in Monday night's 45-28 win over the Dallas Cowboys when he threw for four touchdowns and added a score on the ground while amassing a passer rating of 141.9.
Cutler, on the other hand, has thrown for 1,908 yards with 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions in eight starts this season.
Making his fourth straight start in place of Cutler, McCown finished 27-for-36 for 348 yards against a dismal Dallas defense, while Matt Forte carried the ball 20 times for 102 yards, and added seven catches for 73 yards and a score for the Bears (7-6), who snapped a two-game skid and are tied Detroit atop the division at 7-6 with three games to play.
The Lions, however, hold the tiebreaker by virtue of sweeping the season series between the two clubs.
"There's no change in the plan," Trestman said after McCown's brilliant performance on national television. "We'll see where Jay is this week. He'll have to be released by the doctors, but when Jay's ready to play, he'll be playing."
Cleveland, which has ex-Bears backup Jason Campbell at QB, has lost four consecutive contests and seven of eight overall.
Campbell had a career-best 391 passing yards with three TD passes in last week's 27-26 heartbreaking loss to New England. He acquitted himself very well in a return from a concussion and seemingly had the Browns in position to win after his third touchdown pass gave them a 26-14 lead with 2:39 remaining in the fourth quarter.
But, the Pats' Tom Brady quickly drove the Patriots 82 yards and capped the 11-play sequence with a 2-yard TD pass to Julian Edelman in the back of the end zone with 1:01 to play. The Patriots then recovered an onside kick at the Cleveland 40 and a questionable pass interference penalty on defensive back Leon McFadden set New England up at the Cleveland 1 because the infraction occurred in the end zone.
On the next snap, Brady rolled to his right and found Danny Amendola for the go-ahead score with 31 seconds left. The Patriots went for two and failed, giving the Browns an opportunity at winning with a field goal.
Cleveland nearly pulled it off. Three completions by Campbell moved the ball to the New England 40, where Campbell spiked the ball to stop the clock with one second remaining. Billy Cundiff's 58-yard try was short, however.
Tight end Jordan Cameron and wideout Josh Gordon both had stellar performances for Cleveland. Cameron posted 121 yards and a touchdown on nine receptions, while Gordon totaled 151 yards and a score on seven grabs.
"Obviously, very disappointed in the outcome of the game. Not disappointed in the effort of our team and how they played today," said Browns coach Rob Chudzinski.
Cleveland leads the all-time series by a 9-5 margin and has won four straight over the Bears in the Forest City.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Trestman is certainly being loyal to Cutler but he could be committing malpractice against the Bears by pulling the plug on McCown, who has put together the best four-game stretch in franchise history when it comes to passer rating.
"You always wonder how it would be if you operate in the right kind of offense with the right kind of players and so on and so forth," McCown said. "With me, it's just about being in the right situation now with these guys, with this offense and with these coaches, and allowing me to play within the system with the guys that are around me."
The veteran backup is third in the NFL with a 109.8 rating overall and has developed quite the rapport with Chicago's dynamic receiving duo of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, who have combined for 2,283 receiving yards, the most of any WR combination in the NFL.
Add in lengthy tight end Martellus Bennett, who has 53 receptions and five TDs on the season, along with Forte working the flats and it's pick your poison right now when trying the stop the Chicago passing game.
The one thing Cutler certainly brings to the table that McCown doesn't is the innate ability to extend plays with a top-tier pocket presence. The Vanderbilt product's rocket arm also makes coaches fall in love.
It's interesting how quickly the Bears have morphed into an offensive team under Trestman, something GM Phil Emery counted on when he plucked the coach out of the CFL. Chicago is now averaging 28.3 points per game, the second-best mark in the NFL behind Denver.
What Emery didn't expect was the dropoff on the defensive side of the ball, however. Chicago was rock solid on that side under the defensive-minded Lovie Smith and while the team still takes it away better than most, the consistency and stoutness of the unit has been lacking.
Injuries have been a problem and the unit's leader, linebacker Lance Briggs, still hasn't been cleared to practice after fracturing his shoulder on Oct. 20 at Washington.
"I'm not in any way as optimistic about Lance as I would be about Jay at this time because I've seen Jay move around and do the things that he did last week," Trestman said.
The Bears' D is particularly inept at stopping the run, ranking dead last in the NFL by allowing 157.0 yards a game on the ground. Overall the Chicago defense is just 27th in the league while giving up 381.5 ypg.
On paper the Bears get a break this week because Cleveland simply can't run it, ranking 28th in the NFL with 84.3 rushing yards a contest.
Chicago does, however, have to deal with Gordon, who leads the NFL with 1,400 receiving yards despite being suspended for the first two games. Gordon also just finished the best four-game stretch in NFL history with 774 receiving yards over that span.
Trestman should have run with the hot hand and that's McCown.
Either way, though, Cleveland has made a habit of losing close games and things don't figure to change all that much down the stretch.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 28, Browns 20
12/12 14:01:37 ET