Game Plan (cont.)
Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago.
It's always suspect to look at a trade and say a team could have had either this guy or these three draft choices. But now that the deal has had some time to breathe, and trusting that Bears GM Jerry Angelo would have navigated through the 2009 and '10 drafts to fill needs the Bears had in each draft, let's take a look.
Chicago traded the 18th and 84th picks in 2009 and the 11th pick in 2010, plus Kyle Orton, for Cutler and a fifth-round pick. With the 18th pick in '09, Chicago could have taken a left tackle of the future, which it didn't have, in Michael Oher, or a pass-rusher, which it lacked, in Clay Matthews. With the 84th pick, it could have taken a receiver (it took one 15 slots later, Juaquin Iglesias) like the one who was taken in that exact spot: Ole Miss speedster Mike Wallace. With the 11th pick in 2010, it could have taken the best guard/center available, either Maurkice Pouncey of Florida or Mike Iupati of Idaho.
We have no idea if those players were high on the Bears draft board, but Chicago sacrificed the rebuilding of the offensive line, at the very least, to trade for Cutler, and it's vital that at some point he prove it was a wise decision. There are very few times in a player's career that he'll have the kind of chance Cutler has now -- playing the conference championship game at home, with the winner, obviously, going to the Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders' pass-catching line against the Jets:
Matt Toeaina, DT, Chicago (number 75).
Toeaina, another in the long line of Samoan block-of-granite defensive tackles to play important roles in the NFL, came to the NFL from Pago Pago, American Samoa, and the University of Oregon, and he makes up an important part of the rotation at defensive tackle for the Bears. Though he seems like a classic nose-sized player (6-foot-2, 317 pounds), he has the ability to knife through gaps like a top three-technique tackle too. In the last six weeks of the season, he broke through to sack the mobile Mike Vick and Joe Webb. So Aaron Rodgers will surely be aware not only of the threat of the rush when Tommie Harris is on the field, but also when Toeaina, who has started 10 games this year, is in the rotation as well.
1. How the Jets defend the pass. Last week, it was Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie shutting down the outside in man coverage against New England. Will they be able to do the same thing, with little safety help for the outside corners, against the better speed of the young Pittsburgh wideouts?
2. Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders. They're rookies, sixth- and third-rounders from Central Michigan and SMU respectively. But you've been watching the games, and you've seen that the Steelers aren't afraid to go to either rookie at any time of the game. Interesting. Last week was Roethlisberger's 14th week practicing with Brown this year, and he didn't look for ol' reliable Hines Ward or his speed-burning sophomore, Mike Wallace. He looked for Brown on the biggest play of the game, third-and-19 in the fourth quarter. That's why the Jets have to respect all the Steelers weapons, not just Ward and Wallace.
3. The Rex Factor. He's going to figure something out. He and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine have made their list, checked it twice, and I don't doubt, as he told me Sunday night after stunning the Patriots, that he's turned defending Ben Roethlisberger into a team exercise. Recall his words from MMQB: "We listened to every suggestion known to man about scheme and coverage. When I hire coaches, I want coaches who work with me, not for me. Last week, I challenged every coach. Come up with a plan. Help us find a way. We get help from players too. Jimmy Leonhard [a starting safety now on injured-reserve] even came up with a concept we used involving quarters coverage and a little wrinkle we used. I really leaned on Mike Pettine and [secondary coach] Dennis Thurman to get it all straight. We kept mixing 'em all day. Sometimes we'd play standard stuff, then we'd change up. We probably were more multiple than they'd seen, by anybody.'' But Big Ben does something Tom Brady and Peyton Manning don't do: He looks to run, and he makes plays running. Point. Counterpoint.
4. The Jets, burning their Jets. You wouldn't think a 106-yard rushing game by a team would be something to strive for. But, in part, the Jets won the first game between the teams last month by rushing for 106 yards, which is the best running game any team had on the Steelers all season. New York will try to do it again, obviously, to lessen the pressure on Mark Sanchez.
5. Terry McAulay. The ref in the Bears-Packers game is the same who reffed the first Chicago-Green Bay game this year, the one in which Green Bay was assessed 18 penalties. Eighteen! "Perfect,'' Brian Urlacher said with a smile Thursday. One big, big difference: Postseason crews are all-star crews, so McAulay will have different men with him in this game. But you can bet he'll be on the lookout for those offensive holds.
7. Labor. Nothing's happening, really. But we're bound to be thinking of it quite a bit as we watch the first two of the last three games we may be seeing for a long, long time.
8. The Lovie extension. I can't see the Bears not re-signing him, but it's going to be a major topic, win or lose, for Chicago -- how possibly could they consider letting go a coach who took them to the NFC Championship twice in five seasons?
9. Tom Brady's foot. It'll get quite a bit of analysis on the weekend shows, I'm sure, after his surgery to repair a stress fracture there Thursday. But you watched him play against the Jets. You watched him move without limping. I'm not buying that it had anything at all to do with his performance in the 28-21 loss.
10. The legend of Aaron Rodgers. He's going to have to leap tall buildings in a single bound to justify what the smart guys on TV are saying about him. But this is not the defense, or the surface, where you'd figure he'd be Atlanta good again this weekend.