NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Jay Cutler wanted to stick around Music City after leaving Vanderbilt for the NFL, and he worked out for the hometown Tennessee Titans a few times even while suspecting owner Bud Adams wanted to draft Vince Young all along.
Now Young is gone from Tennessee, and the Titans had to use another first-round pick on a quarterback since that 2006 draft. Cutler holds no grudges as he brings the high-flying Bears to town Sunday to play the Titans in his first regular-season game in Nashville, just a couple miles from where he played in college.
“I ended up in a great situation with Mike Shanahan in Denver and then onto Chicago,” Cutler said. “It’s been a fun career so far.”
Cutler and the Bears (6-1) are off to quite a start this season, having won five straight after the quarterback led the Bears on yet another fourth-quarter comeback for a 23-22 victory over Carolina last week. Cutler leads the NFL with a 132 passer rating in the fourth quarter.
Bears receiver Brandon Marshall said he was trying to figure out a nickname for Cutler a couple weeks ago to describe his ability to pull out late wins.
“I texted him over a few nicknames like, ‘The Closer,’ ‘Ace.’ I’m trying to figure out a nickname for him, so if you guys can help me out I’d appreciate it,” Marshall said. “Jay’s one of those guys where he has that clutch gene. You hear guys talking about it, and some believe in it, some don’t. But Jay has it.”
Titans coach Mike Munchak got to know Cutler a bit during the Senior Bowl in 2006 and sees him at charity events in Nashville, where the quarterback has a home. Munchak isn’t surprised by Cutler’s success because of his throwing accuracy.
“He gets hot, you’re in trouble,” Munchak said. “Carolina went in there and had him beat, really, and probably should have won the game or had a great chance to win it. He takes them right down the field when he had to do it, and they won. They have the type of quarterback that can take them the distance, and I’m sure that’s what they think.”
The Titans released Young in July 2011 after drafting Jake Locker at No. 8 to be their new quarterback. But Locker will miss his fifth straight game as he recovers from dislocating his left, nonthrowing shoulder twice in the first four games.
That means veteran Matt Hasselbeck will start. He has thrown for six touchdowns with no interceptions in his past three games against the Bears when he was with Seattle. In his past two games with the Titans, Hasselbeck has gotten on a roll, throwing two touchdowns with no interceptions and a 101.6 passer rating.
But the Titans (3-5) are coming off a painful 19-13 overtime loss to Indianapolis in which they blew a late lead themselves. They have won 10 of their past 12 at home against NFC teams and desperately need another victory for hope in a bunched-up AFC.
“It’s a team we don’t know that well, so obviously we have to be on top of that,” Munchak said. “They don’t do a lot, they just do it all very well. That’s going to be the challenge. This could be a huge win for us, a team that is playing as well as they are. It’s going to take us playing at our best to get that done.”
Hasselbeck faces a big challenge against the Bears, who have returned six of their 16 interceptions for touchdowns – most by a team in NFL history through seven games.
“They’re really good at getting the ball out,” Hasselbeck said. “They’re really good at getting tips and overthrows. For these guys, they seem to end up as interceptions, and their interceptions seem to end up as interceptions taken to the house, so we’ve got to be sharp.”
The Titans will try to keep the Bears off pace with Chris Johnson, who has an NFL-best 550 yards rushing over the past five weeks. Johnson managed only 8 yards on 14 carries the last time these teams met in 2008, a game Tennessee won 21-14.
Bears defensive back D.J. Moore, who also went to Vanderbilt with Cutler and Bears receiver Earl Bennett, said handling Johnson isn’t too hard if everybody stays in their gaps. Moore said cornerback Tim Jennings won’t be coming up to get Johnson.
“So he’s going to be gone if he gets in the open field,” Moore said. “We just have to keep him from breaking big runs.”
Bears coach Lovie Smith hopes the tight game against Carolina gave his Bears a reminder to play all 60 minutes.
“We’re going on the road in a tough environment and we need to play better ball, which we’ll do,” Smith said.
For that, the Bears need Cutler and the offense to get off to a better start. They gave up six sacks in the first half, and Cutler had only 80 yards passing going into the fourth quarter before the Bears rallied. The Bears should have a chance to get their offense going early against Tennessee, which ranks next to last in allowing 32.1 points a game and 30th in giving up 421.3 yards each game.
“We’re not going to make a living coming back in the fourth quarter and trying to convert third-and-longs,” Cutler said.