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Big challenge awaits Cutler with late-season slide

Published: Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(AP photo)
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is sacked by Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews (left) in the second half Sunday at Soldier Field. The Packers won, 21-13, to clinch the NFC North division title.

LAKE FOREST – Jay Cutler probably would have preferred to discuss anything other than the possibility of an offseason overhaul Wednesday at Halas Hall.

Unfortunately for Cutler, the long-term future of the Bears has emerged to topic No. 1 because of yet another late-season nosedive.

Could Lovie Smith be in trouble of losing his job after nine seasons?

Could Mike Tice be on his way out after a one-year stint as offensive coordinator?

What other changes might be in store if the Bears’ slide continues?

“I think that’s a conversation for after the season,” Cutler said. “We’re in the middle of the season right now. There’s enough on our plate to worry about.”

Next on the menu is a trip to the desert, where the Bears (8-6) will visit the Arizona Cardinals (5-9) in the second-to-last game of the regular season. The Bears need to win to keep their playoff hopes alive, while the Cardinals will try to play the role of spoiler.

Memo to Cutler: Be careful.

The Cardinals will miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season because of an inept offense, but their sub-.500 record overshadows a pass defense that is among the NFL’s best. They lead the league with 22 interceptions, including 14 in the past six games.

The Cardinals’ strength matches one of Cutler’s biggest weaknesses.

As much as anything, interceptions have marked the reason why Cutler is considered across the league as a mid-tier quarterback instead of one of the league’s elite. He has thrown 14 interceptions on 377 pass attempts, a 3.7 percent interception rate.

Only three quarterbacks averaging at least 14 pass attempts a game have been picked off with greater frequency: Arizona’s John Skelton (4.5 percent), Kansas City’s Matt Cassel (4.3 percent) and the New York Jets’ Mark Sanchez (4.1 percent). All three of those players have been benched in the past few weeks because of poor performance.

Don’t expect the same to happen with Cutler, who has the full support of Tice and the rest of the coaching staff. Tice said Cutler’s teammates needed to help him to avoid interceptions.

“I think if we give Jay good time and he’s able to set his feet, he is extremely accurate, and I think we’ll be OK,” Tice said.

The Cardinals’ top playmaker on defense is Patrick Peterson, a 2011 first-round draft pick who is second in the NFL with seven interceptions. Peterson earned a Pro Bowl selection as a kick returner last season and could go to the Pro Bowl as a defensive player this season.

Cutler said Peterson (6-1, 219 pounds) reminded him of the Seattle Seahawks’ physical cornerback tandem of Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. Cutler connected with Brandon Marshall 10 times for 165 yards against Seattle, but the Bears lost in overtime.

“He’s going to be a challenge,” Cutler said. “Whether he’s matched up with ‘B’ all game long, whether he travels with him, we’ll see. They played some interesting coverages to Calvin [Johnson] last week.”

For his part, Marshall said he expected Peterson to shadow him throughout the game. Marshall verbally challenged the Green Bay Packers’ defenders in the days leading up to last week’s game, but he offered nothing but praise regarding Peterson’s ability.

“I heard some comments he made a week or two ago about how he’s playing the best at the position,” Marshall said. “I agree with him. Watching film now, he really is backing it up.

“Unfortunately, their record doesn’t show that. That kind of put a damper on his play right now, but he’s playing at a high level. This guy is going to be another Pro Bowler.”

Pick your poisonDespite a 5-9 record, the Arizona Cardinals’ defense leads the NFL with 22 interceptions. The Cardinals picked off Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan five times in Week 11.

Rank Team INT Leader1. Arizona Cardinals 22 Patrick Peterson, 72. Chicago Bears 21 Tim Jennings, 83. New York Giants 20 Stevie Brown, 74. Atlanta Falcons 18 Thomas DeCoud, 6t-5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 17 Ronde Barber, 4t-5. Washington Redskins 17 DeAngelo Hall & London Fletcher, 4

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