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Cutler shows how good he can be when standing on two feet

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PHILADELPHIA -- It wasn't as if Bears quarterback Jay Cutler never felt the Eagles' pressure.

Oh, he did. He escaped it once by throwing a missile off his back foot to Roy Williams. He evaded it another time after stumbling backward, regaining his footing and completing a short pass. Such improvisation is nothing new.

"Even when there is pressure, he can scramble with his feet," running back Matt Forte said after Monday's 30-24 Bears' victory.

What made this performance special, what made it the type of game that better illustrates Cutler's capabilities than any other this year (maybe any other since he was traded to Chicago), wasn't the few plays he made under duress. It was the many more he made when protected.

For the first time since Nov. 12, 2009 -- and only the second time while wearing a Bears jersey -- Cutler wasn't sacked once Monday. His second-half passer rating was an impressive 122.22.

"We know what quarterback we have when we give him the time," center Roberto Garza said.

I'm far from a Cutler apologist. But witnessing his skills Monday, particularly the way he orchestrated a diverse and effective offense when supplied the proper protection, it created even more wonder about that critical question: Just how good might he be with a consistent offensive line?

"He's capable of being an elite, top-notch player," offensive coordinator Mike Martz told me outside the locker room Monday. "He's not had all the pieces in the past because of shortcomings here or shortcomings there. And he's been patient. Now, things are starting to gel. That's what is exciting for all of us."

This is no surprise, of course. Plenty of quarterbacks believe their careers would be very different if they played behind a better line. None, though, have the history of Cutler that backs it up.

In 2008, his final year in Denver, Cutler had his best season as a professional, earning a Pro Bowl invite after throwing for 282.9 yards per game (third in the NFL). He was sacked only 11 times that season. By comparison, he has already been sacked 21 times this year, adding to a ridiculous 52 sacks in 2010. Given the evidence of 2008, coupled with his effectiveness Monday, it's hard to pin this problem on anyone but the offensive line.

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"NFL Replay" will re-air the Bears' 30-24 win over the Eagles on Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 8 p.m. ET.

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"It starts up front," Cutler said Monday, surely comments easier to make in the wake of a solid game from the line. "Whenever my feet are clean, I've got a good pocket and I can see what's happening downfield, we're probably going to have a good day."

By Martz's estimate, Cutler has had good days each of the last four weeks.

"You go back and look at the last four games, and he's really played well," Martz said. "We're changing a little bit of what we do because of the running game. The offensive line now is settling in, and with each week, they get more consistent. That's the key to everything."

No doubt, Forte's success on the ground, which accounted for 133 yards on 24 carries against the Eagles, is going to eliminate some of the pressure on Cutler. It's just another reason why Chicago should give Forte a new contract immediately.

But it's also tough to call it a coincidence when Cutler's four games of success parallel the drastic changes to the offensive line, which included Lance Louis replacing Frank Omiyale at right tackle and Chris Spencer's move from center to right guard. Of Cutler's 21 sacks this year, 14 occurred in the first three games.

Forte said he's noticed a massive difference in Cutler as the current rotation of linemen continues to come together.

"The last couple of years, he's been running around the pocket a whole lot, and it's making him throw off his back foot," Forte said. "He's more comfortable back there, and it allows him to step into throws."


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This was a good weekend for highly questioned quarterbacks. Eli Manning and Joe Flacco both orchestrated impressive wins Sunday, and Cutler followed it up with a big one Monday. Of course, this isn't to suggest all three of these players immediately deserve to be vindicated. But particularly in Cutler's case, it is the type of evidence he will deservedly point to if the Bears can't find a way to keep up this type of consistent protection.

Coach Lovie Smith said it himself on Monday: "(Cutler) is as good as there is once he has the time."

Now, the Bears need to absorb that message. An organization that swears by pouring its resources into the defense must recognize the importance of making sure its quarterback also has the necessary components for success.

Just ask Cutler what happens when he has the proper protection.

"We can do anything we want," he said. "We can go downfield, throw quick, we can roll out. There's an array of things we have in this offense.

"When that front five is comfortable, and they're picking things up and the pocket is clean, it's going to be hard to stop us."

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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