|Bears QB Jay Cutler has bounced back well from a vicious hit by Ndamukong Suh in Week 7 vs. the Lions. Cutler set more than 20 school records at Vanderbilt. (AP Images)|
Before Jay Cutler led the Chicago Bears to the NFC Championship Game vs. the Green Bay Packers in early 2011, the strong-armed quarterback provided a glimpse of his fiery competitive nature by bringing grit and toughness to the quarterback position at Vanderbilt that had not been seen before at the so-called Harvard of the South.
In a 49-42 double overtime loss to Florida in 2005, Cutler rallied the Commodores from a 14-point deficit in the final minutes by leading his team on two touchdown drives in the span of 1:23. Cutler threw for 361 yards and four touchdowns, prompting then-Florida coach Urban Meyer to refer to him as a big-time NFL quarterback.
Two weeks later, Cutler again performed well in the waning moments as he connected with Earl Bennett for a game-winning 5-yard touchdown at Tennessee with 1:11 left. It marked the first time the Commodores had defeated their in-state rivals in 22 years. When it ended, there were few dry eyes among the Vanderbilt contingent that made the three hour drive to Knoxville.
"You see grown men crying and you realize how long it's been since we've won," Cutler said after the game. "It tells us how much it means to this program."
This weekend, Cutler returns to Nashville to face the Tennessee Titans for the first time in a regular season game as a member of the Bears. The former Vanderbilt quarterback played into the third quarter in last season's preseason matchup at LP Field. Under Cutler, the Bears are 6-1 on the season and have emerged as an early contender for home field advantage in the NFC Playoffs.
Meyer's words proved to be prophetic. Since Week 16 of the 2009 season, the Bears are 25-9 when Cutler has started a game. During the span, Cutler's 73.5 winning percentage ranks fourth in the NFL among starters. Though Cutler is only in his fourth season in Chicago, he already ranks fourth in franchise history in passing yards with 10,804. Cutler also ranks first in passing yards per game (225.1), second in completion percentage (59.6) and is tied for third with Sid Luckman for most completions in a Bears' uniform (904).
Throughout his time in the SEC, Cutler impressed Titans coach Mike Munchak with his moxie. During his tenure as the Titans' offensive line coach (before becoming head coach in 2011) Munchak became further impressed with Cutler's intensity while evaluating him during the pre-draft process. The Titans were considering a quarterback in the 2006 NFL Draft and spent a great deal of time with Cutler at the Senior Bowl.
“I liked that he was a tough guy,” Munchak said. “When you're in the SEC, you're playing games against tough football teams. All the pressure was on him to perform because he was thought of so well. I thought he had a chance to be a real good football player. He's settling down really well in Chicago.”
The Titans brought in Cutler for several workouts, but ultimately selected Vince Young with the No. 3 overall pick in the draft. Cutler was taken with the No. 11 pick by Denver, one pick after Arizona selected Matt Leinart. The 2005 Heisman Trophy winner is a backup with the Raiders, while Young is currently a free agent. Cutler has gained little satisfaction from outperforming the two quarterbacks taken ahead of him.
“Once you get in the NFL, there's a lot to it. It's not just whether you play well,” Cutler said. “You have to be in a good system, you have to have some guys around you, your offensive line has to play well. It's a lot of chance and a lot of luck, as well as your skill level.”
One reason for Cutler's success has been his rapport with Brandon Marshall. The two were re-united this season after spending three seasons together in Denver. Marshall already has 50 receptions for 675 yards, the most by a Bears receiver through seven games of a season since at least 1960.
Cutler said teams have presented Marshall with every coverage under the sun -- from bracket coverage, to man-to-man, bump-and-run, safety help over-the-top and additional help underneath. The Titans could be taking a risk by singling up Marshall in man coverage on Sunday.
“He just changes games,” Cutler said of Marshall. “If he gets one-on-one coverage, he's going to win 100 percent of the time.”
Marshall has been particularly lethal in the Bears' posse formation with three wide receivers, one tight end and one running back. When running an inside-breaking, dig route at 15-18 yards, Marshall has been effective at finding the soft spots in the zone.
“He's a guy who is about 6-4, 250,” Titans CB Jason McCourty said of Marshall. “When you have a guy who's so athletically gifted, he's going to be a tough cover no matter what route he's running.”
Most importantly for the Bears, when Cutler plays well so do his teams. In Cutler's seven-year career his teams are 25-0 when he has a QB rating of 100 or more. This season, opposing quarterbacks have completed at least 70 percent of their attempts in six of eight games against the Titans.
Injury Update: While QB Jake Locker participated on a limited basis in 11-on-11 drills, Munchak has ruled him out for Sunday's game. Locker has not played since re-injuring his left, non-throwing shoulder in Week 4 at Houston.
LT Michael Roos (abdomen) returned to practice for the first time since undergoing an emergency appendectomy last week. Munchak is optimistic that Roos will play vs. the Bears. RG Leroy Harris and RT David Stewart both missed practice with knee injuries. Stewart could return to practice later this week, while Harris is doubtful, according to Munchak.
For more up-to-the-minute news and analysis on the Tennessee Titans, follow Matt Rybaltowski @CBSTitans.