Air and Space: Jay Cutler's screen passes

You might have heard that 2011 is the Year of the Quarterback on all ESPN platforms. Longtime blog readers know the NFC North has been the division of quarterbacks for some time. We like to call it the "Air and Space" division, making a funny based on our longtime "Black and Blue" moniker, and here on the blog we take usually weekly looks at relevant developments for our quarterback corps.

One dynamic that already is jumping out: The Chicago Bears' utilization of the screen play since quarterback Jay Cutler joined forces with offensive coordinator Mike Martz last season. Let me explain how it could have a significant role in Sunday's game at the New Orleans Saints. (All information courtesy ESPN Stats & Information unless otherwise noted.)

In his last 16 regular-season games, Cutler has thrown a total of 48 screen passes and completed them for a combined 418 yards and two touchdowns, both to tailback Matt Forte. Cutler ranks second in the NFL for total passing yards on screen plays over that stretch.

As it turns out, the Saints' traditionally heavy blitzing practices make them particularly vulnerable to screen plays. Since Gregg Williams joined them as defensive coordinator in 2009, opponents have completed an NFL-high 90.9 percent of screen passes against them.

Obviously, the screen isn't a glamour play for a strong-armed quarterback like Cutler. But to me it's a perfect call, as long as it's not overused, for the place the Bears' offense finds itself in right now.

First, screen plays can slow down a pass rush because of the possibility the ball is headed to the flat. The Bears appeared to have made some strides in their pass protection this summer, but there is nothing wrong with cooling the jets of an anxious pass-rusher and then making him chase a running back downfield.

Second, the Bears have one of the best pass-catching running backs in the NFL. Forte has an obvious instinct for the play and exceptional open-field running ability once it develops. If you have any doubts on that assessment, check out Forte's 56-yard touchdown last Sunday. He broke two tackles and then ran away from the Atlanta Falcons' defense on the way to the end zone.

The effectiveness of screens moving forward rests largely in Martz's hands. Sunday's touchdown was set up by a smart fake reverse that gave Forte some room to get started. But Martz will also have to balance a clear strength with the realization that teams will gear up for it if he calls it too often.

Martz might have erred toward the latter option last season after calling six screen plays in the Bears' Week 1 victory over the Detroit Lions. Cutler totaled 126 yards on those plays, including an 89-yard touchdown to Forte. But for the rest of the season, Cutler averaged 12.5 yards per game on screen plays.

Last week, the Saints gave up 30 passing yards on screen plays to the Green Bay Packers on a total of three plays. I think it will be worth the Bears' time to poke the Saints' defense with a few on Sunday just to see if it has an answer.

If you want to watch me talk about the Bears' screen play, check out the "NFC 411" video below. A few other guys will say some stuff as well.