Four Downs: Cutler or Stafford?

Matthew Stafford has helped Detroit start 4-0. Is he better than Jay Cutler? US Presswire

Can you remember the last time a win felt so much like a loss? The Chicago Bears were able to squeak by the Carolina Panthers 34-29 on Sunday, but they gave up 543 total yards. And now they face the undefeated Detroit Lions in Ford Field.

It's a cautious ESPNChicago.com panel that takes on Four Downs.

First Down

Fact or Fiction: Matt Forte is more valuable to the Bears than Jay Cutler.

Michael C. Wright: Fact. Take Forte out of the offense, and there is no offense. Interestingly, Forte runs behind that same offensive line that supposedly can't protect Cutler, yet the running back seems to always find a way to get the job done whether it's rushing or by catching the ball out of the backfield. Forte accounted for six of the club's 10 longest plays from scrimmage in the win over the Panthers and is already approaching 1,000 yards (634) of total offense after four games.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact: Take Forte away from the offense and what do you have? Not much. That's not meant to slight Cutler, who's been sacked 15 times and has little to work with besides Forte in the passing game, but the Bears won't win many games if they pin their hopes on the arm of the quarterback. On the other hand, Forte is the perfect fit in the Mike Martz offense, and is on pace for an eye-popping 2,536 all-purpose yards. The Bears are 0-2 when they ignore the ground game, but 2-0 when Forte gets at least 16 rushing attempts. The only thing Cutler has more valuable than Forte is his bank account.

Melissa Isaacson: Fact. But depends on how you interpret this. Is Forte more valuable now? Yes, as long as Mike Martz uses him properly, we saw exactly how valuable he can be with his 205 rushing yards against the Panthers. And with his ability to catch out of the backfield, Forte is pretty much carrying the Bears offense right now. Though Cutler is still being given a pass because of his relative lack of protection and uneven receiver play, he is not winning games for the Bears.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. I think it's obvious right now that Forte is having a better season than Cutler. The way this offense is designed, however, Cutler has the greater value. The problem is in reality, Forte is much better at his job than Cutler is at his job. The Bears need to have both going good to make the playoffs, but I'm starting to become convinced that Cutler isn't cut out to be a big-time quarterback. Forte has also convinced me he can carry this offense this year, as long as Cutler can "manage" the game.

Second Down

Fact or Fiction: The Panthers' 543 yards of offense should be a big concern for the Bears.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction, though it's semantics. Because of the style of the Bears defense, it's never really about the total yardage, though 543 is a number that gives anyone pause. It's all about the plays that make up the number. The defense needs to stop giving up the 26-yard runs, the 53-yard bombs. There are reasons for every breakdown, be it a lack of front four pressure or inexperienced, overmatched safeties and the Bears need to tighten up this week at practice.

Melissa Isaacson: Fact: The Bears' secondary should get significantly better in a few weeks when the injured Chris Harris re-joins the lineup, but that did not help them against Cam Newton and Steve Smith, and it certainly won't help them against Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson on Monday night. Brandon Meriweather is a disappointment so far and had a terrible showing against the Panthers, and fellow safety Major Wright, continuing to miss open-field tackles, is on the brink of becoming a bust. But it's even more troubling when the usually reliable front seven gets gashed as it has the last three weeks.

Michael C. Wright: Fact. Carolina's offensive production on Sunday just gave further evidence that Chicago's defense is trending downward. The Panthers became the fourth consecutive team this season to run for 100 yards or more on the Bears' defense, and opponents are averaging a hefty 5.1 yards-per-carry average against this team, which ranked No. 6 against the run in 2010. More alarming are the issues in the secondary. In part because of shoddy play at safety, the Bears have given up chunks of 20 yards or more on 17 passes over the first four games, and five of those plays gained 30 yards or more.

Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. The true judge of the Bears defense isn't the amount of total yards surrendered on a given weekend. The Cover 2 is a bend, but don't break defense, that is supposed to force teams to drive the length of the field without making a mistake. The problem for the Bears has been allowing big plays, especially in the passing game. Twice in the last three games, the Bears safeties have blown deep coverages, which resulted in a Devery Henderson 79-yard touchdown and a Steve Smith 53-yard reception that led to a Panthers score. It's those plays that keep Lovie Smith awake at night, not Carolina's 543 yards of total offense.

Third Down

Fact or Fiction: Calvin Johnson is a bigger threat to the Bears than the Lions' front four.

Jeff Dickerson: Fiction: Calvin Johnson is a beast. That cannot be disputed. But for whatever reason, the Bears tend to hold Johnson to modest numbers. While Johnson remains a legitimate threat, Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is downright scary. Seriously, I fear for Cutler's safety on Monday night, especially when you factor in all the injuries on the Bears offensive line. If the Bears can slow down Suh and Lions defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, they have a shot to win. If they don't, Cutler might be forced to spend the night in a Detroit area hospital.

Melissa Isaacson: Fact: See above. Johnson, he of the two touchdowns in each of the Lions' four games this season, is capable of inflicting just as much damage to the Bears' secondary as Smith, who had eight catches for 181 yards Sunday. The trouble with Johnson is that he's a danger in single coverage and he's a threat in triple coverage, leaping over three Cowboys for one touchdown Sunday. The Lions' front four is still the heart of their defense but hasn't quite reached the dominant stage just yet, though Ndamukon Suh does have two sacks in four games.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Crazy as it sounds, the Bears can handle Johnson better than mighty mite Steve Smith, who uses his "little man's syndrome" to amp himself up, according to Peanut Tillman. Now Ndamukong Suh and Co. are really scary. Jay Cutler is already playing with some degree of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Sack Disorder). Wait until Suh gets ahold of him. If the Bears can't run, or won't run, Cutler could be in for a long, painful night.

Michael C. Wright: Fact. Don't be fooled by the reputation of Detroit's front four. Going into last week's games, the Lions were one of four defenses that hadn't posted a sack when sending five or more rushers, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Lions brought five or more -- which should dramatically open things for the front four -- on 10.6 percent of Tony Romo's passes last week, and the quarterback completed 4 of 5 for a touchdown and wasn't sacked. As for Johnson, the guy is virtually un-guardable. He's caught multiple touchdowns in four consecutive games, and poses major matchup problems for Chicago's smaller corners and struggling safeties.

Fourth Down

Fact or Fiction: Matthew Stafford is better than Jay Cutler.

Melissa Isaacson: Fact: Yes. While Lions fans have to still be uneasy about Stafford's surgically repaired right shoulder, they are thrilled to have the 23-year-old former No. 1 draft pick, who has led the undefeated Lions back from 20-point deficits in the last two games. His numbers in the fourth quarter against Dallas (10-of-16 for 121 yards and two touchdowns) speak to his leadership and resiliency. Yes, Cutler is working with a shaky offensive line and is without an elite receiver, but at some point the truly great quarterbacks have to rise above that.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. As it stands right now, four weeks into the season, most quarterbacks (save the two we saw embarrass themselves on Sunday night) can lay claim to being better than Cutler. It's a little unfair since Stafford has Calvin Johnson and Cutler has, well, Matt Forte. Stafford, the bigger injury risk, seems to get better when the chips are down, and that's why the Lions could rally from a 27-3 deficit in Dallas. It was the second straight week Detroit has come back from a 20+ point deficit. According to ESPN's QBR, he's the 12th-best quarterback. Cutler is 27th. Everything points to Stafford.

Jeff Dickerson: Fiction: I only say fiction because Stafford has never been able to stay healthy for an entire year. He is obviously having a much better year than Cutler after four weeks (11 touchdowns, 3 interceptions and a 100.3 quarterback rating), but I'll hold off on moving Stafford past Cutler on my NFC North quarterback power rankings until he leads the Lions for a full season. Ask me the same question next year at this time, and I'll probably have changed my answer.

Michael C. Wright: Fact. The Lions are the first NFL team to rally from deficits of 20 points or more in two consecutive games, and Stafford is obviously one of the major reasons for that. Despite injuries robbing Stafford of his first two pro seasons, Stafford has always displayed that "it" factor that Cutler seems to lack. In addition to the comebacks he's engineered, Stafford has a passer rating of 100.3, while Cutler sits at 77.8. Stafford's teammates talk about the quarterback's moxie, and how they take on his calm personality in adverse situations. I could be wrong here, but I don't recall any of the Bears -- outside of offensive coordinator Mike Martz -- ever speaking of Cutler that way. Cutler is clearly better at staying healthy, but Stafford is the better quarterback at this point. Cutler's growth and confidence appears to have been stunted by the issues he's endured in two-plus seasons with the Bears.