Jay Cutler challenged the offense -- himself included -- to ''pick up the pace'' in the second half of the season on Monday during his weekly radio show appearance on WMVP-AM. And his timing couldn't have been much better.
Much of the focus in the Bears-Texans game on Sunday night at Soldier Field is on the showdown between the Bears' takeaway-driven defense and a Houston Texans offense that has the fewest turnovers in the NFL. But the biggest challenge for the Bears will be Cutler and the offense staying clean against a Texans' defense that has been almost as dangerous as the Bears' defense.
The Texans are ranked third in the NFL in total defense, but as is the case with the Bears, those numbers only begin to tell the story. The Texans have three touchdowns on interception returns this season, not including Brice McCain's 86-yard interception return against the Jets that set up a field goal.
That play, in fact, was probably the best illustration of just how ''Bears-like'' the Texans' defense can be. The Jets, trailing 14-7, had driven from their 7-yard line to the Texans' 12 in the final minute of the first half. With the Jets one play from a tying touchdown, Texans defensive end J.J. Watt tipped a Mark Sanchez pass and McCain intercepted, returning it to the Jets 9-yard line. Shayne Graham's 27-yard field goal gave the Texans a 17-7 lead -- a turnaround that loomed large when the Jets rallied in the second half, only to lose 23-17.
This game is a litmus test of sorts for Cutler. The Texans defense is third in the NFL in opponent's passer rating (75.4), behind the Bears (62.9) and 49ers (72.7). They've shut down almost every opposing quarterback, with two notable exceptions: Aaron Rodgers torched them for 338 yards and six touchdown passes in the Packers' 42-24 victory at Reliant Stadium in Houston; and Peyton Manning, after a slow start, got hot in the second half and threw two touchdowns in a 31-25 loss to the Texans in Denver.
Rodgers and Manning have combined for eight touchdowns, no interceptions and a 110.1 passer rating against the Texans. All other quarterbacks -- Ryan Tannehill, Blaine Gabbert, Matt Hasselbeck, Mark Sanchez, Joe Flacco and Ryan Fitzpatrick -- have combined for five touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 56.7 passer rating.
If Cutler intends to step up the pace, Sunday night is the time to do it. Cutler has thrown 12 touchdown passes this season, but nine of them have come when the Bears either have been leading by 10 or more points or trailing by 12 or more points. It's unlikely the Bears are going to be leading 21-2 in the first quarter against the Texans as they were against the Titans (though anything's possible with this team).
It's up to Cutler and the offense to get off to a fast start instead of botching their first play from scrimmage and dawdling until the defense makes a big play or three. The Packers were 2-3 and coming off a loss to the Colts when they played the Texans in Houston. In the first quarter, the Packers had no penalties, one negative play (a sack) and Rodgers was 8-of-13 for 120 yards and two touchdowns for a 14-0 lead.
The Packers got an early break in that game when Texans rookie DeVier Posey committed an offside penalty on a punt to extend the Packers' first drive. But Rodgers made them pay with a 41-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson on the next play. That's the kind of killer instinct the Bears could use from Cutler and the offense. Rodgers and the Packers, as usual, are a fitting and worthwhile standard for Cutler and the Bears to match.