If there's any intriguing story at the quarterback position in the entire NFL, in my opinion, it's the story of Jay Cutler. Just entering his second NFL season, Cutler was drafted by Denver last season despite the team's relative success with Jake Plummer at the helm. Then Denver started the 2006 season going 7-4 and were right in the middle of the playoff chase; despite that success, Broncos coach Mike Shanahan made the perplexing decision to bench Plummer in favor of his prize rookie. The result: big plays for Denver's offense, big plays for opposing defenses, a 2-3 finish and a whiff on the 2006 playoffs. But many feel that this move is beneficial for Denver in the long run.
In fact, while we're on it, many feel that Cutler is ready for a break-out, explosive season. I ask you: when did he prove he's ready to do this? He's played five professional football games; you can't base a potential breakout season on talent alone. But it's definitely possible - and the reason is the talent surrounding Cutler.
Cutler Is Good, But He's Also Flawed
In his five starts last season, Cutler proved that he has the physical tools to not just be an adequate starter, but to be one of the best quarterbacks in the entire league. In due time. For now, he's still got loads to learn. Particularly on protecting the football, as Mile High Report pointed out in this July article breaking down Denver's quarterbacks:
Eventually, Cutler will learn to protect the football - and when he does, Denver will once again have a ridiculously explosive offense. But as it pertains to this weekend's matchup, Cutler is just as inexperienced now as he was last year - he'll be making his sixth professional start this Sunday. For this week, it doesn't matter how good Cutler could be - his youth is something that we need to take advantage of.
Run Game, Misdirection Built to Protect Cutler
If Shanahan is anything, he's smart - he knows that his quarterback has virtually unlimited talent; he also knows that he has to keep the pressure off Cutler as he continues to mature in the offense. Hence the signings of Travis Henry and Daniel Graham to boost a run game that was a shadow of its usual self last season. Cutler has great weapons - a run game that provokes envy in virtually every other offensive huddle, an explosive deep threat in Javon Walker and a host of backs, tight ends and receivers who can make plays everywhere else. Shanahan hopes to use the run game, play-action and misdirection in his offense to make things easier for Cutler - all while keeping defenses guessing.
But there are issues cropping up. Henry and his backup, Mike Bell, have been dinged up all throughout pre-season. Henry will play in this game, but his injury history has followed him to Denver, and his lack of playing time this past month could hinder his production slightly. Making matters worse, Denver's O-Line is slightly banged up as well, with starting guard Ben Hamilton slotted to miss the game; little-known Chris Myers will fill in for him at left guard (where he started all pre-season). Denver's offense is close to full strength, but they're not quite there - it remains to be seen how much additional pressure will be placed on Cutler's shoulders as a result.
Making This a One-Man Show
Want to shut down Denver's offense? The formula is simple: score points quickly and contain the run game. This Bills defense isn't good enough to completely shut down Travis Henry, so expect big chunks of yards occasionally for the former Bill. But if the Bills can score quickly, it will immediately put Denver in catch-up mode. That equals the ball in Cutler's hands - which is exactly where we want it.
Cutler can beat the Bills. He's definitely good enough to do that. But a dominant Denver run game, and a functional play-action as a result, will beat the Bills. Make Cutler beat you, and you give yourself the best chance to win. Blitz packages, crowd noise and playing from behind would eat away Cutler's chances of making big plays. It may be easier said than done, but this formula for success is simple. Because one fact remains: Cutler's not there yet.