By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: The Browns are hoping to give Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler a rude welcome back to game action.
Coach Marc Trestman announced Thursday that Cutler will start for the Bears (7-6) when they face the Browns (4-9) on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland. Cutler missed the past four games with a high left-ankle sprain he suffered Nov. 10, and backup Josh McCown torched defenses in his absence.
“Cutler’s definitely going to put some balls up for us to make [plays],” Browns free safety Tashaun Gipson said. “So I’m definitely excited that Cutler’s playing.”
But Gipson is not mistaking Cutler’s aggressiveness for a weakness.
“Anytime you’re dealing with who I perceive as one of the more elite quarterbacks in this game, Cutler, he’s arguably a top 10 quarterback in this game, I think that amplifies the situation,” Gipson said. “No disrespect to Josh McCown, but Jay Cutler is a different monster, and we’re definitely going to be prepared for him.”
The debate about the Bears’ quarterback situation has been raging in Chicago for weeks. The Bears are tied with the Detroit Lions for first place in the NFC North with three games left in the regular season, and many believe Trestman is taking a huge gamble by benching the red-hot McCown.
Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton sounded as if he’s among them.
“Both of their quarterbacks are playing at a high level,” Horton said. “And McCown, statistically, has actually played better.”
Said Trestman in an interview with Chicago reporters: “I don’t think that risk was part of this decision. This decision was made a long time ago, and that was when Jay was ready to play, he would play. And that’s how we planned to do it. So I don’t look at it like that. I look at it like Jay is our quarterback, and when he was ready to play, he was going to play. That was the same view I used a month ago, and there’s no change today.”
Cutler, 30, who’s in the final season of his contract, has thrown 13 touchdown passes and eight interceptions this season, posting a passer rating of 88.4 and a 4-4 record as a starter. McCown, 34, who’s been a backup for most of his career, has thrown 13 touchdown passes and one interception for a passer rating of 109.8 and is 3-2 as a starter.
Statistics aside, Cutler is widely considered the more talented quarterback.
“You know how strong his arm is and he’s a smart quarterback and all that, but when you watch his feet and the ability to throw off the wrong foot, to get the ball out quickly, I’ve been impressed,” Horton said.
No matter who plays quarterback for the Bears, their seventh-ranked offense (389.8 yards per game) is stacked with wide receivers Brandon Marshall (84 catches, 1090 yards, nine touchdowns) and Alshon Jeffery (75 catches, 1,193 yards, six touchdowns), running back Matt Forte (234 carries, 1,073 yards, seven touchdowns; 65 catches, 518 yards, two touchdowns) and tight end Martellus Bennett (53 catches, 588 yards, five touchdowns). McCown was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance in the Bears’ 45-28 win over the Dallas Cowboys on Monday night, and Trestman is obviously confident Cutler can keep it rolling.
“This is probably the best offense we’ve faced this year,” Browns inside linebacker and defensive captain D’Qwell Jackson said. “Alshon Jeffery is having a remarkable year. Brandon Marshall, he is who he is. The running back is great. Getting Cutler back, that team is very confident on the offensive side of the ball right now.”
The Browns’ defense is ranked seventh (320.4 yards allowed per game), but in the past two games, it has shown it’s not yet elite. The Browns have allowed three fourth-quarter touchdown drives in those games, blowing leads and falling 32-28 to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Dec. 1 and 27-26 to the New England Patriots on Sunday.
“Anything you do, to be considered great, you have to do consistently and you have to do it in clutch situations, in critical times,” Browns strong safety T.J. Ward said. “I think that shows when a team is good, great and average. That’s the separation right there.”
Jackson believes the defense is determined to earn redemption against Cutler and Co. in the Browns’ final home game of the season.
“We definitely feel like we’ve got a lot to prove,” Jackson said. “We felt like we played pretty good for three quarters [against the Patriots], and then that last five minutes of the game, it just swung back and forth, and we’ve got to do a better job of when we have a lead. We’ve got to hold on to it and not give it up.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.