Cubs

Offensive Grades: Line, Forte earn high marks

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Offensive Grades: Line, Forte earn high marks

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The offense again failed to control a game that it desperately needed to and was bailed out by the defense scoring as many touchdowns as Jay Cutler, Matt Forte and Brandon Marshall did.
Its not supposed to be that way, but perhaps its fitting that the Bears were what the NFL thought they were, based on the last six games. The offense finished with 297 yards and was an anemic 3-of-13 (23 percent) on third downs, mostly because of failed first- and second-down passes, usually toward Brandon Marshall.
It will not be good enough for the playoffs. It remains to be seen whether it is even good enough to beat the Detroit Lions, who couldn't score more than 18 points at home with Calvin Johnson breaking receiving records.
QUARTERBACK D
Cutler locked in on Brandon Marshall for five targets in the first two series, for zero completions (six attempts) or points in the first quarter. He was 1-of-11 midway through the second quarter and gave the offense no rhythm with sustaining drives through smart completions and moving the chains. Folded in is the fact that he was under limited pressure from the Cardinals, who sacked him just once.
Cutler finished with 12-of-26 passing for 146 yards, a TD and rating of 76.8. This is the second straight sub-standard performance by the central figure of the offense with the season hanging on his play. Cutler targeted Marshall on 14 of his 25 passes and repeatedly put the offense in long-yardage situations on third downs because of questionable throws against a team whose defensive strength was against the pass.
RUNNING BACKS B
The backs combined for 128 yards on 30 carries (4.3 per carry) and took advantage of breakdowns in the Arizona front. Matt Forte bounced a play for 36 yards in the first quarter that seemed to ignite a stagnant offense and then finished the drive with a four-yard TD burst.
Forte was forced to leave the game with an ankle injury after the half but finished with 85 yards on 11 carries, the second time in the last three games hes netted 85 on the ground.
Kalil Bell, signed last week after Michael Bush went on injured reserve with a rib injury, was able to get some snaps, and Armando Allen acquitted himself well with 24 yards on five carries in the third quarter alone after Forte went out.
RECEIVERS C
Brandon Marshall did battle all afternoon with Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety help and finished with six catches for 68 yards. He exploited a blown coverage in the secondary when Peterson failed to get the anticipated safety help and Marshall also made several catches on sheer physical effort.
He and Evan Rodriguez both posted drops on successive plays from inside the Chicago 5 that could have gotten the offense out of the hole.
Alshon Jeffery caught one pass for 35 yards and drew an interference call on the Cardinals.
Tight ends Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth sealed the edge for Fortes TD run with their blocking, and got a strong assist from Eric Weems on the play. The Bears spent much of the game in two- and even three-TE packages to help with Arizonas edge rush pressure and running the ball.
Other than Marshall, Davis (two) was the only receiver to catch more than one pass.
OFFENSIVE LINE A-
Against a good defensive scheme and personnel, the line performed well overall, particularly with Chris Spencer back at right guard and Gabe Carimi at right tackle. Spencer had opened the season at left guard and Carimi at right tackle and coaches could have a decision to make when Jonathan Scott is deemed OK from his hamstring injury.
Carimi and JMarcus Webb were solid against two very good defensive ends in Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett. Center Roberto Garza had assignments under control despite the stunting and blitz work of the Cardinals 3-4
Rookie James Brown took a step of improvement at left guard and kept the stunts at bay. Overall the Cardinals had just one sack, which was Cutler running into the pursuit on an aborted scramble, and one quarterback hit.
COACHING C
Timeouts were wasted in the first half and the offense was fortunate to finish the second quarter with a touchdown in two-minute work. But coaching is not easy to evaluate when the quarterback is making decisions that send such a huge proportion of plays through one wide receiver.
The Cardinals were vulnerable to the run but the Bears repeatedly were going downfield early against the strength of the Cardinals defense. The lack of rhythm in the overall offense can be laid at Cutlers feet to some extent but the game plans continue to lack a sense of purpose, just Cutler dropping back, looking for Marshall and waiting for his favorite target to work open.

In another huge playoff moment, Wade Davis stays cool while everything else around Cubs goes crazy

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USA TODAY

In another huge playoff moment, Wade Davis stays cool while everything else around Cubs goes crazy

This became a three-ring circus on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Cubs manager Joe Maddon screaming at the umpires, the video board showing the replay of Curtis Granderson’s swing and the crowd of 42,195 booing and chanting “BULLS#$!!”

The Los Angeles Dodgers are still in command of this National League Championship Series, but the Cubs won’t go quietly into the offseason, unleashing All-Star closer Wade Davis for the final two innings of a 3-2 thriller that kept them alive for at least another night.

The Cubs can worry about the daunting task of winning three more elimination games in the morning. Once Davis forced Cody Bellinger into the double-play groundball that left Justin Turner stranded in the on-deck circle and this one ended at 11:16 p.m., he pulled at his right sleeve and buttoned the top of his jersey while waiting for the Cubs to start the high-five line. “Go Cubs Go” blasted from the stadium’s sound  system and fireworks erupted beyond the center-field scoreboard and Davis acted as if nothing had happened.

To put the idea of beating the Dodgers three times in a row in perspective, the Cubs blasted three homers and got a classic big-game performance out of Jake Arrieta and still needed Davis for a heart-stopping, high-wire act.

Maddon already ruled out Davis for Thursday night’s Game 5 after the closer fired 48 pitches – or four more than he did during last week’s seven-out save that eliminated the Washington Nationals. But at least the Cubs will have those decisions to make instead of cleaning out their lockers.

“I don’t know,” Davis said. “We’ll definitely come in tomorrow and get some treatment and go out and play catch and see how I feel.”

It looks like Davis doesn’t feel anything on the mound. Davis didn’t react to Turner chucking his bat and yelling into the visiting dugout after crushing a 94-mph fastball for a home run to begin the eighth inning. Davis didn’t seem bothered by Yasiel Puig flipping his bat after drawing a walk. And Davis never lost his composure while Maddon got ejected for the second time in four NLCS games.

Maddon flipped out at home plate umpire Jim Wolf – and really the entire crew – when what was initially called a swinging strike three on Granderson got overturned and ruled a foul tip.

“Wade doesn’t care about any of that,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “That’s the right guy to have on the mound. With the mentality he has, he’s going to strike the guy out on the next pitch. Obviously with the replay, it’s not easy to keep your composure. But he’s just different. He’s a different animal.”

While the fans at Wrigley Field got loud and turned angry, Davis chatted with catcher Willson Contreras: “I was just trying to think of the next pitch I was going to throw if he ended up staying in the box.”

Davis got Granderson (0-for-4, four strikeouts) swinging at strike four, walked Yasmani Grandal and then blew away Chase Utley with a 95.1-mph fastball, needing 34 pitches to finish the eighth inning. Davis wasn’t finished, using a Kris Bryant bat to hit against Dodger lefty Tony Cingrani, fouling off five pitches before striking out looking at a 94.9-mph fastball.

“Yeah, I gave up there after a little bit,” Davis said with a look that sort of resembled a smile. “He was bringing it pretty good, and I hadn’t seen a baseball in a while coming in like that.”

If the Cubs are going to match the 2004 Boston Red Sox – the only other team to come back from an 0-3 deficit since the LCS format expanded to seven games in 1985 – they are going to need the offense to generate more runs, a great start from Jose Quintana on Thursday night and someone else to run out of the bullpen. Not that Davis is ruling himself out for Game 5.

“Go get some sleep and then come in tomorrow and start getting ready,” Davis said.

Jake Arrieta stars at Wrigley Field and doesn’t believe this is The End for Cubs: ‘Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye’

Jake Arrieta stars at Wrigley Field and doesn’t believe this is The End for Cubs: ‘Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye’

It’s not Jake Arrieta getting greedy and the Cubs being cheap when he holds up another jersey in a different city this winter, smiling for the cameras while super-agent Scott Boras watches the press conference unfold, marketing an ace to a new audience.

Even Arrieta admits that if he had Theo Epstein’s job, he would do the exact same thing, letting it play out until a 30-something pitcher hits the free-agent market. And Epstein wouldn’t have left the Boston Red Sox and taken over baseball operations at Clark and Addison if he didn’t believe in the need for change, to get outside the comfort zone and test yourself.

It’s just business, but this still felt very personal on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Arrieta probably making his last start in a Cubs uniform while the defending World Series champs survived an elimination game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Three straight trips to the National League Championship Series might have spoiled Cubs fans to the point where standing-room-only Game 4 tickets were selling for $60 on StubHub less than an hour before the 8:01 p.m. first pitch.

By 10:13 p.m., the crowd of 42,195 started booing when manager Joe Maddon popped out of the dugout in the seventh inning to take the ball from Arrieta after 111 pitches. It turned into a standing ovation as Arrieta walked off the mound and tipped his cap, his shaved head set against a mountain-man beard.

“Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye,” Arrieta said after a dramatic 3-2 win, surrounded by reporters at his locker. “It’s a thank you, obviously. I still intend to have another start in this ballpark.

“If that’s where it ends, I did my best and I left it all out there. But we’ve won four in a row plenty of times this year. And there’s no reason we can’t do it again.”

So many times, Arrieta has been worth the price of admission, must-see TV through two no-hitters and those two World Series games he won on the road last year against the Cleveland Indians. None of this would have been possible without the Cubs finding a winning lottery ticket in that Scott Feldman flip deal with the Baltimore Orioles on July 2, 2013.

“I took a little bit of extra time in between pitches,” Arrieta said, “just to look around, foul pole to foul pole, behind home plate, just to relish it and take it in. You got the fans on their feet, pulling on the same side of the rope. It breeds some added energy.

“I had that mindset of I’m going to do everything in my power to get it to tomorrow.”

Arrieta’s pitches dart and dive in directions that even he can’t always control, but he has guts, swing-and-miss stuff (nine strikeouts) and the ability to work through traffic. He gave up five walks, hit Chase Utley with a pitch and watched as Cody Bellinger hammered a ball off the video-board ribbon in right field for a third-inning homer.

But lefty reliever Brian Duensing backed Arrieta up with two outs and two runners on in the seventh inning, forcing Bellinger to lift a flyball into shallow left field, keeping it a 3-1 game and setting the stage for a two-inning Wade Davis save.

“Jake was amazing,” Davis said. “He was throwing Wiffle balls, it looked like. Guys were just swinging at balls that started in on the zone and finished a foot off the plate. He’s just got some amazing stuff.”

For perspective on how far this franchise has come, just look at the lineup from Arrieta’s first spot start as a Cub, the second game of a July 30, 2013 doubleheader against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field:

David DeJesus, CF
Junior Lake, LF
Anthony Rizzo, 1B
Dioner Navarro, C
Luis Valbuena, 2B
Starlin Castro, SS
Cody Ransom, 3B
Cole Gillespie, RF

The Cubs actually sent Arrieta back to Triple-A Iowa for two more starts that summer, part of a mental/mechanical reset and the service-time calculus that would delay his free-agency clock by a year.

By 2015, Arrieta’s raw talent and natural confidence converged with a young, inexperienced team that caught fire in the second half, his Cy Young Award campaign fueling 97 wins and the momentum for chairman Tom Ricketts to authorize a spending spree on free agents that almost totaled $290 million.

"That was pretty special,” Maddon said. “I've never witnessed on the field that kind of consistent performance from a pitcher. It was other-worldly, right down to the wild-card game.

“My God, you pretty much knew if you scored one or two runs, you're going to win that night somehow. I don't know how this is going to look moving forward. But I know one thing, man, that one year of watching him play was different. It was a throwback to the ‘60s kind of pitching (I watched) as a kid.

“He's special – his work ethic and who he is and how he goes about his business. He's a very special young man.”

But Arrieta really isn’t in the mood to wonder if this is the end scene to this chapter of his life.

“There’s a little thought of that, yeah, because you never know,” Arrieta said. “But at the same time, now that the game’s over, it’s out of sight, out of mind. The thought process for me now is to be ready if I’m needed.”