Quality, Not Quantity of Targets Will Determine Success for Chicago Bears’ Alshon Jeffery in 2013
The congruency of a wide receiving corps is very important. As Calvin Johnson proved last year, no one player can make a passing attack. Having talented receivers is important, but having talented pieces that correctly complement each other is even more important. Even though the Chicago Bears’ off-season so far has focused on the other parts of the passing game, the quarterback and the offensive line, their receiving corps is shaping up to be a very impressive unit this year.
Tight End Martellus Bennett is the big-name addition to the group, while some of the off-season talk has been about the relegation of Devin Hester to being just a special teams player. Much of that has overshadowed the expected development of second-year receiver Alshon Jeffery who could have a key role in the 2013 passing offense.
Jeffery fits perfectly in the Bears’ offense because he has a different skill-set to Cutler’s other options. Bennett has signed to be a possession receiver and impact blocker, while Brandon Marshall is a do-it-all type of elite receiver. Matt Forte can make plays coming out of the backfield in the flat or as part of screen plays. The only thing missing is a deep threat.
A role that Jeffery was built to fill.
The Bears took Jeffery 45th overall in the 2012 draft for one reason, his explosion. Jeffery isn’t a refined route-runner or a special talent with the ball in his hands. He is a physical freak in the mold of Randy Moss who looks to stretch the defense and hit home-runs down the field.
This play comes from the final game of his rookie season and it was his longest reception on the year.
Jeffery is lined up to the bottom of the screen, with two tight-ends bookending the line of scrimmage, Matt Forte in the backfield and Brandon Marshall is lined up in the other wide receiver spot. This is a balanced formation that sets the Bears up to run or pass. Because they are a balanced offense, the Lions respond with their secondary in a cover-two look, both safeties are deep, and their linebackers in position to play the run.
As Jay Cutler gets to the bottom of his drop, Jeffery comes to a stop eight yards down-field. He turns his body completely back to his quarterback which brings both defensive backs in his vicinity forward.
Despite being 6’3 and 215 lbs, Jeffery is a very fluid athlete who quickly spins away from the incoming defenders and sprints free down the right sideline. Before he has passed 15 yards from the line of scrimmage, he has already gained a step on the cornerback and is moving into a position where the safety cannot catch up to him.
With every step, Jeffery is putting more space between he and Chris Houston who is in pursuit. By the time he adjusts to the ball and accelerates down-field, Jeffery has turned a slight misread by the defensive back into a 55 yard gain.
His physical talents are so great that he doesn’t need to deceive defensive backs to beat them. Jeffery ran a 4.37 40 at the combine before he was drafted and every single part of that speed translates onto the field.
Here Jeffery is at the top of the screen running a go route against single coverage. The Vikings have sent a blitz from his side of the offense, which has brought the safety from his side of the field across to the other side of the field. Therefore, Jeffery just needs to beat the press coverage and then beat the defensive back in a foot-race down the sideline.
Jeffery is quickly on top of the defensive back and in position to make a reception. Even if he wasn’t at this point, his size typically allows him to tower over defensive backs which means that Cutler is unlikely to be intercepted if he forces the ball in his direction and he is more likely to come up with the catch even when covered.
On this occasion, Cutler has loads of space to throw into and if he leads him far enough down the field, Jeffery will be able to make a clean catch as he creates greater separation from the defender with every step.
Cutler didn’t see the blitz before the snap, so was reacting to the coverage once he got the ball. Because of this, he forced the pass down the field to Jeffery and missed out of bounds because his feet weren’t set beneath him.
Although they couldn’t connect on this occasion, this kind of opportunity is regularly there for Jeffery and offers the Bears’ huge rewards in the form of big plays and touchdowns. These opportunities come around often because of…
The Brandon Marshall Effect
Having an elite wide receiver can do a lot to open up an offense. Having an elite wide receiver who isn’t limited to just one aspect of the game is even better. Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler have a proven track record of success, and Cutler has a reputation for forcing the ball his direction. For that reason, defenses will look to shut down Marshall with double-teams and different coverage patterns to try and turn the Bears’ strength into a weakness.
That was easier to do last year than it will be this year for a few reasons. Having a new offensive line coach and multiple talent upgrades should give Cutler more comfort in the pocket, while Martellus Bennett offers the team a second legitimate possession receiver at the tight end position. Bennett’s presence in particular should help Jeffery.
Any fantasy fan will understand that Jeffery is likely going to see less targets coming his way, but the quality of those targets should be more important than the quantity.
Jeffery is lined up at the bottom of the screen, there is a tight-end to his side of the field with a full-back split to the same side in the backfield. Matt Forte is in the backfield and Brandon Marshall is at the top of the screen.
Even though the Bears’ center is lined up closer to the right hashtag, the single-high safety(deepest defender) is not in the middle of the field. The single-high safety is closer to the left hashtag, on Marshall’s side of the field. The Colts are aware that they are cheating towards Marshall’s side of the field and have reacted by dropping their left cornerback into an off coverage position, while the cornerback over Marshall is in press.
As we’ve already seen before, Jeffery has the speed to fly past defensive backs. He shows here that he can even beat some defensive backs when they play with a significant cushion. At the point when Cutler is releasing the ball, Jeffery is well on top of his defensive back and running into wide open space.
This image would make you think that Cutler manipulated the safety with his eyes, because he has turned his hips and is moving to Marshall’s side of the field.
Cutler did initially look Marshall’s way, but not enough to make the safety move. He was looking back at Jeffery long before he started his windup to throw the ball.
This is what elite receivers do to defensive backs. Defensive backs live on islands, it is why so many of them must carry such big egos. However, the fear of being exposed in coverage can often cause them to take themselves out of plays. Marshall was well covered by the cornerback on the outside, but the sheer intimidation factor and his reputation caused the safety to move to his side of the field.
Had this been a called double team, then he would never have hung in the middle of the field after the snap.
The physically inferior cornerback was beaten by Jeffery’s ability, while the safety sacrificed his depth too quickly and allowed Jeffery to get into the endzone for an easy touchdown reception.
This isn’t just a once off occurrence either. Teams repeatedly overcompensate for Marshall when he is on the field and that allows others to make plays.
This play doesn’t feature Jeffery. Instead, Marshall is lined up at the top of the screen, Kellen Davis is the tight end to the bottom of the offensive line and Devin Hester is the wide receiver at the bottom of the screen. The Cowboys are playing all of their defensive backs well off the line of scrimmage in a quarters coverage.
Morris Claiborn, the cornerback at the bottom of the screen, was instantly playing bail technique hinting that he was expecting to drop into quarters coverage. Once Marshall comes across the formation, the defensive backs at the top of the screen completely commit to tracking him across the middle of the field. The second safety towards the bottom of the screen immediately steps forward to cover Kellen Davis when he drops out into the flat.
Because the safeties were distracted by Marshall and Davis underneath, there was a huge amount of space for Hester to run into over the middle of the field. Once both safeties realize they are out of position, they look to try and recover into a position to make a play, but Hester is already running past Claiborne, who never had a chance of recovering after playing with his initial technique.
Even though Hester is not even practicing to be a wide receiver in the Marc Trestman era, even he can get separation in this situation for an easy touchdown. Cutler didn’t have to throw the ball into a tight window, Hester didn’t need to work for separation and he didn’t need to make a tough reception.
Although it was a result of that blown coverage, that blown coverage was a result of the secondary biting on Marshall moving across the middle of the field and Davis dropping out underneath. Had either of the safeties or the cornerback to the far side dropped into their expected deep quarter of the coverage, then this touchdown likely wouldn’t have come about.
Like any rookie receiver, save for maybe AJ Green in recent years, Jeffery needs to develop and be more consistent during his second season. Having a clean bill of health could make a huge difference for Jeffery also. He finished his rookie season with 24 receptions for 367 yards and three touchdowns with a 15.3 average.
Jeffery played under 500 snaps and caught 24 of his 48 targets with only two drops. For a rookie receiver who missed time through injury, that translation to the professional level is somewhat admirable. There is no doubt that Jeffery has the potential to be a game-chaning play-maker on the outside and with the way Marc Trestman is building his offense, he could get the opportunity to consistently prove that this year.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf