The offensive line finally answered the pass-blocking bell against the Texans, but a lack of depth in the receiving corps cost the Bears the win. Thankfully, the answer to the team's latest offensive question mark is already on the roster.
There's plenty of blame to go around for the Bears' loss to the Texans, especially on offense. Thanks to Phil Emery's shrewd work in the draft, however, help is already on the roster: a now-almost-healthy Alshon Jeffery. The rookie showed flashes of his potential before a broken hand knocked him off the active roster, and no other Bears receiver has stepped up to fill the role Jeffery fit so well in. I'm not crowning the kid just yet - he had his fair share of drops when he was on the field - but there were plenty of moments in the Texans game where a healthy Alshon would have significantly improved the Bears' chances of success.
Running the Slant
When teams have loaded up the box to defend against the Bears run attack, Mike Tice likes to call the always-classic slant. With seven or more blockers staying home to keep Cutler standing, the slant gives receivers a great chance to get an extra step inside or ahead of one-on-one coverage. Plus, assuming the receiver makes the grab, he'll already be past the eight or more defenders that were playing in the box. Witness a wide-open Kellen Davis on the slant from the Texans game:
Despite his complete and utter openness here, Davis managed to drop an easy catch on his slant. Make this catch, and the Bears would have been able to set up at least one more play at midfield.
Jeffery runs the slant like a veteran, and has come up with some nice plays on the route. Here's one from the Week 5 game against the Jaguars:
The Bears come out in what appears to be a run formation. You can run out of this power look, of course, but Mike Tice has become increasingly fond of turning run formations like these into max-protect passes. The thinking is that even if the Jaguars send everybody after Cutler - and they do - the eight Bears blockers can give Jay the time to wait for his one of his two receivers to get open. Everyone in the the Jags' (blue) box blitzed at the snap, but the Bears managed to hold them off for a moment or two. Thankfully for the soon-to-be-crushed quarterback, Jeffery makes the best of the time the line earned him:
Jeffery started his route with a quick feint towards the sideline, causing just enough hesitation in his defender to end up with the inside position on his slant. Cutler sees him open and zings one into his breadbasket, and Jeffery earned the rest from there. Seven more point on the board for the Bears, and they didn't look back at the Jags after that.
Getting the "Tough Yards"
The Texans made it clear to the Bears that they weren't going to give up many easy yards on the ground. Tice called some good plays to get the ball around the overloaded middle of the Texans defense, including this toss to Devin Hester on 3rd and 1. Great design, as it looks like Hester can get the yard easily either by beating his defender to the sideline marker or by turning it straight upfield.
Out of these two options, however, Hester choose "none of the above" - he tried to get fancy and shake the defender. Hester ended up inches short of the marker, setting up Michael Bush's "first down to fumble" play on fourth down. Ouch.
Unlike Hester, Jeffery has the physical build to break through tackles instead of attempting to go around them. Perhaps more importantly, Jeffery has the wisdom to head straight north after making a catch close to the sticks. Consider this 1st and 10 play against the Rams:
Look familiar? Jeffery came open at the snap thanks to the soft coverage by the cornerback, who is now rallying straight back to Jeffery. To add to Jeffery's problems, the middle linebacker (highlighted) read the pass and is on his way before Jeffery even has the ball. Despite having two Rams defenders closing in, Jeffery put his shoulder down and headed straight upfield after the catch. The final result?
First down Bears.
Beating Man Coverage
With so much attention being paid to Brandon Marshall, other receivers on the field need to be ready to take advantage of single coverage. Kellen Davis presents a size problem to defenders, but he doesn't have the speed required to outrun a DB. Hester has plenty of this speed, but can't beat press coverage. Jeffery, however, has the perfect combination of size and speed to get past single coverage. This picture from the Cowboys game tells the story pretty clearly:
The Cowboys brought the blitz here, but Jeffery has done yeoman's work on his route. After his first cut towards the inside left his defender a little close for comfort, Jeffery took an extra little cut that got him the major separation you see here. Out of the other slot, Kellen Davis also earned the inside position, but his slow lumber down the field wasn't going to get him past the much faster defensive back, who we see here still in position to make a play on the ball. Cutler makes the wise read and goes with Jeffery here, who picks up first down yardage and more with a little catch-and-run.
Jeffery's return won't wave a magic wand and turn this offense into an unbeatable monster, but his particular gifts will give this offense a nudge in the right direction as they progress towards the playoffs. Phil Emery knew his team didn't have all the receivers it needed even after acquiring Brandon Marshall. They traded up to catch the falling Alshon Jeffery in the second round, placing great faith in their evaluation of him as the best receiver available in the whole draft class. While this investment hasn't paid great dividends yet, look for Jeffery to start getting the grabs that have been falling through the hands of Davis, Hester, and Bennett.