It seems we've been here before, talking about the best way to utilize a talent like Devin Hester. New Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice promises that he'll use Hester differently than his predecessors did. Under Ron Turner we were sold that he would be the #1 wide receiver that the Bears sorely needed. When he began playing for Mike Martz he was used as a starting wide out, then morphed into a slot guy, then ended up seeing his offensive snaps dissipate while going back to focusing on his return duties. While Tice has said he has plans for Devin, he hasn't given us the blueprint yet. I guess it's left to us, once again, to try and figure out what he'll be in 2012.
Let's start with what we know about him so far. He isn't a number 1 caliber receiver, but that's fine. Hopefully the Bears will never put him in a position to have to be that guy again. We also know that he's the greatest return man in the history of the NFL, with his punt return capabilities a notch above his kick return prowess. When playing receiver he's better suited for either the slot or the Z position (flanker), so he can get a cleaner release off the line of scrimmage. He's still a player that demands the defense to locate him on every snap. If for no other reason than to be sure he isn't in a speed mismatch with a defensive back on a go route.
Hester should continue to be used in the WR screen game, but there's no reason he can't line up and come out of the backfield on occasion. Either for screens, a quick flat route, or a delayed curl. I would love to see him run a wheel route out of the backfield, that would be such a tough cover for any defender. Hester doesn't have a slight build (5'10" 185), so there's no reason why he can't line up in the backfield then chip a defender on his way out.
With defenses being so aware of his presence, I think he needs to be used as a decoy more often. I hope Mike Tice adds a simple end around to the play book. Not only where they give to Hester, but where they give to the tailback then fake to him. Many teams run a lead play to their RB, while the WR comes behind the play for a fake. The Philadelphia Eagles are very successful with this action. Before I look at the Z action, I'll look at the run play it's designed off of.
The play diagrammed to the left is a basic I formation isolation play, some coaches call it a lead play. In my terminology I'd call this play "I Right 22 Lead". The "I" is the formation and it designates that the tailback is stacked behind the fullback, directly behind the QB. The "22" means a hand off to the 2 -Back (tailback) while he runs to the 2-hole (over the right guard), and the "Lead" tells the fullback (3-Back) that he is leading the play through the hole. It's designed to isolate the fullback on the inside linebacker. The way the play's diagrammed here, it's being blocked with man rules, each blocker has a man, the playside guard is punching the DT before sliding up to the weakside OLB. A zone blocking scheme would ask the line to all step in the direction of the play (in this case to the right), and take which ever defender crosses their face, double team blocks are encouraged. One other way for a play like this to be blocked would be for the TE to block down to the MLB and the FB to kick out the strongside OLB (the "B" in this diagram).
Defensively the MLB is taught to attack the hole and to take on the lead blocker, usually the FB, and clog the running lane. When a team brings the wide out behind the play, it's to freeze the linebackers just enough to allow better blocking angles. It also stops the back side defensive end from crashing down to get in on the play.
Imagine if you will the right WR in the play above (the Z) coming behind the hand off and taking a fake from the QB. Both the MLB and the WOLB will have to respect the end around possibility, as will the backside DE. The DBs may also flow to a potential Z end around. Getting a defender to take a false step is sometimes all it takes to break a long gain. If the Bears run this with Hester as a decoy, it'll set up an eventual give to him.
The Eagles like to run this action using DeSean Jackson at the Z. They run it enough so that when they do finally give it to him he's able to get some good yards. On 51 career rushing attempts Jackson has a 7.4 yards per attempt. Hester, who is every bit as dynamic and fast in the open field as Jackson, has a 2.7 yards per attempt on 27 carries. The Bears just haven't committed to utilizing Hester like this.
Mike Tice should run some variation of "I Right 22 Lead, Z Action" (the fake end around) every single game. The coaches in the booth upstairs will see how the defense reacts. Does the backside DE maintain contain or is he pinching down? Is the safety stepping up for the RB? Is the backside CB peeking into the backfield at the tailback? The Z Action will help them set up, "I Right 22 Lead, Z Around" (fake to the RB, give to the Z). This is such a no-brainer with a talent like Hester, and now you factor in Matt Forte and the Bears solid running game, Jay Cutler, and Brandon Marshall on the field, and it gives a defense pause. I really hope the words from Tice end up being more than lip service, and he actually follows through on his promise to creatively use Devin Hester.