Little known fact: the simple recipe of success for an NFL offense is staying on the field i.e. converting on third downs. Crazy, I know. Obviously quality of talent and scheme plays a huge factor in how a team is capable to maintain possession on a drive. Not everyone can enjoy the same level of coaching and player ability. But, if you want to your team's offense to be a terror, you find a way to keep the needle moving on "crunch-time" plays.
From this perspective, due to a variety of reasons from a carousel of quarterbacks to a lack of dynamic skill position talent, the 2016 Chicago Bears had significant trouble in this department. The Bears were ranked in the bottom-third at 21st in third-down percentage last year, with a paltry 37.8 conversion rate on third down. Consistency hovering closer to 41 or 42 percent should be the eventual goal (the gradual, eventual mission). Frankly, that's still better than one would expect especially considering what ailed Chicago in 2016.
There's no mistaking that this Bears' third-down performance needs to improve and soon, however. Perhaps that's where Kendall Wright conveniently comes in as evidenced this past Sunday against the Tennessee Titans.
Given his familiarity with offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains' scheme, as well as a lot left in the tank, you could've already safely pencilled in a relatively huge role for the 27-year-old Wright this fall. Now, with the loss of Cameron Meredith for the season, he's one of those playmakers in the slot that's going to have to come through time and again for the 2017 Bears.
Early results in timely playmaking so far? Positive.
And his play Tennessee was the best example of the kind of player Wright can be for these Bears: a receiver who creates effective space with savvy route running against defensive backs and breaks the backs of defensive coordinators' game plans. He'll certainly be no Julian Edelman or Wes Welker in terms of a prolific performance, but quality consistency can be expected regardless.
A normally small sample size of play from Wright and his importance to the Bears' offense was nowhere more evident than the Bears' opening 96-yard touchdown drive. On the possession alone, Wright converted three third-and-longs with three receptions for 45 yards. An exemplary, fortunate display of a receiver having his way with a secondary on a solid game plan.
It should be noted that converting at that rate on third-and-long is inherently unsustainable and sometimes points more to a lackluster defense. That would be discrediting Wright's effort though, and he definitely deserves a lot of credit for his work. This drive never happens without it.
Let's take a look at each play, starting with Wright's first reception from the Bears' 17-yard line on 3rd-and-9.
Immediately, you notice that the Titans blitz the house. Luckily enough, Jordan Howard's play recognition to pick up No. 55 Jayon Brown, gives Mike Glennon enough time to quickly release the ball. The Bears' offensive front otherwise, as you'll note, essentially stonewalls Tennessee's pressure effort and with the blitz, leaves some guys in one-on-one man coverage - like Wright.
What Wright does exceptionally well here is recognize immediately that he's on an island with no one over the top against safety Kevin Byard. You'd normally prefer he takes his route past the sticks but, as a veteran, he knows all he has to do is offer a little stutter to Byard before he makes his move. Part of being a solid third-down option is processing coverages that quickly and Wright has proven he has the intelligence to do that. Anyway, that alone will create enough space because Byard is more concerned about keeping Wright in front of him to prevent a bigger play as evidenced by his hesitancy and lateness to roll over to the receiver.
Wright is a better athlete than Byard in any event, and decides to simply beat him with his speed outright to the sideline. Glennon then delivers a perfect pass in stride because of Howard's pickup and Wright keeps the chains moving easily. Offensive harmony that initially seemed much more awkward to me.
The next play is farther down the line in the possession, with the Bears just on the edge of the Tennessee red zone at the Titans' 31-yard-line facing a 3rd-and-7.
This time, Tennessee decides to rush just four after having a few extra guys inch up to the line of scrimmage initially. And again, the Bears' offensive front has the answer holding up every defender effectively enough - although Bobby Massie is almost beaten late by one of the Titans' top pass rushers in Derrick Morgan.
Morgan ultimately doesn't get to Glennon because the quarterback himself processes the play well and because once again, Wright recognizes the man coverage knowing he only has to win a one-on-one battle against rookie Adoree' Jackson. He runs the route short of the sticks - not advisable, it needs to be repeated - but knows he has the ability to take advantage of Jackson's inexperience.
A crosser route then in turn, creates enough confusion to where Jackson doesn't read the play fast enough and Wright beats him to his inside shoulder after a slight head fake to the outside - giving Glennon enough of a window to fit the ball in on time. Pitch, catch, convert.
Finally, in the last positive play before Chicago's touchdown, the Bears faced a 3rd-and-8 from the Tennessee 19. A big conversion here and the Bears set themselves up well to finish an almost 8-minute drive. They miss, and likely resort to a field goal attempt from Connor Barth. A monumental difference in offensive rhythm.
After likely repeated frustration from earlier, Tennessee brings two surprise rushers here in a misguided attempt to mix things up that doesn't flummox the Bears offensive line whatsoever. The delayed and dreaded A-gap blitz by inside linebackers Avery Williamson and Wesley Woodyard should've been more destructive but Chicago's interior is barely phased. Once again, all Glennon has to do is find his favorite target from a place of comfort.
This was by far the most impressive display of route running on third down from Wright, especially given the red zone context and situation. Wright motions over the right side in a bit of excellent play design by Loggains and Chicago's coaches and essentially gets a free release.
Then on this occasion, Wright recognizes the blitz and notices the off-man zone coverage the Titans decide to deploy. He knows all he has to do is find the soft zone Tennessee leaves behind near the now vacated middle of the field thanks to Woodyard and Williamson. Jackson, again displaying a bit of rookie jitters and lack of play recognition, doesn't react quickly enough to Wright immediately taking him to the post. Experience pays off here very well. Wright knows his destination and makes himself available from the outset on the most crucial play of the drive to sit down: becoming a quarterback's best friend.
There's no complicated rocket science on how Wright was able to convert these third downs and how he'll have to do it for the duration of the regular season: Recognize the coverage quickly, make your move, and or find the soft spot. It sounds simpler than it is because not every receiver can excel at this quick processing.
Ultimately, Wright can make converting third downs an art form and that's a blessing the Bears will now be able to count on.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is an editor for Windy City Gridiron. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.