How Alshon Jeffery emerged as a crucial piece of the Bears' offense
Brandon Marshall had a career year in 2012, his first season with the Bears. He set career highs across the board, catching 118 passes for 1,508 yards and 11 touchdowns. Ironically, Marshall's piling up all those stats was symptomatic of why the Bears missed the playoffs last season.
While Marshall dominated opposing defenses, Jay Cutler did not have a reliable second option in the passing game. Rookie Alshon Jeffery missed time due to injury and frequently appeared to be overmatched when he was on the field. Mike Tice, for some unknown reason, phased out Matt Forte as a receiver. Earl Bennett logged just 12 games, and doesn't have the ceiling of a true second receiver. Kellen Davis dropped everything in sight. If a defense could take Marshall away, the Bears had no chance. Unless Cutler-to-Marshall own the day, it gave the Bears little hope at coming away with a victory.
The Bears found that second option they needed last year, and they found him in house. Jeffery has emerged not only as a legitimate No. 2 opposite Marshall, but a potential star-in-the-making. He caught five passes for 107 yards and a touchdown against the Lions in Week 4, then set a Bears franchise record with 218 yards, as well as another touchdown, against the Saints the following week. The Bears enjoyed the fruits of Jeffery's labor last week when they beat the Giants. While he was kept quiet, Marshall had nine receptions for 87 yards and a pair of touchdowns. That's what happens when you have two dangerous receivers.
While Jeffery caught just one pass for 27 yards last week, his day could have been a whole lot bigger. Cutler targeted him on three passes that traveled more than 20 yards in the air. One of those was his only reception of the game. He and Cutler narrowly missed hooking up on the other two, both of which could have been long scores. Let's take a look at those three plays.
The first play is Jeffery's lone catch of the night. It's 1st and 10 at the Bears' 33-yard-line about six minutes into the second quarter. Jeffery is lined up to the right of the formation with both Marshall and Martellus Bennett split out to the left. That essentially forces three of the Giants defensive backs into man coverage. Here's the look at the start of the play.
Terrell Thomas' coverage on Jeffery isn't bad, but Cutler is one of the best in the league at putting the ball on the receiver's back shoulder. That's exactly what he does here. Jeffery makes the necessary adjustment and comes down with a 27-yard catch.
We'll pick up with the opening drive of the second half. The Bears have it 2nd and 20 on the Giants' 38-yard-line. Again, Jeffery is split out to the right. This time Bennett is lined up as a traditional tight end on the right side. The Giants choose to double Marshall on the opposite side of the field, leaving Jeffery in a one-on-one matchup.
The first screenshot below is the start of the play. In the second, you can see Jeffery fighting through Thomas' hands. That's exactly what you should do when you're a 6-foot-3, 216-pound receiver. Getting through Thomas' hands-on coverage is what allows Jeffery to burn him deep. Unfortunately for the Bears, Jeffery, Cutler and their fantasy owners, Cutler overthrows him just a bit, as you can see in the final screenshot in the series.
The final play comes with just a little more than six minutes remaining in the game. The Bears lead 27-21 and have a 1st and 10 at their own 46-yard-line. We've seen this look before. Jeffery is out wide to the right with Bennett lined up as a traditional tight end on his side of the field. As he did most of the night, Jeffery draws man coverage from Thomas. He beats him off the line and gets through handfighting again to give Cutler a chance to hit him deep. This time, the missed connection is on Jeffery. He stumbled a bit, which threw off his timing. If he doesn't stumble, this is likely six points and effectively the end of the game.
Jeffery has become an integral part of the Bears' offense, which is firmly based around Cutler and the passing game. The Redskins have allowed 8.6 yards per attempt this season. Only the Packers have allowed more. You want to start Jeffery in nearly every situation, but you definitely want him in your lineup against Washington. He has WR1 potential this week.