The Chicago Bears have been waiting ... and waiting and waiting ... for Alshon Jeffery to flip the switch and translate his immense talent into big-play ability at the NFL level. Consider the last two weeks a breakthrough.
Jeffery hauled in five passes for 107 yards and a touchdown at Detroit, then followed that performance with a 10-catch, 218-yard effort against New Orleans.
Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune narrowed Jeffery's emergence down even further, to one play in the Bears' loss to New Orleans. The play: A 31-yard grab by Jeffery in the second quarter, to set up Chicago's first touchdown.
Jeffery (below in the yellow box) lined up to QB Jay Cutler's right pre-snap, just off Brandon Marshall's outside shoulder in a stack formation -- one of several looks the Bears employ for Jeffery and Marshall to keep defenses from settling in to one coverage. (More on the variations in a bit.)
Marshall ran a flag route to the right corner, drawing the attention of three Saints defenders. Jeffery, meanwhile, headed toward the middle of the field, which was covered by cornerback Chris Carr. This was a 3rd-and-5 play, so Carr was planted right at the marker, five yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
It was a read route for Jeffery -- as Campbell explained, in the terminology of Bears head coach Marc Trestman, it's known as a "boutique route" -- with the receiver responsible for diagnosing the coverage and adjusting his route accordingly on the fly. When Jeffery reached Carr's zone, he saw ample open field behind the Saints' CB (below in a red box), so he gave a quick stutter-step and then released up the seam between Carr and the safeties.
Cutler dropped one in over the top of Carr, with Corey White circling back late to help after initially sticking with Marshall.
"We lost, I got shut out, but Alshon Jeffrey, he’s coming," said Marshall, who finished the game with four catches for 30 yards and a TD. "Over 200 yards, it’s just awesome to see this guy mature right before our eyes. I’ve always said this guy could be the best to ever do it. He’s probably going to shatter all the Bears' records by the time he’s done at the receiver position."
This completion, in particular, put on display the growing trust between Cutler and his second-year receiver.
"Just by where Jay placed that ball, he said, 'Hey, big fella, go up and get it for me. I'm going to put it here, and I trust that you're going to make me look good,'" Bears receivers coach Matt Groh told Campbell.
Not only did Cutler and Jeffery have to be on the same page in terms of the read -- meaning, more specifically, that Cutler had to trust Jeffery to find and get to that opening behind Carr -- but also the window for the pass was a small one. Cutler made a terrific throw, and Jeffery showed that he needed very little space to separate. The split-second he managed to turn Carr around inside, Jeffery turned to look for the football, allowing him to go up and make a grab.
Cutler kept looking for Jeffery, even when plays broke down on Sunday. Jeffery's biggest gain, in fact, was a 58-yarder late, which came when Cutler had to step up to avoid pressure and opted to give Jeffery a shot downfield vs. rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro.
Another example, from Chicago's game in Detroit:
That's the Lions top cornerback, Chris Houston, all over Jeffery -- Houston played press coverage at the line, then ran almost stride for stride with Jeffery up the sideline, as safety help arrived over the top. Cutler still threw the pass, leaving it in a spot where Jeffery could use his sensational athleticism to nab it.
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Jeffery simply is a headache for opposing defenses, with a combination of size and ability that gives him a leg up on just about any cornerback he faces.
And, as mentioned above, Chicago further takes advantage of all its receivers by constantly shifting its looks. That may seem like an obvious playbook adjustment, but not every team feels comfortable moving its top receivers around the offense. Trestman and the Bears do, meaning they often can put pressure on the defense to respond.
Here's Jeffery's touchdown catch from Sunday -- a play on which he lined up in the slot, with tight end Martellus Bennett wide to his left.
In that formation the Bears had two tall, physical receivers to the same side, both in man coverage. The possibilities were almost endless -- a jump ball to either player, double slants, Jeffery looping underneath at the goal line. The choice was a crossing pattern, where Jeffery basically ran a pick on Bennett's defender, then released uncovered to the corner of the end zone for six.
Jeffery was in the slot earlier for a quick, five-yard reception out of a five-wide set. This time, he had Matt Forte outside of him, with Marshall, Earl Bennett and Martellus Bennett to Cutler's right.
That deep ball from Cutler to Jeffery in the Lions game, by contrast, came with only two receivers split wide -- Jeffery and Earl Bennett. On that play, the Bears had Forte and fullback Tony Fiammetta on the field, behind Cutler in the I-formation, plus an extra tackle to give them six offensive linemen.
Another switch, from the Saints game: Jeffery, in the slot with Earl Bennett to his right and Marshall on the far side of the field. This resulted in an incompletion, but Jeffery released deep against Vaccaro, and Cutler again gave his receiver a chance to make a play in tight coverage.
"We moved the guys around a lot today," Cutler said afterward. "He just happened to be in a position to catch some balls. That last long one [the 58-yarder], he’s not usually there. He’s usually on the other side. It’s usually Brandon [Marshall] and Earl [Bennett]. Pieces just kind of fell that way for him.
"He’s making some big plays for us whenever his number gets called." The Bears figure to keep calling Jeffery's number going forward, too, especially if Marshall continues to struggle. Jeffery has started to prove that he can handle the extra responsibility, and the Bears' creative offense should ensure that he remains an option for Cutler.