While the 2013 Chicago Bears season hasn't gone as planned, one thing that has been very encouraging is the performance of second-year receiver Alshon Jeffery, and the Bears have found a new way to get big plays out of him.
Jeffery broke his own franchise record for receiving yards in a game with 249 against Minnesota. The fact that he's a terrific receiver is nothing new; however, it was interesting that his two biggest plays both came from the slot position.
Using bigger receivers in the slot was something the New Orleans Saints popularized over the years with 6'4" Marques Colston, who has run over half of his routes from that position every year since 2010.
The obvious reason is to create mismatches when teams are in man coverage. Lining up star receivers in the slot can get them matched up with slot cornerbacks, safeties or linebackers at times.
Given Chicago's connections to the Saints—particularly offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer coming over from them in the offseason—I predicted the Bears would utilize Marshall there last April. I did not, however, foresee Jeffery having as big of an impact as he has had from that position.
Jeffery has averaged 2.66 yards per route run in the slot, behind only Vincent Jackson among receivers with 100 or more routes in the slot. Marshall has had a lot of success in the slot himself. Of players who have run 200 or more routes in the slot, he's first with 2.29 yards per route run.
What Marshall hasn't quite been able to equal is the big plays Jeffery had against the Minnesota Vikings. On both of his touchdowns—one from 80 yards out and the other from 46 yards out—Jeffery wasn't lined up wide.
As you see below, Jeffery almost lined up in the backfield on his 80-yard touchdown catch with Marshall and Earl Bennett being the widest receivers. The Vikings showed man-to-man defense with Chris Cook moving with Jeffery as he shifted from the outside along with Jeffery.
Minnesota's safeties changed their look pre-snap with Andrew Sendejo moving toward the line of scrimmage and Jamarca Sanford moving back.
As you see in the shot above, Sendejo blitzed, and that turned out to be what hurt them on this play. With just Sanford deep, he had to choose between going over the top of Jeffery or Bennett. He chose Bennett, while Jeffery torched Cook.
By the time Sanford realized he chose wrong, it was too late as Jeffery had a step on Cook and Sanford had too much ground to makeup. Jeffery caught the pass, and Sanford wasn't even able to make the tackle on what turned out to be an 80-yard touchdown.
The next time the Bears beat the Vikings deep with Jeffery in the slot, they gave them a bit of a different look.
This time he lined up in a more conventional two-point stance, again with Marshall and Bennett split wide.
As the Bears snapped the ball, Marshall and Jeffery crossed paths, with Marshall going toward the middle of the field and Jeffery going down the sideline.
Quarterback Josh McCown got great protection as both receivers got down the field without any trouble. Being so close together, they left Cook in no man's land. He initially went toward Marshall, then back to Jeffery.
McCown probably would've been better off throwing to Marshall on this play as he was alone with Sendejo, but instead he lofted a deep pass down the sideline to Jeffery. Cook caught up and was in position to make a play, but Jeffery went over the top of him for the highlight grab and touchdown.
With McCown at quarterback, the Bears had a difficult time pushing the ball down the field. He had completed just four passes of 20 or more yards heading into the game, but he had three against the Vikings. Two of which I already highlighted, and the third was a throw to Matt Forte in which he lined up in the slot.
Against the Dallas Cowboys, I counted 10 times Jeffery ran routes out of the slot. The only pass he caught out of the slot was his 25-yard touchdown right before halftime.
This play was almost exactly the same—formation and all—as his 46-yard touchdown against the Vikings, except Jeffery and Marshall were on the opposite side of the field.
After the snap, the two players crossed paths with Marshall going toward the middle of the field and Jeffery heading down the sideline.
Putting Jeffery in the slot got him matched up with Cowboys rookie B.W. Webb. Meanwhile, the threat Marshall poses in the middle of the field on the play took up three defenders, most notably safety Jeff Heath, who is circled in the photo below.
The fact that Heath had to watch Marshall on the play meant Jeffery had Webb to himself. McCown lofted a pass toward the corner of the end zone that probably should've fallen out of bounds, but Jeffery made what ESPN announcer Jon Gruden referred to as "an impossible catch."
It seems every time the Bears line Jeffery up in the slot with Marshall on the same side, opponents are stuck in a pickle. They can't double two receivers on one side of the field, and when Jeffery is left in man coverage, he is making defenses pay.
Although he's only been targeted 21 times in the slot, Jeffery has four touchdowns from there this season, the fourth-highest mark in the league.
As Jeffery has emerged as a playmaker for the Bears, defenses have done things to try to take him away. The Bears responded by moving him around, and he has continued to make big plays.
All advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required) unless otherwise indicated.