Chicago Bears Need More Production from Earl Bennett

Andrew Dannehy@@ADannChiBearsCorrespondent IApril 1, 2013

DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 30:  Earl Bennett #80 of the Chicago Bears scores on a 60 yard pass from Jay Cutler during the second quarter of the game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on December 30, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Leon Halip/Getty Images

One of the biggest keys for the Bears' offense next season will be to get production from a receiver outside of Brandon Marshall, which should mean a lot more opportunities for Earl Bennett.

Marshall accounted for 41 percent of the Bears receptions and was targeted on 40 percent of their passes. As great of a season as he had, that imbalance has to change.

Devin Hester is apparently done playing offense. Eric Weems is also a special teams player, and Joe Anderson has yet to play a snap at receiver in the NFL. Unless they spend a high draft pick on the position, the Bears will be left with just Bennett, Marshall and 2012 second-round pick Alshon Jeffery.

Bennett has shown flashes of being a very good receiver in his NFL career, but for one reason or another he has yet to put it all together.

Over the last four years, one could argue the biggest difference between Bennett and new Minnesota Vikings' wide receiver Greg Jennings is health. Including the playoffs, Jennings has 133 more catches, but has run nearly 1,000 more routes.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Bennett has averaged one reception every nine routes run and has caught 63.8 percent of the passes thrown his way. Jennings, meanwhile, has averaged one catch every 7.8 routes run, hauling in 65 percent of the passes thrown his way. 

Bennett has shown better hands, dropping just two percent of the passes thrown his way, compared to 4.2 percent for Jennings. He has also been better after the catch, averaging 5.75 yards to Jennings' 5.4. Bennett has been more elusive, averaging a missed tackle every 6.54 catches to Jennings' rate of one ever 9.67.

This is not to say that Bennett is better than Jennings, but he's also three years younger and much cheaper.

It's hard to forget how good Bennett was for a brief stretch in 2011 when he averaged 83.6 yards per game in wins over the Eagles, Lions and Chargers. When quarterback Jay Cutler was injured in the last game, it ruined the Bears' season but also put a damper on Bennett's production.

Much was expected of Bennett entering 2012, but for many reasons he was unable to come through.

A big part of the problem was injuries—his own and that of Jeffery.

Bennett missed two games with a hand injury, two more with a concussion and, when he was on the field, he was often playing out of position. He and Jeffery played only six games together last season.

When Jeffery wasn't on the field, Bennett was split out wide much more, which meant more vertical routes that don't necessarily fit his skill set.

When paired together, Bennett and Jeffery were a productive duo opposite Marshall. Nearly 45 percent of Bennett's catches and 57 percent of his yards came in the six games they played together. Jeffery picked up 16 of his 24 catches in games with Bennett in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

The reasons are simple. When Jeffery was on the field, his presence gave defenses something to worry about downfield, allowing Bennett to work single coverage.

Still, he wasn't at the level he was in 2011. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Bennett caught just 56.7 percent of his passes in the slot, the 39th best mark in the league and was 30th in yards per route run. Even with Caleb Hanie and Josh McCown replacing Jay Cutler for six games, he ranked 18th in catch percentage and 19th YPRR in 2011.

Another part of Bennett's problem this past season was the offense. The play designs and calls simply did not suit his strengths.

Like they did under Mike Martz, the Bears featured a vertical offense under Mike Tice, but it was a much simpler design. When lining up wide, Bennett typically was limited to deep routes. When in the slot, he ran a lot of the same routes he ran against Indianapolis.

The Bears offense tried running similar plays the next week against the Green Bay Packers but had no success because the Packers saw it coming.

Against Detroit, the Bears ran a swing pass for a touchdown and the Bears ran two more swing passes to him in that game without much success.

Perhaps a fatal flaw of Tice's offense was, once something worked, he kept going to it, instead of finding something that worked off of it.

As flawed as Martz was as a play-caller, his offense had a lot more complexity to it and that helped open things up for receivers, perhaps a large reason why they averaged 26.8 points per game before Cutler was injured.

In the above highlight you see Bennett lined up in the slot against the Eagles in 2011. He ran a deep out and got open for a big gain. That kind of play didn't seem to exist in the Tice offense. Bennett also ran digs, drags and other routes under Martz that helped him get open.

Another thing that helped Bennett in 2011 was his supporting cast.

The Bears didn't have a receiver of Marshall's caliber, but Martz liked to use the speed of Hester and Johnny Knox to keep defensive backs on their heels. That helped open up Bennett for big plays underneath.

We do not yet know what Marc Trestman's offense is going to look like, but it seems a safe bet that it will be more complex than Tice's with fewer vertical routes than what Martz ran—especially with all the uncertainty the Bears have along the offensive line.

Perhaps a good preview was how the Packers used Jennings in their last regular season game against the Vikings. Jennings ran a variety of routes that gave him room to work, as he had his best game of the season with eight catches, 120 yards and two touchdowns.

The Bears don't have many options outside of Bennett. Most experts are predicting the top receivers in the draft to be gone by the time they pick in the first round and rookie receivers tend to have a hard time making an immediate impact anyway.

How Bennett fits remains to be seen. With few other options, the Bears will have to find a way to make him more productive and hope he can stay on the field.


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