Inside the Tape on Alshon Jeffery's Breakout Season

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterDecember 18, 2013

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The Chicago Bears have quickly transitioned this season under new head coach Marc Trestman from a team led by defense and special teams into one of the NFL’s top scoring offenses. 

And a major part of this unit’s success can be attributed to the development of wide receiver Alshon Jeffery in just his second year as a pro. Jeffery's a size/leverage player who gives the Bears one of the top receiving combos in the league when paired with Brandon Marshall.

Today, let’s go to the tape and take a look at Jeffery’s breakout season while discussing how Trestman’s playbook caters to the wide receiver's skill set.

Development in Year Two

As a rookie, Jeffery missed some time on the field due to injury (six games) and showed signs of inexperience with his technique (footwork, hips) at the top of the route stem. 

Part of the process, really, when transitioning to the pro game. It’s not easy outside of the numbers for first-year players versus veteran defensive backs.

Dec 1, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (17) catches a pass against the Minnesota Vikings for an 80 yard touchdown catch in the third quarter at Mall of America Field at H.H.H. Metrodome. Vikings win 23-20 in overtime
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

However, this season Jeffery has improved his route running and shown the ability to use his size (6'3", 216 pounds) at the point of attack to shield defenders. Plus, he can separate when the ball is in the air on vertical concepts (plays at a 4.5 speed on the tape).

That has allowed Jeffery to produce more than 1,200 yards on 80 receptions this season to go along with seven touchdowns.

I could see signs of his development this past spring while attending the Bears' OTA and minicamp sessions. Jeffery’s footwork at the top of the route stem was sharp, and his angles back to the football were much cleaner than he displayed as a rookie.

What might be the most impressive thing about Jeffery’s skill set is the ability to finish plays. His catch radius is enormous, and he has no problem climbing the ladder at the point of attack to go get the football.

Like every young player in this league, Jeffery can improve his overall technique. But the core talent is already in place.

Jeffery’s Role in Trestman’s Playbook

Think of a West Coast scheme in Chicago under Trestman that builds out to match the skill set of the personnel.

For Jeffery, that means inside breaking routes (ball thrown between the numbers and the hash) along with concepts that generate individual matchups versus the top of the secondary.

Trestman is very creative in his play-calling. And because of that, the Bears will show multiple alignments with Jeffery, Marshall, tight end Martellus Bennett and running back Matt Forte.

Let’s run through some of the key routes/concepts that have allowed Jeffery to showcase his talent this season.

Three-Step Concepts

In Trestman’s scheme, Jeffery will run the slant (slot/outside the numbers alignments) as well as the underneath smash concept (five-yard square-in). Both routes show up in third-down situations and versus man-pressure (press/off-man alignments).


Smash-7 (Corner) vs. Press-Coverage

NFL Game Rewind

The underneath smash versus Green Bay. With Tramon Williams showing a press alignment, Jeffery runs through the jam, creates contact and forces the Packers cornerback to “step in the bucket” (step behind) at the break point. This allows Jeffery to separate inside of the numbers.

NFL Game Rewind

Quarterback Josh McCown takes the underneath option, and this basic three-step route turns into a 10-yard gain because of Jeffery’s ability to win versus press-coverage.


Three-Step Slant vs. Off-Man Coverage

NFL Game Rewind

In a third-down situation, Jeffery aligns in a “plus split” (three yards on top of the numbers) and runs the slant versus Browns cornerback Joe Haden. And with Haden playing off, Jeffery can use a short, vertical stem (push the cornerback up the field) to break back inside on the slant.

NFL Game Rewind

As you can see from the end-zone angle, once Jeffery gains leverage on the break, all Haden can do is drive the route and secure the tackle. Time to move the sticks on a quick read for quarterback Jay Cutler.

One-Step Slant (Packaged Read)

NFL Game Rewind

This is a run/pass option for the Bears (packaged play). With a run called in the huddle, McCown identifies the off-man coverage from the Vikings. This gives the quarterback the option to throw the one-step slant. A quick, inside release that produces a first down.


Intermediate Route Tree

In the intermediate passing game, focus on the dig route (Cover 2, Cover 4) and the curl (Cover 1, Cover 3) with Jeffery. This is where his size/leverage show up versus defenders playing from an outside position or driving top-down from the deep half. 


Curl vs. Three-Deep

NFL Game Rewind

Here’s a look at Jeffery at the top of the route stem versus Orlando Scandrick. The Cowboys cornerback allows Jeffery to eat up his cushion and is in a position to play the curl from an outside alignment.

NFL Game Rewind

Jeffery pins Scandrick on his back shoulder, drives to the football and secures the catch (away from his body). Even if the Cowboys cornerback plays through the upfield shoulder, Jeffery has created leverage to essentially box out the defender. Size wins.

Dig (Square-in) vs. Cover 6

NFL Game Rewind

The Lions are playing Cover 6 (quarter-quarter-half). To the open side, Detroit is showing quarters technique (Cover 4) with Jeffery running the dig versus safety Louis Delmas. The Bears wide receiver presses the route vertically up the field, forces Delmas to open/run and breaks back inside on the dig.

NFL Game Rewind

This pass sails a little from Cutler, but Jeffery still brings in the ball and secures the catch before Delmas can recover on the inside cut.


Vertical Passing Game

Jeffery will run the 9 (fade), the inside seam/skinny post and the deep 7 cut (corner), but the route I want to look at comes from a slot alignment. Move Jeffery inside to create a positive matchup on the rail (or wheel) with Marshall occupying the middle of the field. 

Switch/Rail vs. Cover 3

NFL Game Rewind

Marshall stems the post to the middle of the field with Jeffery on the outside release versus the curl-flat defender (carries the wheel in Cover 3). Cornerback Chris Cook does identify the route (passing the post to the free safety) and works to get over the top of Jeffery in the outside one-third of the zone shell.

NFL Game Rewind

This is where Jeffery’s catch radius comes into play. Cook puts himself in a position to defend the route (on the inside hip of Jeffery), but the wide receiver plays the ball at the highest point on a ridiculous grab that goes for six points. 


Reverse/ Tunnel Screen

The Bears will use Jeffery on the jet sweep and the reverse (ghost action) to set up their crack toss scheme, plus the wide receiver screen is always in play when Jeffery aligns outside of the numbers.


Reverse/Jet Sweep

NFL Game Rewind

Here’s an example of the reverse with the Bears showing the inside zone run action to the closed side of the formation. Force the second-level defenders to pursue to the ball and bring the F/H-Back across the formation to kick out the edge force.

NFL Game Rewind

Look at the running lane the Bears have created for Jeffery with Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs widening on the edge. Another way to get the ball into the wide receiver’s hands.


Tunnel Screen

NFL Game Rewind

The tunnel screen (No. 1 on the screen) shows up often in the Bears tape out of both 2x2 and 3x1 alignments. The Bears use play action out of the Pistol, kick out the slot defender and open up a running lane for Jeffery to get up the field. 


Red-Zone Target

Slant and fade. Those are the two routes you have to stop inside the 10-yard line from a defensive perspective. And you are going to see both from Jeffery—depending on the pre-snap split.

NFL Game Rewind

Cornerbacks are taught to take away the slant by alignment (inside eye of the receiver) and react to the fade (drive to the hip, find the ball, play up through the hands).

But it’s not that simple when matched up with the size of Jeffery at the point of attack.

Similar to what we see from Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, etc., the ability of Jeffery to play the ball at the highest point (and finish the catch) creates game-plan issues for opposing defenses in the red zone. 

What’s Next for Jeffery?

No different than what I wrote on Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon earlier this month, the ability to progress in terms of development is the key. 

The tape—and the numbers—tell the story this season on Jeffery. He is an impressive receiver who is playing in the right system under Trestman. And there is no question his overall game has improved when I look back at his rookie film. 

That's a true sign of a young player who treated this past offseason like a pro to advance his skill set. 

And with Jeffery's talent, the Bears could have a future No. 1 wide receiver who will make plays for a long time.

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.