Defense and the Chicago Bears: as obvious a pair as white on rice, the Cubs and losing or Pippen to Jordan. The Chicago Bears have always evoked memories of great defenses featuring the likes of Mike Singletary, Dick Butkus, William ‘Refrigerator’ Perry and more recently, Ted Washington, Mike Brown and Brian Urlacher. It’s been nearly 28 years since the Monsters of the Midway terrorized offenses and although the Bears have had very formidable defenses since the Super Bowl shuffle, nothing has come close to the dominance from yesteryear.
Or has it?
The Monsters of the Midway are back, but this time, they are on the other side of the ball. But these aren’t your fathers Bears folks. This current rendition of the ‘MOTM’ feature an aerial attack that they have never had and it features two behemoths at wide receiver who may rank as the best receiving combination in the National Football League.
Alshon Jeffery (75 catches, 1,193 yards and 6 touchdowns) and Brandon Marshall (84 catches, 1,090 yards and 9 touchdowns) are indeed the new Singletary and Perry, except that they are dominating offensively. They are the first duo of Chicago Bears receivers to both have 1,000 yards in a given season since former University of Southern California great Curtis Conway and Jeff Graham back in 1995.
Both receivers tower above cornerbacks, with Jeffery being 6’3, 215 lbs and Marshall being 6’4, 230 lbs. No duo of receivers stand taller in the league than the pair from Chicago. Offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer has utilized both particularly well in the slot, where they can dominate smaller corners and avoid lining up on the line of scrimmage to bypass press coverage.
We know what we get from Brandon Marshall. He is always a strong candidate to get 100 catches and this season is no different as he is on pace for to reach the plateau for the fifth time in his eight NFL seasons. He had some great seasons in Denver, struggled through inconsistency in Miami, but being reunited with Cutler and coming to Chicago was the best thing to happen to his career. He has matured as a player and a person, which has greatly impacted him on and off the field.
He has always been able to use his tremendous size as an advantage, but has become craftier as a receiver and improved his route running and ability to sit in zone coverage. An underrated aspect of his game is his blocking acumen. Marshall throws ‘decleating’ blocks as well as any receiver in the league since Hines Ward has retired.
Jeffery was a standout recruit out of South Carolina who spurned the Tennessee Volunteers and Lane Kiffin to play closer to home. Kiffin had told Jeffery that he would be “pumping gas” for the rest of his career if he went to the University of South Carolina. Ironically, Kiffin is out of a job and Jeffery has established himself as a bona fide 1B receiver next to Brandon Marshall.
The former Gamecock was a second round pick who had done a tremendous job of getting in shape prior to the draft. Anyone who watched him last year, saw a player who possessed a load of potential but lacked polish as a receiver. A broken hand derailed his season, forcing him to miss several weeks.
Jeffery has displayed dominant form this season, making tremendous catches with defenders draped over him and finally honing his skills as a pass-catcher. He’s already mastered the art of ‘high-pointing’ the football, which entails catching the ball at its highest-point. This requires jumping at exactly the correct moment to snatch the football away from the defensive back’s hands. Timing, elite body control and of course size are absolutely crucial in this underrated skill, that had been attributed to Larry Fitzgerald a few seasons ago when he was dominating defenses. He’s also the only receiver this season that has had two games recoding 10 or more catches, against the Saints in week five and the Vikings in week 13.
What impresses me the most about Marshall and this season Jeffery, is that they are natural hand-catchers. Very rarely will they let the football hit their bodies. Regardless of traffic, or the difficulty of the catch, both Bears standout receivers use their enormous hands as a vice-grip to corral the football. It demonstrates fearlessness in catching the ball towards the middle of the field and not being worried about the big hit that may come. Marshall and Jeffery are both 6th and 8th in the league in targets with 132 and 127 respectively.
“There’s no probably to it, we are”, Marshall said when asked by NFL Network’s Dan Hellie on NFL Total Access about the possibility that he and Jeffery were the best receiving tandem in the league.
No argument from me on that front.
There have been some very productive wide receiver pairings in the league over the past few seasons: Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks of the Giants, Roddy White and Julio Jones of the Falcons, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb of the Packers, Demayrius Thomas and Eric Decker of the Broncos and just last season, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown of the Steelers.
From that list, you’d be hard-pressed to find a duo better than the new ‘MOTM’. Nicks has struggled with consistency and health. White has also struggled with the latter but age has creeped up on him as well. Cobb and Nelson have both been injury prone and are more finesse receivers. You can make a case for Thomas and Decker, but they are simply not as physical as Jeffery and Marshall. I didn’t forget Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald, but the production from ‘Fitz’ has dropped and Floyd needs to show more than a small sample size of five to six games.
The new MOTM have the overall size and physicality as receivers, which allows them to dominate defensive backs like no other pair. Most of the aforementioned duos have at least one player who can play in the slot, like Cruz, Decker (or Welker), Brown, Nelson or Cobb. Marshall and Jeffery can both parlay their skills as slot receivers, which is increasingly impressive considering the size and the old notion that flankers are best suited as more diminutive receivers.
Marc Trestman must be commended for his use of both receivers and Matt Forte has also shined in the receiving category this season, as he typically does. Despite the use of two quarterbacks with Jay Cutler having an injured groin and ankle and Josh McCown stepping in, the duo has not been slowed down, as Jeffery has recorded at least four catches in all but two games and Marshall in all of his.
I cannot recall a game where their production was both ceased. Typically, it has been when Cutler has misfired on his throws, like the game against the Giants where Jeffery only had one catch. During that game, Jeffery had multiple opportunities for big plays, but Cutler was widely inaccurate during that contest. During the game against the Saints, Jeffery went off because he was dominating their secondary, but partly due to the Saints game planning to stop Marshall. The coverage’s were rolling towards his side, which freed up room for Jeffery to operate around the middle of the field.
It supports the notion that Jeffery and Marshall compliment each other very well and that defenses will continuously struggle to shut both of them out of the game. When you factor in Forte as well as Martellus Bennett who has finally added the tight end component to the Bears offense that they have not had in years, it makes the Bears one of the more dangerous offensive attacks in the league.
Who would have thought there would be a time when the Bears would be more notorious for their offense than their defense? Even when Cutler had originally joined the team with Marshall and Forte, the Bears have always been led by their ball-hawking and touchdown-scoring defense featuring Charles Tillman and Brian Urlacher; a defense that would routinely be ranked top 10 in takeaways and points allowed. Let’s not forget the special teams component that has allowed them to win games as well with Devin Hester being one of the premier return specialists of our era.
The Bears mantra has been as a team that can win games a myriad of ways. Now, with the aforementioned Tillman (IR) and Urlacher (retired) absent from the team, and a defense that has surrendered six straight 100-yard rushers, there is more of a premium on the offense to execute. And execute they have, with Marshall and Jeffery both on pace for over 1,300 yards receiving.
Chicago still has some work to do with regards to the playoffs and with final games against the Browns, Eagles and Packers (only the latter of the three at home), they will have an uphill battle to make the NFL’s second season (they lose out on the tie breaker with Detroit).
If they are to make the post-season, you better believe that the new Monsters of the Midway will play a major role.