A year ago, the Bears don’t score the way they did first on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals. If at all.
The first touchdown of 2013 came on a pass from Jay Cutler to tight end Martellus Bennett. It was a play that coach Marc Trestman described as a little bit of basic red-zone, a good bit of exhaustive preparation, but also maybe a little bit of schoolyard football thrown in.
[Bears grades: Coaching, A-]
The throw was something out of the tradition of, “Just throw it really high and I’ll get it,” with 6-foot-6-inch Bennett covered by Bengals safety George Iloka, a former Boise State teammate of Bears defensive end Shea McClellin.
Iloka is 6-foot-4 but Cutler clearly measured the throw in such a way that “it was well located by Jay where it really was going to be Martellus’ ball or nobody’s ball,” Trestman said.
The play was far more than a simple playground heave, however. During special-teams sessions last Friday, Bennett and Cutler went off and worked on multiple variations of the play, all calculated to work Bennett free in a tight area along the back line of the end zone.
[Bears grades: Receivers, A-]
The variations were in anticipation of where coverage might be coming from and from whom.
“So what [Bennett] did he kind of made himself skinny between the ‘Mike’ linebacker and the safety,” Trestman said. “They were in a shallow ‘two’ coverage and [Bennett] just kind of worked himself open and Jay back-shouldered the throw. That’s really red-zone football.”
Difference of a year?
The play also served to highlight one exponential jump the offense made with the acquisition of Bennett, signed at the outset of free agency in what served to illustrate the degree of need the Bears saw at the position.
[More: Cutler proud of his rookie offensive linemen]
This time a year ago their tight end was Kellen Davis, among the NFL leaders in drops at his position. Cutler could not have made Sunday’s throw to Davis, who may have been 6-foot-7 himself but will never be accused of excessive vertical elevation. Whether Cutler would have gone back to Davis after his first-play drop, whether Davis would even have caught this TD pass, whether Davis could have out-fought a defender for a ball -- all conjecture.
Bennett in fact dropped the first pass thrown to him as a Bear, more out of admitted nerves than any distant salute to the absent Davis.
“I think on the first play, jitters, first game out in Chicago, I was just trying to do too much,” Bennett said. “I kind of felt the defense, I kind of tried to slip under. And I thought I might have like an 80-yard gain and I didn’t get any yards gain at all.
“So I should have just locked it up and made the catch, so … But he trusted me enough on a tough catch in the back of the end zone.”
[Bears grades: Quarterbacks, A-]
For Cutler, whose trust of dubious receivers often justifiably waned in some recent seasons, it was an act of faith rewarded.