The Bears' 38-34 victory over the New York Jets might not have been the defensive battle that many observers expected, but for Chicago it provided an opportunity to showcase improvement on the offensive side of the ball.
"Earlier in the season, I think most of us on offense felt that our unit was being written off," said receiver Earl Bennett, who caught one pass for 14 yards before tweaking an ankle injury that had bothered him this week, in the locker room after the game. "We had a rough patch for a while there, but after the bye week everything came together. We've been on a strong streak since that point, and I think every one of us feels that there is a lot to be proud of."
Chicago's season began the way most pundits felt it would, with four preseason losses followed by three regular-season defeats through Week 7. What transpired within the team over the Halloween-weekend bye is not known to anyone outside the locker room, but the positive results have been undeniable. Winning seven of eight games, the Bears are NFC North champions for the third time in six years and control their own destiny for a first-round bye in the playoffs.
"Unlike many teams in the NFL, the Bears have a group of go-to receivers", said Knox, who reeled in for passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns, the first two-score game of his two-year career. "This is a unique system in many respects, and I think it has an advantage in the fact that defenses facing us never are sure where the ball might be headed. To me, this makes a lot more sense than having one primary receiver for the opposing secondary to target."
In Knox's view, there are other advantages to Chicago's previously-maligned system.
"The concept of multiple receivers furthers a philosophy that exists within this team," he said. "It isn't a bunch of superstars who are out to showboat and to showcase themselves. Instead, we have a bunch of hard-working guys who put the team first. These are players who will step up when asked. In addition, when they are in supporting roles, they execute there as well."
Knox's two touchdowns came in the third quarter, one a 40-yard grab and the other a 26-yard reception. Now with 960 yards receiving through 15 games, he has a chance next week to be Chicago's first 1,000-yard receiver since Marty Booker all the way back in 2002.
"Today was tricky," Knox said when asked about his production. "Although the footing was OK, the weather conditions weren't ideal. The Jets' secondary covered us really well. We knew what to expect after watching the film this past week, but that certainly didn't make it any easier. Our O-line played really well, and Jay was right on target. That made all the difference."
Hester was a force on the field with three receptions for 48 yards, a 38-yard punt return and a 40-yard kickoff return. He caught one of Cutler's three touchdown passes, a 25-yarder, also in the third quarter.
"I try to be as versatile as I can," Hester said. "I want to be considered a threat on returns. Teams tend to kick away from me, which often gives us the advantage in terms of field position. But I also like to work as a receiver. We've got such a strong group at that position. The depth is there, and the talent level is so high. Rotating Knox, Bennett, [Devin] Aromashodu, Rashied Davis, myself, has proven quite effective, especially in the past few games. Having more than one dimension that you can show an opposing defense is always a good thing."
So has Hester bought into Mike Martz's system entirely?
"I think that what's going on right now in terms of coaching is bringing out the best in all of the players – offense, defense and special teams," he said. "There is effective use of personnel on the field and good communication off of the field. That's the ideal situation as far as I can tell."
With a playoff berth in the Bears' immediate future, how do these receivers see the team's prospects?
"It's been an unusual season to say the least," Bennett said. "There have been few injuries, and it seems that each player is raising his intensity week by week. There's positive momentum going, which is exactly what you want in this type of a situation."
For Knox, it's about reconsidering conventional wisdom.
"From what I know, I feel this team enjoys defying expectations," he said. "At the start of the season, nobody gave us much of a chance to do more than have a .500 season. We were usually cast as the underdog. So, in a sense, what's happening now is a complete surprise. Not to us, but to those who are not on the team. I think we are where we are meant to be right now."
Hester wants to get back to the Super Bowl and, unlike Super Bowl XLI four years ago, actually win it this time.
"Professional players always go into a season with a trip to the Super Bowl in mind," he said. "Some of us have done that already. Others have not. Now we have made it one step closer to that goal. We intend to keep working as a unit and as a team. This system of receivers is productive for the Bears. We plan to build on our success and hope to go all the way."
Beth Gorr has been covering the Chicago Bears for 12 years and is the author of Bear Memories: The Chicago-Green Bay Rivalry. She is currently working on a second book about early Bears history.
Knox, Hester and Bennett Surprising
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