In 2010, Earl Bennett did not drop a single catchable pass thrown his way – one of the only players in the league to do so. Heading into this year, he was expected to take the next step and become the team's No. 1 wideout. Yet a chest injury sustained in Week 2 forced him to miss five contests. When he came back though, Jay Cutler went right back to his favorite target.
Bennett led the team in receptions in two of three games he played with Cutler after the chest injury. He instantly reestablished himself as the team's most consistent and dangerous passing threat.
Yet, with Caleb Hanie under center, Bennett has disappeared. In Hanie's three starts, Bennett has totaled just two catches for 10 yards. Not surprisingly, the offense has struggled mightily – a major factor in the current three-game losing streak.
"We haven't been able to find Earl the last couple of weeks, for whatever reason," said Caleb Hanie. "Teams have been keying on him. They know he's our third-down guy. He's our clutch guy."
WR Earl Bennett
And therein lies the reason Chicago needs to get Bennett the ball more. The past two games, the offense has converted just two of 26 third-down attempts. Under Cutler, those conversions typically happened with a bullet to Bennett. With Hanie slinging passes, no other receiver has managed to step up and give the quarterback an open target. Had the Bears been able to convert just a few more of those third downs, it's possible they could have won both contests.
"Earl always shows up on third down," said coordinator Mike Martz. "People are trying to clamp [down]. They know what Earl is to us on third down, so he gets doubled a little bit too. We tried to get him on that third down right before the half and the ball got broken up. We're trying to do that. It just hasn't worked out."
It wasn't easy for the Bears to find Bennett last week, as the team ran the ball a season-high 38 times and passed it just 19 times.
"Earl's a great player. He's tough," Hanie said. "He'll be the first one to tell you he wants to be involved in as many plays as he can. It's tough as a slot receiver… when you're running the ball so well like we are on offense."
The excuse of running the ball doesn't really fly in this situation. The Bears have averaged 140 yards on the ground the past three games, yet that hasn't stopped Hanie from looking Johnny Knox's way early and often. With Hanie under center, Knox has received 23 targets, while Bennett has just nine. It's not a lack of passing plays, it's the lack of the offense finding ways to get the ball to its most-sure-handed pass catcher.
Going forward, if this anemic passing attack is going to have any chance, Martz needs to design plays specifically for Bennett throughout the game. Don't just look his way on third down, get him some easy screens and slants early, anything for him to find a groove and get Hanie comfortable throwing his way. Knox is a solid deep threat, but there's no justifiable reason for him to receive more than two-and-a-half times the targets as Bennett.
"It has nothing to do with Earl," said Martz. "We'd love to get him more involved."
If they are not able to accomplish that goal on Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, the passing game will once again be hard to stomach.
-Except for a brief 15-second appearance in training camp, RB Marion Barber has dodged Chicago's media all season. No one thought too much of it until Sunday, when Barber's two huge mistakes cost the Bears a win. When he again refused to speak after the game, the NFL stepped in.
Barber has been officially warned by the league about his media boycott and will receive a fine if it continues. The fine could be substantial. Randy Moss was once fined $25,000 for refusing to speak to the media.
After practice today, Barber said he would talk with us tomorrow. We'll see.
-The next three games will show the rest of the NFL whether or not Caleb Hanie is a legitimate NFL quarterback. Yet he said that doesn't weigh on him.
"I'm not worried about personally. All I'm worried about is the team," Hanie said. "It's a critical stretch for the team. We've got three games. We're in the playoff hunt still. We're confident that if we win out that other teams will slip up. And we're confident in the guys we have. So I'm not worried about any personal goals or agendas at this time, besides getting better and making the plays I need to make during the game. "
-Jay Cutler and Matt Forte did not practice today. Neither are expected to put on the pads until next week at the very earliest. Charles Tillman, Lance Briggs and Julius Peppers also missed practice, although coach Lovie Smith said it was just bumps and bruises from Sunday's game.
Follow me on Twitter: @BearReport
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.