While the available options in the Chicago Bears receiving corps change around him, Brandon Marshall remains the constant this year.
Alshon Jeffery and Devin Hester could be back for Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings, but Earl Bennett has been declared out. But, really, do those changes even matter as long as Jay Cutler is the quarterback and has Marshall to target?
"The passing game is going to run through him," Cutler said. "We're going to try to find ways to get him the ball and involved as much and as early as possible."
When Mike Tice had Randy Moss in Minnesota, there was the "Randy Ratio." In Chicago, with Tice as the offensive coordinator, it is the much more successful and unspoken Marshall Plan.
The Vikings know that all too well.
In the first meeting between the Bears and Vikings this year – less than two weeks ago – Marshall dominated the Vikings defense. It's an incredibly lopsided passing attack when it comes to Cutler's preference, and at no time was that more apparent than Nov. 25 at Soldier Field.
Cutler targeted Marshall 17 times, tying his season high, and the physical receiver caught 12 of those passes for 92 yards. Marshall wasn't always open – cornerbacks A.J. Jefferson and Antoine Winfield each had chances at completions to Marshall, but the 6-foot-4, 230-pounder strong-armed the ball away from them.
"I'm not going to lie. The other week, the way I feel, the way he was throwing the ball, go back and look at tape, you're looking at some of the throws he was making and you're like, ‘Why would he throw that?' He was just on. He was in his zone," said Vikings safety Jamarca Sanford said of Cutler. "He feels real comfortable with Marshall and they're on the same page all the time. They have that confidence in each other, that no matter where he puts the ball he feels comfortable that Marshall is going to come up with it no matter who is defending or how many defenders are on him."
Marshall has had much more productive days from a yardage standpoint. He has surpassed 100 yards six times this year, including last week's 10-catch, 165-yard performance against the Seattle Seahawks. Three times this season he has double-digit catches, including the last two games. He has been targeted 10 times or more in nine games.
The Vikings seemed content with the strategy to let Marshall catch the ball in the front of the secondary and rally to tackle him. But that's no easy task for a receiver with his size.
"Just how physical he is. I kind of gauge myself against the receivers and he's real physical," Jefferson said. "I know he's not going to outrun me, he's not going to do too much, but it's how he can position his body to make the catch. He holds the ball away from you. He's got really strong hands.
"… It's rare to find a receiver that big who can use his size to catch the ball and separate himself from the corner."
It's clear that Cutler favors Marshall, too. Marshall has been targeted 138 times this season. That's more than three times as much as any other Bears receiver –Bennett is second with 43 targets.
Marshall's 91 catches are first in the NFC. His 1,182 receiving yards are second in the NFL, and his eight touchdown receptions are tied for second in the NFC. In his last seven games, Marshall has 75 catches for 968 yards (107.6 per game) and seven touchdowns. He is the fifth player in NFL history with 1,000-yard receiving seasons with three different teams.
Marshall knows where he is in history, too. When he broke through the 1,000-yard plane earlier this year, he let Cutler know about it on the sideline during the game. Cutler laughed and called him sick.
But the two of them have a rapport that started early. When they arrived at Denver Broncos training camp as rookies together in 2006, they were on a separate practice field with other younger players and second-team-caliber players while the veterans worked together. Cutler said that time together helped them develop early chemistry.
The Bears acquired Cutler from Denver in 2009. After two years in Miami, Marshall rejoined Cutler this year in Chicago.
It's been a successful reunion, to say the least. With a shaky offensive line, Cutler is looking to get the ball out of his hand early, and, more often than not, Marshall is the target. That quick chemistry has put Marshall on pace for a career season, and the Vikings know that all too well.
"This week here, we've got to make those plays. We came close. When we go back and look, some of the balls he threw, you're looking like, ‘Why did he throw that?' But for whatever reason, Marshall came out and made a play," Sanford said. "That just goes back to us. Those are the type of plays that if we want to be one of the elite defenses, then in the secondary we've got make them plays on the ball. You've got to put that on us and we're fine with that. We've just got to step up this week and don't let him do what he did to repeat the same thing he did when we were in Chicago."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Vikings find Cutler-to-Marshall hard to stop
Bear Report Top Stories
Bears Draft Preview: Mid-Round OTsHighlighting seven appealing offensive tackles who will be available in the middle rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft, players who could boost the Chicago Bears offensive line in both…
Bear ReportFriday at 12:05 PM
Bears Draft Preview: Mid-Round ReceiversWe highlight eight mid-round wide receivers in the 2017 NFL Draft, with a focus on high-upside, value prospects who can boost the Chicago Bears passing attack.
Bear ReportWednesday at 10:52 AM
Bears Scouting Report: DE Derek BarnettOur Chicago Bears-focused scouting report on Tennessee DE Derek Barnett, one of the top pass rushers in this year's draft class and a Bears first-round sleeper candidate.
Bear ReportTuesday at 9:11 AM
Bears Seven-Round Mock Draft: v4.0Our fourth Chicago Bears mock draft is headlined by a sleeper first-round pass rusher, a big-armed quarterback and more.
Bears Draft Preview: TE (Rounds 1-3)The Chicago Bears will be in the market for a tight end during the 2017 NFL Draft. We break down, in detail, the top tight end prospects in this year's class and provide our value…