In today's NFL, most teams have a big tight end with the receiving skills of a wide receiver. The Chicago Bears have such a player in Martellus Bennett, who caught three passes, one for a touchdown, in his debut with the team this afternoon.
As a result, the goal for most defenses is to find a linebacker or safety who has the size and athletic ability to cover this new era of NFL tight ends. That was the thinking when GM Phil Emery signed linebacker James Anderson this offseason to a one-year contract.
From the start of the offseason programs, Anderson was a part of Chicago's nickel package. Alongside Lance Briggs, Anderson showed well in coverage, not only in athleticism but as well as in his grasp of the defense. In 1-on-1 drills, he was the most impressive linebacker on the team.
In today's 24-21 season-opening victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, Anderson showed why he's the most underrated player on this defense. He finished the game with five tackles and was a big reason the club held Cincinnati to just 63 rushing yards as a team.
It was an impressive all-around performance by a linebacker crew playing its first game together.
"[Our communication] was phenomenal," Anderson said. "We practiced together [this offseason] for a long time. We've had many opportunities to work things out and I think the chemistry is good."
Just like in camp, Anderson shined in coverage. He led the team with two passes defended, both of which showed off his considerable read-and-react skills. The first came on a third-down pass in the first quarter. The Bengals lined up with three receivers. The Bears countered with a base 4-3. Anderson slid into the slot over receiver Mohamed Sanu, cut hard on the out pattern and knocked the ball away.
His second deflection came in the fourth quarter. He broke quickly on a slant and nearly picked up an interception. It's a testament to the coaching's staff confidence in Anderson – and maybe also their hesitancy to give Isaiah Frey too many reps at nickel – that he was on the field covering wide receivers on crucial passing downs.
"That gives me confidence and that should give [the coaching staff] confidence as well," said Anderson. "The Bengals did a good job with their formations and keeping us in our base defense, so you've got to go out there and make plays. D.J. [Williams] can run. Lance can run. We've got guys that can run."
It was a performance that should give Chicago fans confidence that Anderson can be as good, if not considerably better, than his predecessor Nick Roach.
"I thought, for the first game, I played well," Anderson said. "I went out there and made some plays, made some plays when it counted. There were a couple of things, as you could see, that we need to work on and get corrected but overall, whenever you come out with a win, you play all right."
Briggs and Jon Bostic get all the press, and both deservedly so. Few have focused on the acquisition of Anderson, who told me last week he doesn't mind being a role player. If he keeps playing like he did today, he may start getting more time in the spotlight. Is he comfortable with a possible uptick in attention?
"If they're talking about me or one of those guys, then they're talking about the Bears and that's all that matters."
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.