In NFL practices, little time is spent on gaining yards after the catch. Sure, receivers make post-catch moves and try to find seams between tacklers, but without contact it’s just flag football. Only once the pads come on and the games matter can pass catchers truly show their prowess with the ball in their hands.
Such was the case for the Chicago Bears receiving corps last season. The team finished fifth in the league in passing (4,281 yards). The wide receivers gobbled up the majority of those yards (2,980), yet more than a quarter of that (783) came after the catch.
That’s substantial, particularly for Alshon Jeffery, who led all Bears wideouts with 416 yards after the catch, which was 15th most amongst NFL receivers last season. Brandon Marshall isn’t as prolific after the catch, yet he chipped in a solid 283 YAC in 2013.
In Marc Trestman’s version of the West Coast Offense, yards after the catch are crucial. The system is predicated on short passes, giving the quarterback simple reads after the snap and not allowing the defensive line to collapse the pocket. Most pass attempts are less than 10 yards, so it’s up to the receivers to make plays with the ball in their hands.
In order to get those crucial yards, pass catchers have to be able to make defenders miss, which as an area in which Chicago excels. Here are the combined missed tackle numbers for wide receivers and tight ends, per Pro Football Focus (PFF), for each team in 2013:
Chicago’s wideouts and tight ends combined to break 48 tackles last season, third most in the league. It’s safe to say the ability of the Bears pass catchers to shed would-be tacklers played a huge role in the success of the offense last year.
Things should be even better this year, assuming Marquess Wilson emerges as a viable No. 3 receiver. Wilson is tall (6-3) and fast, much faster than Earl Bennett, and he put on 15 pounds in the offseason. He currently weighs 205, which should help him dispose of cornerback arm tackles, while his speed will allow him to make the most of any open field he can find.
Yet, when it comes to YAC, no Bears player is more dominant than Martellus Bennett. Last year, he caught 65 passes for 759 yards and five touchdowns. On the surface, those numbers are very good, and when you throw in his ability to block, you see right away Bennett’s value to the offense.
Looking further, though, you find Chicago’s most dangerous player with the ball in his hands. According to PFF, Bennett had 23 broken tackles last season, which is seven more than any other tight end in the NFL. His 385 YAC were fourth most amongst tight ends in 2013, behind only Jimmy Graham, Antonio Gates and Julius Thomas.
Obviously, the Black Unicorn is a load to bring down, making him an ideal outlet target on third downs.
Based on what we’ve seen during offseason programs, Chicago’s offense in 2014 will be very similar to what it was last year. The short-passing attack was prevalent in both OTAs and minicamp, so the onus will again fall on the Bears receivers to break tackles and move the chains.
If Bennett, Jeffery and company can improve further in that area, and Wilson emerges as a weapon with the ball in his hands, Chicago’s passing attack will be even harder to stop this season.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth 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.