In the third quarter of Monday Night Football, Chicago Bears tight end Martellus Bennett caught a pass in the right flat along the line of scrimmage. New York Jets cornerback Darrin Walls attempted to bring down Bennett, yet he deftly sidestepped the attempt before juking around safety Dawan Landry.
Bennett picked up nine yards on the play, turning a 3rd and 10 into a manageable 3rd and 1.
“I take a whole lot of pride [in yards after the catch],” Bennett said today. “That’s why I call it the year of the YAC. It’s one of my favorite parts of the game. I just like to run with the ball in my hand. I have all these other receivers talking about how fast they are and how smooth they are. I just like to show that I can do the same. I feel like that’s what separates me from the other tight ends in the league.”
Through three games this season, Bennett has 167 receiving yards on 20 caches, which are ninth most in the league, while his 11 first-down receptions are tied with Dez Bryant, Randall Cobb and five others for 15th most in the NFL.
Chicago’s receiving corps have been extremely banged up this year. Marquess Wilson broke his collarbone in training camp, Josh Morgan missed the first two regular-season games with a groin injury, while Marshall (ankle) and Alshon Jeffery (hamstring) have been hobbled the past two weeks.
With Bears pass catchers crowding the injury report, Bennett has stepped up to fill the void in the passing attack.
“I have plays that are built for me to get targets on now as well,” said Bennett. “We have plays that are built for every single guy to get the target at certain points in the game. The more plays you make the more times they are going to call it. For me it’s really good because the more you taste that success, I feel like I haven’t been as successful in my career like the way I think I should be, so the more I eat, the more I want.”
Bennett has more than earned those targets this season. Last year, Bennett played very well, finishing with 65 receptions, second most for a Bears tight end in a single season in franchise history. Yet he’s taken his game to the next level in 2014, a process that began this past offseason.
“I learned [last year] you’re never as good as you think you are,” Bennett said. “There’s lots of intricate details you can take and improve in your work. For me it was just being brutally honest with myself, looking at the tape, ‘I didn’t do this well.’ It’s easy to try to find some good in everything but I was just brutally honest. Like ‘I didn’t get my depth. I’ve got to make sure I get my depth.’ Or, ‘I’ve got to make sure I’m coming downhill after my break.’ Or ‘I’ve got to make sure I’m reaching for the ball with my hands when I catch the ball.’ Different things. ‘I don’t catch the ball as well as I should going this direction.’
“In the summer, all I did was catch tennis balls. I would go with my brother (Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett) and if we didn’t have a quarterback he’d throw me 500 tennis balls in one day, just bouncing them off the ground and running, changing directions. This was in Hawaii, so we were on a beach doing things like that. I wanted to get faster.”
Bennett this offseason also reached out to a teammate to help in another area of his game.
“I felt like my conditioning wasn’t the best last year so I said ‘let’s get some conditioning done.’ So I got with [Matt] Forte. He’s the running back and you see him in practice and he’s never tired. I still get tired because I’m not Forte but my conditioning has improved tremendously. It’s the little things.”B
ennett said his initial development began during his first four years in Dallas, playing behind future Hall-of-Fame tight end Jason Witten.
“I always felt I was a great athlete and athletically, I could do things. But I always thought as an athlete, you remove yourself from a lot of the details. You just try to out-athlete everyone and I remember playing with Jason Witten and watching him and feeling like I was more athletic than Witten but being like, ‘How does he always get open?’ There were a lot of things that I remember being there with him and the way he went about his work, the way he did things.
“A lot of it was just watching Jason Witten and learning how to be a pro and finally getting it four or five years later, ‘Oh, that’s what Witten was doing.’ It’s just understanding different ways to get open, different ways to run routes and do it like that, but still let my athleticism show after I get the ball. Things like that. Just watching him and growing from the time I spent with him in Dallas. And then growing with Mike Pope, who is one of the best tight end coaches in New York. He’s down in Dallas with Witten now.
“Just the group of guys that I’ve met along the way. From Terrell Owens, there’s a lot of stuff that he used to tell me that I’m finally getting now. It’s not that I didn’t understand what they were saying, I just didn’t understand how to do it and make it happen. Probably because I was a backup instead of being the guy, but once I became the guy, the stuff they were saying starting to make sense and I figured out how to do it.”
For four years in Dallas, Bennett served as a backup to Witten. It was a situation he didn’t accept, which he said held back his progress as a football player.
“I’ve always been very competitive but the thing about maturity is about, for me earlier the mature thing would have been for me to set my role as a backup tight end. The immature thing with me at that time was to fight that all the time. ‘I want to go do this, do that. I can do that too.’ But if I would have just accepted my role and been mature about what my role was, I would have progressed a little bit faster in my time in Dallas. I don’t think I was an immature person but I was immature accepting what my role was on the team. I never wanted to be a backup. I always wanted to be the guy.”
The Bears, who signed Bennett two a four-year deal last offseason, are now leaning on Bennett to be even more than the guy, and he’s embraced the challenge. Bennett needs just two touchdowns in the next 13 games to break his single-season career high in scores (5, set last season). He’s also on pace for 106 receptions and receiving 858 yards, which would shatter his previous career highs (65/759, set in 2013).
“It’s been very fun [playing] in more situations,” Bennett said. “There’s still situations that I haven’t been in on the football field because we always had a Brandon Marshall, we always had a Victor Cruz, we always had a T.O. or a Jason Witten. Those guys got to make those plays in the big moments. Now those situations that are new to me, I’m able to step up and do it for the first time as well.”
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.