For most of this season, opposing defenses have made stopping wide receiver Brandon Marshall their first priority against the Chicago Bears' offense. Teams have tried pressing Marshall, bracketing him in zone coverage and doubling him with safety help over the top, as well as using every other conceivable coverage strategy, in an effort to limit his production.
So far almost nothing has worked.
Marshall has been targeted 90 times through eight games this season, fourth most in the league. He ranks fourth in the NFL in receptions (59), second in receiving yardage (797), second in first-down receptions (41), first in catches on third down (19), 11th in yards from scrimmage (797) and second in touchdown catches (7).
Outside of the Week 2 contest, in which the Green Bay Packers limited him to just two receptions for 24 yards, Marshall has routinely picked apart opposing defenses this year. And the Cutler-Marshall combination is only getting better – over the past two games, they have connected 18 times for 220 yards and 3 TDs – making it scary to think how deadly they can become by season's end.
Chicago's opponent on Sunday night, the 7-1 Houston Texans, know just how dominant Marshall has been this year and are ready to focus almost all their secondary attention on him.
"We'll double cover him every play. That's our plan," said Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. "We're going to double cover him every play, so see what happens."
Just two seasons ago, the Texans finished 30th in total defense, 32nd against the pass and 29th in points allowed. Over the past season and a half, Phillips has transformed Houston's defense into a dominant unit. They currently rank fourth in points allowed, third in total defense, second in rushing defense and fourth in passing defense. The club's +8 turnover ratio is sixth best in the league.
Phillips' secondary got a boost this offseason with the addition of CB Johnathan Joseph in free agency. Joseph is one of the best cover corners in the league. He went to the Pro Bowl and was named All Pro last season playing with the Bengals. He has been dealing with a quad injury, which followed a groin injury that hindered him for weeks. He practiced in full on Friday though and is expected to play.
"The last two games he's played have been really what we expect from him, but he's a prideful guy," said Phillips. "This is a big challenge this week. We might not double [Marshall] all the time, so he'll be one on one some."
When Marshall gets those few one-on-one opportunities, expect the Bears to take advantage. Yet the Texans won't feel it necessary to put Joseph on an island if someone else doesn't step up for Chicago's passing attack. Alshon Jeffery practiced on a very limited basis on Friday – the first time he's practiced in more than a month – and is listed as doubtful. He could be back next week when the Bears head to San Francisco but it's highly unlikely he'll play Sunday night.
That means the onus falls on receivers Earl Bennett and Devin Hester, tight end Kellen Davis and running Matt Forte to pick up the slack. In the three games Jeffery has missed, none of those four have seized the opportunity to be Cutler's second option in the passing game.
Bennett will be playing his fourth contest since returning from a hand injury. The Bears have increasingly worked him into the passing game, targeting him a season-high eight times last week. Yet he turned those targets into just four catches for 22 yards, failing consistently to beat press coverage. Cutler obviously wants Bennett's role to increase and will continue looking his way but it remains to be seen whether he'll rise to the occasion.
This will be Bennett's best chance to finally be a big contributor on a prime time stage. Despite his sticky hands and rapport with Cutler, Bennett has been mostly a disappointment the past two seasons. His last 100-yard receiving game came in Week 13 of 2010 and in six contests this season, he's caught just 16 passes for 178 yards and zero touchdowns. When throwing to Bennett this season, Cutler's passer rating is a paltry 29.4, the lowest of any receiver on the team (Marshall 105.6; Jeffery 115.1).
Bennett doesn't need to carry the No. 2 load all himself. Sending Hester deep, Davis down the seams and Forte out of the backfield, on top of Bennett coming out of the slot, should be enough to complement Marshall. But if they can't collectively take pressure off Marshall, Houston's defense, with its relentless pressure up front and double teams on the back end, could eat Cutler for lunch.
"I think [Houston] knows that we throw it to [Marshall] most of the time. He's our No. 1 receiver, so no matter what they do, we still have to try to get the ball to him," Lovie Smith said. "But that will open up other things, not just for other receivers, but our running game also. So whatever they decide to do, it still should benefit us."
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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.