Marshall has been outstanding this year – even better than advertised. He is second in the league in catches (91) and receiving yards (1,182), and is third in targets (138) and fourth in touchdowns (8). Marshall is on pace for 114 receptions, 1,478 yards and 10 touchdowns – all of which would be Bears franchise single-season records. The catch and yardage totals would be career highs for Marshall.
Yet beyond Marshall, Chicago's passing attack has been a wasteland of mediocrity. It has been so bad that, despite Marshall's absolute dominance, the offense is currently ranked 31st in the NFL in passing.
The gap in numbers between Marshall and the rest of the club's receivers is staggering.
WR Brandon Marshall
Dennis Wierzbicki/USA Today
Catches: Marshall 91, Bennett 23
Yards: Marshall 1,182, Bennett 250
Targets: Marshall 138, Bennett 43
Touchdowns: Marshall 8, Jeffery 2
20-yard-plus receptions: Marshall 14, Hester 4
First-down receptions: Marshall 57, Bennett 17
Those gaps are by far the widest between No. 1 and No. 2 receivers in the entire NFL. No other offense in the league relies on one player more than Chicago does with Marshall.
Most, including coach Lovie Smith, believe someone else must step up in the passing game if the Bears are going to take the next step offensively.
"We've been saying that for awhile, someone needs to [step up]," Smith said yesterday. "I think the [players] will say that. Hopefully, we still have time. Hopefully, we'll get Alshon Jeffery back. He has wanted to move into that role when he's been healthy."
Jeffery has missed six games so far this season with hand and knee injuries. He most recently had a knee scope, which cost him the last two games. His original timetable for return was three to four weeks, which means he should be back by next week at the latest. Smith said he's hopeful Jeffery can return this week against the Minnesota Vikings. We'll know more tomorrow when the team starts practicing.
Jeffery proved from the very start of the season that he was worth the second-round pick Chicago spent on him in this year's draft. Through the first five games of the season, he caught 14 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns. He was developing rapidly as a receiver until the injuries hit. It remains to be seen whether he can pick up where he left off or if time on the bench has stunted his development.
Beyond Jeffery though, the chances another Bears pass catcher will emerge as a reliable target for Jay Cutler are slim to none. In the six games Jeffery has missed, neither Earl Bennett nor Devin Hester has claimed the No. 2 role. With Jeffery out, Hester has just eight receptions, while Bennett has just 11. Bennett also dropped a sure touchdown in Sunday's contest against the Seattle Seahawks, a drop that ended up costing Chicago the win.
Additionally, Both Hester and Bennett are now suffering from concussions. Hester could return this week, while most assume Bennett will be out for at least a week or two.
Then there's tight end Kellen Davis, who has dropped almost as many passes as he's caught. While he has shown potential in training camp, Davis has demonstrated he'll never be a reliable downfield target. Expect GM Phil Emery to address the tight end position, either through free agency or the draft, this upcoming offseason.
QB Jay Cutler & WR Brandon Marshall
The only hope is Jeffery, and even then it's going to be hard to rely on a rookie down the stretch. Which means, going forward, Chicago's passing attack will go through Brandon Marshall, whether you like it or not. And in reality, coordinator Mike Tice really doesn't have any other options.
It's Marshall or bust, but that may not be such a bad thing.
Cutler and Marshall are in their fourth year as teammates in the NFL. During their three years together in Denver, the two developed a chemistry that is arguably unmatched in the league at this point. That chemistry has carried over to Chicago and appears to be at its peak, despite the fact opposing defenses know Marshall is Cutler's first read on every play.
Last week, facing two of the best cornerbacks in the league in Seattle's Richard Sherman and Brand Browner, Marshall was targeted 14 times, catching 10 passing for 165 yards. "Brandon Marshall has been pretty much Brandon Marshall in every game he's played," Smith said. "Teams know we're going to throw to him and haven't been able to stop him."
With Marshall dominating, Cutler has basically ignored the rest of the offense. Even with Jeffery back, don't expect that to change. In fact, Cutler is so enamored with his favorite receiver, it's doubtful he'd look elsewhere even if Jerry Rice were lined up in the slot. Whether he has other options or not, Cutler is going to continue locking on to Marshall.
Which is why Marshall's call out for help following Sunday's loss to the Seahawks fell on deaf ears.
"There are guys that are hungry," said Marshall. "You have Joe [Anderson], a guy on our practice squad, works really hard and he's really hungry right now. (I) Can't wait to see him. You have guys that aren't here. Free agents that are hungry. Guys like Mike Sims-Walker, my best friend, my brother. So maybe he gets a shot. There are guys that are hungry. It doesn't matter if it's Mike Sims-Walker that's on the street right now that's hungry or Joe Anderson who's hungry right now. We definitely will make the right decisions and move forward."
Lovie Smith quickly shot down the idea of bringing in a player from the outside.
"No. We're going to go with the guys that we have right now," Smith said. "We're going to get some guys back this week and we'll be fine. I think sometimes when you guys are asking about certain guys – I've got a lot of old buddies, too. I think Brandon feels pretty good about the guys that we have here that he's playing with."
In reality, it doesn't matter if its Anderson, Sims-Walker, Hester, Bennett, Jeffery or even Cris Carter, this is the Cutler-to-Marshall show. No matter the pieces around them, the passing attack will go as far as those two can take it.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.