What do you call a fifth-round rookie WR with real expectations? Tajae Sharpe, and there may not be another player like him in NFL history. Tennessee's poor history of developing wideouts has led to a rare opportunity that Sharpe can seize this season.
27 Sep 2006
by Michael David Smith
After Sunday's 19-16 win over the Minnesota Vikings, the Chicago Bears are in first place in the NFC North, and that's no surprise. Just about everyone expected the Bears to repeat as division champions. But what is surprising is that after the defense carried last year's Bears to an 11-5 record, this year the Bears have turned their weak passing game into a strength.
In all three of the Bears' games, opponents have stacked the line of scrimmage to stop running back Thomas Jones (who is averaging only 3.0 yards a carry) and dared quarterback Rex Grossman to beat them. That's exactly what Grossman has done. An analysis of the Bears' passing attack on every play of that win over the Vikings shows that the Bears' receivers are running precise, well-designed routes, and Grossman throws a better deep ball than previously advertised. But the offensive line's pass protection is mediocre, and Grossman still makes the kinds of mistakes that are typical of a quarterback who was only starting his 10th NFL game on Sunday.
Grossman was at his best when Minnesota didn't blitz, giving him time to survey the field. On a third-and-9 deep in Chicago territory, Chicago lined up with twin receivers (Muhsin Muhammad and Rashied Davis) to the left and tight end Desmond Clark in the backfield, also to Grossman's left. At the snap Muhammad ran a deep route along the sideline, Clark ran an intermediate route along the hash, and Davis ran between them. Ordinarily when an offensive coordinator lines up three receivers on the same side of the field, he's hoping the defense won't have enough players there to cover everyone adequately. But Minnesota rushed four and dropped seven into coverage, meaning the Vikings had players available to cover all three receivers. The speedy Davis, a former Arena player who looks like a perfect fit for the Bears, simply ran past cornerback Ronyell Whitaker, and Grossman saw Davis get open and threw the ball exactly where Davis needed it for a 21-yard gain.
The key to the success of the play was the Vikings' decision to rush only four. When Grossman had time to pass, he regularly picked the Minnesota secondary apart. The Vikings blitzed often on Sunday, but they should have blitzed even more. When they gave Grossman time to find Davis and Muhammad, he delivered.
Last season it looked clear that the Bears had overpaid when they gave Muhammad a $12 million signing bonus. Although he was the focal point of the Bears' passing game, Muhammad finished 2005 ranked 81st of 89 wide receivers in Football Outsiders' main statistic for ranking skill position players, DPAR. This year he looks like the player who led the league in receiving yards in 2004. He and Grossman have developed a great rapport, as demonstrated on a second-and-4 on the Bears' first possession, when cornerback Antoine Winfield lined up several yards off the line of scrimmage in man coverage on Muhammad. Grossman saw how much space Winfield was giving, so he threw to Muhammad behind the line of scrimmage as soon as he got the snap. Muhammad picked up three yards. A three-yard completion doesn't sound like anything special, but using the passing game in short-yardage situations is a very effective way to combat defenses that stack the line of scrimmage against the run.
On a second-and-2 later in the game, Grossman and Muhammad hooked up on the same play: Grossman saw that cornerback Fred Smoot was giving Muhammad a big cushion and tossed the ball to him at the snap. The Bears appeared to have a run play called â€“ the offensive linemen and the backs moved as if they expected a handoff to the right â€“ but Grossman knew he could pick up an easy first down if he just flipped it across the field to Muhammad, and Muhammad was ready for the pass because he knew that he and Grossman had read the defense the same way. By exploiting the cushion the Vikings gave Muhammad, the Bears forced the Vikings to play closer to Muhammad, which opened up space downfield.
Later, on a first-and-10, Grossman and Muhammad used that space downfield. Muhammad lined up split to the right, Bernard Berrian lined up split to the left, and fullback Jason McKie went in motion to the left. With the motion drawing the defense's attention from the middle to the left, Muhammad ran in the opposite direction, dragging across the middle of the field and catching a pass for 23 yards.
The routes were well designed, but the key to the play was the pass protection. Minnesota rushed only four and Chicago kept tight end Desmond Clark in to block. That six-on-four mismatch gave Grossman plenty of time, and he was patient enough to wait for Muhammad to get into the middle of the field, behind Minnesota's linebackers but in front of the safeties. When Chicago's blockers outnumbered Minnesota's pass rushers, Grossman almost always took advantage.
But that leads us to Grossman's biggest flaw: when he does feel pressure, he doesn't stay in the pocket long enough to find an open receiver. On a first-and-15, when Minnesota blitzed with both Whitaker and linebacker Napoleon Harris, Grossman sensed the pressure and threw the ball into the turf immediately. Whitaker blitzed from Grossman's right, but Grossman never even looked to his right to see if the cornerback blitz opened up a passing lane to that side. That play was the first of three straight incompletions against a Minnesota blitz.
Too often, when he feels pressure, Grossman backpedals, chucks the ball off his back foot and hopes for the best. Although it's hard to tell a guy who's been labeled as injury-prone to be willing to take a sack, that's what he has to do sometimes, especially considering that throwing the ball away doesn't assure him he won't get hit -- he was hit several times against Minnesota.
A quick look at the stats might suggest that Grossman and the Bears' offensive line actually do a good job of thwarting opposing pass rushes: Grossman was only sacked once against Minnesota and has only been sacked twice all season. But that is mostly because Grossman is far too quick to throw the ball away. Sometimes getting rid of the ball in the face of a pass rush is a wise way to avoid a sack, but throwing too quickly can be a big problem.
The Bears' offensive line also struggled with the pass rush, particularly right tackle Fred Miller. The one time Grossman was sacked, a second-and-9 at the Minnesota 29-yard line, Miller gave up on his block. He looked like he had Darrion Scott beaten early in the play, but Miller quit blocking and allowed Scott to drill Grossman from behind. Left tackle John Tait has always been a good pass protector, and center Olin Kreutz has the kind of quickness a center needs to snap the ball and get into position to pass block in a hurry. But Miller struggles, and the Bears could use an upgrade at both guard positions: Grossman regularly felt pressure up the middle when guards Roberto Garza and Ruben Brown were beaten in pass blocking. Don't let the lack of sacks fool you: Kyle Orton was sacked 30 times on 398 dropbacks last season behind the same offensive line.
The best thing that can be said for Chicago's pass protection is that Jones is very good at picking up the blitz. On one first-and-10 when Minnesota rushed six, Jones kept the blitzing Napoleon Harris from even getting close to Grossman, and Grossman hit Berrian for 21 yards.
In addition to a failure to recognize blitzes, Grossman sometimes looks like he just doesn't see where all the opposing defensive backs are. When Grossman left Florida in 2003, the knock on him was that his height (listed at 6-foot-1, perhaps a bit shorter) would prevent him from seeing over opposing defensive linemen. I generally think NFL scouts place too much emphasis on a quarterback's height, but there were times that Grossman didn't seem to see the Vikings' defensive backs. On a first-and-10 deep in Chicago territory, Grossman faked a handoff to Jones, then rolled to his right and tried to hit Muhammad just outside the right hashmark. But he failed to see Vikings safety Darren Sharper standing there waiting for him, and Sharper dropped what should have been an interception.
Minnesota intercepted Grossman twice. On one, he simply threw a terrible pass. Vikings safety Dwight Smith lined up in the middle of the field and Grossman threw the ball right to him. There were no Bears receivers even close to the play, and Grossman just lamely launched the ball to Smith. On the other, Grossman backpedaled into the end zone because he felt pressured by Vikings defensive end Kenechi Udeze. But Udeze dove at Grossman's feet, and if Grossman had been more poised he could have rolled to the outside before Udeze had a chance to get up and sack him. A more experienced quarterback would have had no trouble buying enough time to get into a position where he could pass safely, but Grossman lobbed it over the head of Jones and into the hands of Antoine Winfield, who strolled seven yards for a touchdown.
Play-action passes are an important part of offensive coordinator Ron Turner's system, and Grossman sells them well. On a first-and-10 at the Minnesota 26-yard line, Grossman's play action drew linebacker Ben Leber in toward the line of scrimmage, and that opened up a huge space for Clark in the middle of the field for an easy first down. The Bears used the same play several times the week before against the Detroit Lions, but Leber still looked unprepared.
Grossman's performances through three games this year are vastly superior to anything he has done previously. Although he still has some growing to do when it comes to dealing with defenses coming at him at full speed, that's to be expected for a player who has spent a lot of time in meetings and practices and hardly any time in live game action. If he stays healthy, the Bears' passing attack will be tough to stop.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.
108 comments, Last at 30 Sep 2006, 10:57am by bearsfan_eric