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Bears dependence on Marshall exposes flaws

Cutler's virtually unprecedented targeting of receiver reveals how unreliable passing game is

Dan Pompei

On the NFL

8:34 PM CST, December 13, 2012

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If the Packers take away Brandon Marshall as effectively as they did in their September matchup, and the Bears stay true to character, there is no chance the Bears will score enough points to win Sunday.

That is the reality of their offense.

So when Marshall begs Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers for single coverage, what he's really begging for is a chance for the Bears to win the game.

And even if the Packers again attack him with two-man (man-to-man coverage underneath with two safeties over the top) or with other coverages that put multiple defenders in his vicinity, the Bears still have to throw more balls to Marshall.

The Marshall show on the field must play on Sunday as well as it did Wednesday off the field.

In the first meeting, Jay Cutler threw to Marshall five times. He caught two passes. One was intercepted and two were incomplete.

That's all you really need to know about why the Packers won 23-10.

The Bears' dependence on Marshall is staggering. Historical, even.

Marshall has accounted for 48.6 percent of the Bears' receiving yards this year, according to STATS. No one else in the NFL has accounted for close to that amount. The closest is Calvin Johnson with 37 percent of the Lions' receiving yards.

The last time a player accounted for at least 48 percent of his team's receiving yards was 37 years ago, when Ken Burrough had 50.6 percent of the Oilers' yards in what was a very different NFL.

But with a career-high 1,342 yards, Marshall already has 279 more than Burrough had in that 14-game season.

Marshall has caught 41.2 percent of the Bears' receptions, again highest in the league by a wide margin over the Colts' Reggie Wayne (31.9).

No player has accounted for at least 40 percent of his team's receptions since Sonny Randle had 49.2 percent of the Chicago Cardinals catches in 1960.

To put the Bears' reliance on Marshall in perspective, consider that in 1942, the legendary Don Hutson had what is widely considered the greatest season by a wide receiver in NFL history. He accounted for 50.3 percent of the Packers' receiving yards and 43 percent of their receptions — which isn't too far from where Marshall is.

The Packers could not throw to Hutson too much that year. And the Bears can't throw to Marshall too much this year — because of how good he is and how much more reliable he is than the other options.

Has Cutler thrown some passes to Marshall he should have thrown to others? Absolutely. Are they more dependent on him than an offense ever should be on one receiver? No doubt.

But on many plays this year, the Bears have had a better chance by throwing to a covered Marshall than to another receiver who is open.

Marshall is a wellspring in a desert of a passing offense.

He has caught 64.3 percent of the passes thrown to him this season even though he gets thrown to while well covered a lot more than anyone else.

Devin Hester has caught 59 percent, Alshon Jeffery 57.6, Earl Bennett 53.5 and tight end Kellen Davis 41.5.

Based on how Cutler ignores Hester and Davis when they are wide open, it is clear he has lost confidence in them.

He has more confidence in Jeffery and Bennett, but both have been in and out of the lineup all year and never have gotten in a groove.

That hasn't been the only reason Marshall sometimes seems to be the only viable option. The offensive line has contributed to this issue as well.

The Bears can't pass protect with five men because they fear Cutler will be hit so hard they won't be able to piece him together again. That means they usually are devoting one or two players to blocking who otherwise would be receiving options.

That being said, Cutler would benefit from checking down more. Too frequently, he chooses to force a pass into a risky hole rather than making a safe throw to a running back or tight end.

To score points Sunday, Cutler needs to find Jeffery, who is in his second game back after a knee injury. And he needs to find Matt Forte, both as a safety valve in checkdown situations and as a route runner when he is split out.

Forte is a reliable receiver who can create mismatch problems. In the first game against the Packers, he led the Bears in catches (four) and receiving yards (49), and he only played until the first drive of the third quarter before leaving with an ankle injury.

But ultimately, the Bears need to pump it to Marshall to have a chance against the Packers.

In these circumstances, you could say Marshall law has been imposed.

dpompei@tribune.com

Twitter @danpompei