Utilizing tight end should expand Bears' opportunities

Capabilities available to Tice can open up field for receivers and Cutler

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BOURBONNAIS — Create matchups. Work the ball inside of numbers. Target the inside vertical seams.

Those are some of the opportunities you have in the passing game when the tight end plays a role in the game plan.

This Bears offense has a new feel because of the speed and size outside the numbers with receivers Brandon Marshall and rookie Alshon Jeffery. I get that. They're big targets who can stretch the field.

However, watching this club practice in training camp at Olivet Nazarene University, it's obvious offensive coordinator Mike Tice values the impact a tight end can make. That's a different approach from Mike Martz's system in 2011.

Now there are vertical concepts, underneath option routes, the boot game, etc., to get the tight end the ball and watch him go to work.

Take fourth-round rookie Evan Rodriguez out of Temple, for example. The rookie struggled some in the spring where his route running and conditioning didn't meet NFL standards.

Not here in Bourbonnais. Rodriguez has begun to develop his game and is starting to create a role in this system. Rodriguez is athletic, displays lateral speed and has open-field ability. He's a "hybrid" player who can align in multiple positions.

"I feel pretty good," Rodriguez told me after a recent practice. "Being with the vets during minicamp helped me tremendously and I came with the right mindset for training camp."

What Rodriguez brings to the playbook, along with veteran Kellen Davis, is the ability to attack opposing base defenses with Ace personnel (two wide receivers, two tight ends, one back) on the field. The same personnel grouping the Patriots use consistently to move the ball.

Look at the Smash-Seam versus Cover-3 (three-deep, four-under zone). Quick, three-step routes on the outside (Smash) give quarterback Jay Cutler an underneath read. However, with this concept and two tight ends who will stretch the inside vertical lanes, the Bears now can put pressure on the top of the secondary.

An example of this is removing Rodriguez from the core of the formation as a slot receiver (F) to widen the defense and target the free safety. Cutler can fit the ball in the "hole" between the underneath defenders and the three-deep shell. That's the value of throwing the tight end seam against Cover-3 or Cover-1 (man-free) and Cover-2 (two-deep). It exposes the middle of the field.

With Davis, the Bears have more of a linear athlete. Not a top tier route runner, Davis will win with leverage, boxing out defenders and creating some separation throughout the route stem. His pure size (6 feet 7, 267 pounds) is key to his game.

The Bears also are using movement to get the ball out to the tight ends. Boot action allows Cutler to get on the edge of the defense with options in the passing game.

Again in Ace personnel, the Bears can look to get the ball down the field to the wide receiver (Z) against the Cover-2 defense or pick up positive yards with Rodriguez (F) and Davis (Y).

The concept is to establish the running game, force the second level of the defense to step to the line of scrimmage (eyes in the backfield) and roll the quarterback outside of the pocket. This should create opportunities to get the ball underneath to the tight end with open field to work with once they square their shoulders and get vertical after the catch.

Think play-calling, alignments and route concepts with the tight ends in the Bears offense. Personnel wise, this offense doesn't have the overall talent of the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez at tight end, but that hasn't stopped Rodriguez from studying their skill sets.

"There are a lot of good guys in the league you can learn from," Rodriguez said. "I'm just trying to take a piece from everyone's game."

Adding in the depth of veteran Matt Spaeth and second-year man Kyle Adams, the Bears are continuing to work the tight end into the play scripts at camp.

And that gives Cutler and Tice more opportunities to open up the playbook, something missing under Martz last season.

Special contributor Matt Bowen, who played at Glenbard West and Iowa, spent seven seasons in the NFL as a strong safety. You also can find his work at nationalfootballpost.com.
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