Big-play increase from receivers needed for Bears' playoff goals

Matt Trowbridge

The Bears gave kick returner Devin Hester a $40 million contract extension because they desperately need his game-breaking abilities as a wide receiver on offense.

“Having a deep threat is crucial,” quarterback Rex Grossman said. “It gives you more cushion against man-to-man defenses, and it takes away a fast corner from being able to play all over a receiver.”

It’s so crucial that four of the top five teams in yards-per-catch made the playoffs last year: the Cowboys, Jaguars, Steelers and Patriots. The fifth, NFL leader Cleveland, improved from 4-12 to 10-6. The Bears ranked 16th, down from sixth in their 2006 Super Bowl season.

Hester, who had touchdown catches of 81 and 55 yards in part-time receiving duty last year, is the most obvious candidate to replace Bernard Berrian as Chicago’s big-play receiver. But he’s not the only one.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who can make plays downfield,” said Kyle Orton, who is battling Grossman for Chicago’s starting quarterback spot. “Brandon Lloyd and Mark Bradley, their strength is the vertical passing game.

“It’s a big part of our offense. We want to complete a high percentage of passes and run the football, but we also need to be explosive in the passing game.”

Chicago was actually better at the big plays than the little ones last year, when it averaged a league-worst 3.1 yards per rush and ranked 27th in completions at 57.5 percent. Many of those big plays, though, were on Hester kick returns, plus some on defense, such as Brian Urlacher’s 85-yard interception return against the Packers.

This year, despite Berrian signing with Minnesota, Chicago receivers could break out. Hester will play receiver close to full time. Lloyd has averaged 14.5 yards per catch over his five-year career, and the little-used Bradley is at 15.3 yards on his 38 catches over three seasons. Also, Desmond Clark leads all NFL tight ends in yards per catch the past two years (13.2) and 2007 first-round pick Greg Olsen is even faster.

“Stretching the field is a feel; it’s about the guy who knows how to do it,” receivers coach Darryl Drake said.

Long pass plays aren’t all about throwing a fly pattern to your fastest wide receiver racing down the sideline.

“One of the best guys who can stretch the field inside is Rashied Davis,” Drake said. “We’ve got tight ends that can stretch the field, too.

“Getting deep on a guy a lot of times is about technique. Defensive backs will let you step on their toes. You can be a guy that’s not as fast as that defensive back, but if you can step on his toes before he opens his hips and runs, you are going to have a chance to run by him.”

Drake said all six Chicago wide receivers — Hester, Davis, Lloyd, Bradley, Marty Booker and Earl Bennett — can get deep, and that all six can play anywhere.

“We’ve done so much more with this group than we’ve done in the past as far as moving them around, allowing every guy to play every spot,” Drake said.

“Having multiple guys out there,” Lloyd said, “that’s what’s going to really give us a big threat. Instead of when Devin comes in and people saying, ‘Oh, here comes the deep ball,’ everybody will be able to make plays down field.”

Matt Trowbridge can be reached at: 815-987-1383 or mtrowbridge@rrstar.com.