Bennett's time could come vs. Seahawks
With Jeffery, Hester out, Marshall facing tough corners, sure-handed veteran needs to step up
By Vaughn McClure, Chicago Tribune reporter
9:00 p.m. CST, November 29, 2012
The numbers might indicate otherwise, but Jay Cutler hasn't forgotten about Earl Bennett.
Cutler understands his former college teammate's value, even if the Bears quarterback seems solely focused on Brandon Marshall. And Cutler knows he might have to rely on Bennett more heavily Sunday against the league's third-best pass defense.
"He has to play well,'' Cutler said of Bennett. "He's got to step up and make some plays for us.''
Cutler has good reason to have higher expectations of Bennett this week. The Seahawks have a pair of tall cornerbacks capable of contending with Marshall in 6-foot-4 Brandon Browner on the left side and 6-3 Richard Sherman on the right. Although the 6-4 Marshall welcomed the challenge, having constant success against the tandem might be a tough task.
With rookie Alshon Jeffery recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery and Devin Hester ruled out with a mild concussion, the sure-handed, 6-foot Bennett has to be Cutler's second option — or even his primary target — on occasion.
"The thing for me is just to do my job,'' Bennett said. "When the opportunities come, I have to take advantage of them.''
Bennett ranks third on the team with 22 catches, 59 behind Marshall. Marshall has been targeted 124 times, compared with 40 targets for Bennett. Only once has Bennett been targeted more than Marshall: During a Week 2 loss at Green Bay, Bennett was targeted six times to Marshall's five.
The Bears clearly believe in Bennett's ability, or else they wouldn't have rewarded the former third-round draft pick with a four-year, $18 million contract extension last December. He hasn't had a chance to display his true value because of the emphasis on Marshall and the weekly offensive struggles.
The Bears rank last in the league in passing at 177.2 yards per game, and they're 30th out of 32 teams in total offense (299.1 ypg).
"The biggest thing is everybody coming together and executing what's given to us,'' Bennett said. "There have been some times where we've been hot and we've shown how good we can be. And there's been some times where we've not looked so good.''
In terms of Bennett's individual performance, he admitted a freak hand injury, suffered earlier in the season while fielding a punt in practice, hindered him. He missed two games because of it.
"It was very odd, and that did set me back quite a bit,'' Bennett said. "But right now, I'm getting over it. Once in a while, it might hurt a little, but I'm good.''
Bennett hasn't dropped a pass this season, and his precise route-running and attention to detail are aspects the other receivers should emulate. He does his best work in the slot but might have to line up outside Sunday with Eric Weems and Dane Sanzenbacher the only other healthy receivers.
Bennett might have to contend with one of those big corners himself, but he'll have his chances regardless of the circumstances. He might want to follow the lead of the Cardinals' Andre Roberts and the Lions' Titus Young.
When Sherman and Browner put the clamps on Larry Fitzgerald (four catches, 63 yards), Roberts stepped up with five catches for 54 yards, including the game-winning touchdown. When the Seahawks duo limited Calvin Johnson (three catches, 46 yards), Young responded with nine catches for a career-high 100 yards, including the game-winning score.
Bennett isn't lobbying for more touches, as Hester did earlier in the season. He has waited patiently for his moment to shine.
Sunday might be it.
"I'm a team player,'' Bennett said. "As long as we win, I'm going to be all right.''