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Bears now can reach for the sky in red-zone receiving game

By Vaughn McClure, Chicago Tribune –

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — It’s hard for Jay Cutler not to salivate over red-zone scoring potential with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery on the field simultaneously.

If all goes according to plan — and the line does an adequate job protecting him — the Bears quarterback should find himself in the red zone more often. And once inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, Cutler will have the luxury of sailing the ball high to either the 6-foot-4 Marshall in one corner of the end zone or the 6-3 rookie in the other.

“They make my job a lot easier down there,” Cutler said. “And if you put Kellen Davis (6-7) in the mix, we have three dudes taller than 6-3. It’s going to be fun just putting the ball up and hopefully getting some touchdowns.”

Using Marshall and Jeffery in such a formation is no secret weapon. It’s common sense. With all due respect to Pro Bowler Charles Tillman and feisty Tim Jennings, seeing Marshall or Jeffery run a fade route for a touchdown has been a daily occurrence during training camp at Olivet Nazarene University.

“I’ve seen it done with one, but not with two,” fellow receiver Devin Hester said. “It’s going to be crazy. Unstoppable? You already know that.”

Cutler cautioned that the regular season and true game-planning hasn’t started yet. The coaching staff continues to work with the veteran Marshall on consistently catching the ball at its highest point, and Jeffery has yet to play in a meaningful NFL game, so there are some wrinkles to straighten out.

“We have to see what teams do,” Cutler said. “If they sink back, we’re going to have to give it to (Matt) Forte. But typically, (defensive backs) are going to sit outside of Brandon and Alshon. They’re not going to give them the fade. It would be foolish to line up inside or head up and let them release outside.

“Brandon really hasn’t seen a lot of those looks. To be honest, I don’t know how many (looks) we’re going to get this year. If I’m a DB, I’m going to line up outside and say, ‘I have all the help inside. You go in there, and hopefully, we’ll try to stop you.’”

The Bears’ red-zone offense was above-average last season, with an 89.5 percent scoring percentage and 52.6 percent touchdown percentage. But it could use some polishing, considering the 14 times they settled for field goals in 38 red-zone trips, to reach offensive coordinator Mike Tice’s goal of 60 percent touchdowns.

A significant part of the equation is having a capable goal-line back, and the Bears believe they have that now in Michael Bush.

But utilizing the size of Marshall and Jeffrey might be a better alterative at close range. Cutler has the flexibility to throw it over the top or utilize the back-shoulder fade with two big targets capable of leaping high or adjusting in midair.

Tice called it a flashback to his days with the Vikings.

“That’s what we had with Cris Carter (6-4) and Randy Moss (6-3),” he said. “They wanted that ball high and they wanted to go up and get it. They wanted to dominate in the low red zone.”

Marshall, now in his seventh season, has 44 career receptions inside the red zone, and 25 for touchdowns. Four of his six red-zone receptions last season for the Dolphins went for scores.

Despite the emphasis the coaches have put on Marshall high-pointing the ball, Cutler is not concerned.

“In fades, if he gets that opportunity … everybody has seen in practice what he can do,” Cutler said of Marshall.

Jeffery, the second-round pick from South Carolina, seemed to be more of a big-play receiver in college, with five touchdowns of 50 yards or more. Nine of his 23 career touchdown receptions came in the red zone.

“That’s where you have to be the most dangerous,” Jeffery said. “We ran a lot of fades in college and in high school, so I’m very comfortable with that route.

“And it really doesn’t matter which side I’m on. With Brandon and I, the sky’s the limit.”

At least Cutler now has the receivers to aim that high.

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