Bears wide receiver Devin Hester is sometimes defined as a ‘game breaker’ because of his great ability to change games with one play. Typically, the one play that changes the game is a kick or punt return. However, against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night, Hester changed the tone of the game early on with his receiving skills.
Coming out of the University of Miami, Hester was a jack-of-all-trades player, as he was used all over the field just so the team could utilize his open field vision and speed against opponents. He returned kicks, punts, played wide receiver as well as running back. Now he’s a full-time wide receiver for the Bears and has improved each year. One of the parts of his game that he’s improved in is route running. He’s still not great at it, but he’s improving, and it showed against the Vikings in the first quarter when he caught a 48-yard pass for a touchdown.
In the pre-snap phase of the game, the Bears came out in 21 personnel, which is two backs and one tight end. At the snap of the ball, the Bears called for play action, faking the handoff to versatile and talented running back Matt Forte. Quarterback Jay Cutler did an excellent job faking the handoff and getting his eyes up and downfield.
By executing the play action well, it caused the linebackers to come forward and attack the line of scrimmage aggressively. The linebackers were responsible for the two backs of the Bears, as the Vikings played Man-Free coverage. Man-Free is one of the coverages that they frequently play, as they mix it up with their traditional and base Tampa 2 coverage. On the play, the Vikings showed a 2-high safety shell before rotating their strong safety down into the box, leaving free safety Husain Abdullah as the single-high safety in Man-Free coverage. By rotating down, they had eight defenders in the box to account for the eight gaps presented by the Bears offense.
(credit smartfootball.com for the image)
On this play, the Bears gave quarterback Jay Cutler great protection, as they blocked the Vikings’ front with seven before the running back and fullback checked out into the flats. In the open field, the Bears called for the Post-Dig pass concept. This concept is commonly run against many coverages, such as Quarters. It’s also effective against Man-Free, as seen on this play.
(credit smartfootball.com for the image)
With the Bears coming out in 21 personnel, it meant that they had two wide receivers out on the field. To the right of Cutler, wide receiver Roy Williams ran a Dig pattern. This route is often run at about fifteen yards deep, which is what Williams did. Williams is known for running routes short of required depth as well as rounding the routes off, but he did well this time. Simultaneously, Hester ran a Post route on the left side of the formation.
Hester did two things that are crucial to every route: don’t give it away and sell it. It is very important for a wide receiver to not give away what route he’s going to be running and it’s something inexperienced wide receivers tend to do. On this play, Devin Hester does not do that, and the way he does it is by keeping his eyes straight down field as he explodes into his route and eats up the gap between himself and the cornerback, Cedric Griffin.
Moreover, it is crucial to sell the route you’re running. Hester did a great job of planting his outside foot and shoulders in the opposite direction of his destination to move the cornerback over, which created the leverage advantage for him.
Once Hester created the leverage advantage for himself, he was ahead of Griffin and got behind the free safety in coverage, Husain Abdullah. Abdullah’s positioning on this play is interesting because if he was doing his job correctly, Hester shouldn’t have gotten behind him. In Man-Free coverage, Abdullah’s job is to backpedal at the snap of the ball with his shoulders squared, subsequently committing to one direction once the quarterback’s up-field shoulder is shown. Abdullah did this, but he read his key late, consequently getting over the top of Hester’s route late. This has been a constant issue for Abdullah the last two years, as he continually has struggled reading his keys on time and getting over the top of deep routes.
The Bears have had some struggles this season. They’ve provided poor protection for Cutler and the receivers have struggled to make plays. However, on Sunday night, neither was the case, as the Bears did a very good job protecting Cutler with the adjustments made from the previous game, and the receivers stepped up. This Cutler-to-Hester touchdown strike summed up the turnaround.