Earl Bennett is waiting for the snap. Without looking, he points at the line judge to ensure he’s lined up correctly on the 17-yard line, where the line of scrimmage stands. He then takes a step forward with his right foot, his inside foot, and stands on the line of scrimmage. Inside foot to the ball-side is the one that is always ahead of the two. Lining up is the first step to playing wide receiver.
Next is the hands. Most receivers don’t have their arms high and tight to their upper body. In this Trips Left set, in which Benentt is the No. 2 and slot receiver, he stands in between the monstrous Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, both towering targets who have their arms hanging to their sides. But not Bennett, whose elbows are bent and his hands are up high like he’s skiing.
Bennett hasn’t moved since he first set in his stance. He looks poised and focused, concentrating on the ball and the upcoming snap. On this 3rd-and-5 play in a heated 27-23 game, he’ll run a corner route that’ll break at 10-12 yards and eventually stretch a zone cornerback thin or run away from man coverage. It’s part of a passing concept, called “Smash,” that’s designed to beat a five under, two deep Cover 2 zone. He runs a corner route from the slot while the outside receiver, Marshall in this case, runs a five-yard hitch route and turns back to the quarterback. But before he runs the route, he has to get off the line of scrimmage.
It’s tough to get off the line from the slot against a press cornerback or safety. It’s different than being off the line, where there’s the luxury of having a free release and setting up the defensive back with it. No, in the slot and on the line, there’s no luxury; the receiver either wins at the line or he’s done. Doomed. Forget the route. Forget the throw. Forget the catch.
Bennett doesn’t have that problem, not on this play at least. He thinks back to the days he was just beginning to learn the fundamentals of playing the position and pulls out a simple technique that involves a jab of the foot in the opposite direction of where he’s headed. But he has to do it quickly and make sure his pad level’s low so he avoids late contact from Shamarko Thomas, the pressing rookie strong safety.
The ball is snapped and Bennett quickly turns his attention to Thomas. His first step is a jab inside with the right foot, which opens the floodgates. Thomas loses his footing after over-playing the pseudo inside release and then loses his base. His hips turn inside an inch and his arms go up. He’s reaching for air as if he’s drowning, looking to grab any part of Bennett to save himself.
Bennett knows Thomas is going to reach, so he does the smart thing by lowering his right shoulder and then raising his right arm over Thomas’. He knows what you know: when a defensive back is beaten, he’s going to grab the lowest end of the arm and try to get away with tugging on it as he recovers. It happens all the time and receivers always get grabbed. Sometimes there’s no penalty called. They complain, but it’s their fault.
Once Bennett breezes by Thomas, he’s a full yard in front and is free to kick it into high gear to begin the route. Covering blade-by-blade, yard-by-yard, he runs past the 10-yard line marker. Three more yards and he’ll break off his stem and turn to the corner of the end zone. Before he does that, though, he runs vertically with body control. This is clear by looking at the length of the route, which he’s ran in a straight-line. No zig-zags, just straight.
At the seven-yard line, he breaks and runs away from Thomas, who is doing his best to catch up. It won’t happen unless the throw from Jay Cutler is late, but that’s doubtful. Cutler and Bennett were college buddies on a bad Vanderbilt team and they were all the team had, so there’s chemistry between the two. History, too.
It’s a tight window for the throw and grab. Cutler has to place it in front of Bennett, who will then extend his arms and get both feet in. It’s difficult to do this, especially considering he has to drop his weight and drag his feet to stay inbound. Not all receivers can do this; it’s one of those talents that take time to develop, like a quarterback looking off a safety.
Cutler throws the ball and it sails over the head of the defense. The defenders, Thomas included, are helpless. All they can do is watch it come into the arms of Bennett and hope it’s not a touchdown. Hope that a big toe on the second foot swipes the boundary, making the pass incomplete.
Not all wishes come true. Bennett leaves the ground a few inches and catches the ball. He naturally swings it into his right armpit, something he was coached to do first after catching a football. Then his legs start to loosen up and his feet start to meet the ground. His left plants first, landing flat before turning inside and pointing down. Next is his right, which barely skims the grass before rising up again. After review, it’s deemed a touchdown.
Scoring is the final step to playing wide receiver.