This will come as no surprise: The Bears are last in the NFL with 1,404 passing yards, and are second-to-last with 13 passing plays of 20 or more yards (only the Baltimore Ravens, with 10, have a lower total).
Of the seven Bears players with double-digit targets, one is on injured reserve (Zach Miller, 35), one is on the Buffalo Bills (Deonte Thompson, 18) and one hasn’t been targeted since the last time the Bears played the Green Bay Packers (Josh Bellamy, 17). Two are running backs (Tarik Cohen, 39; Jordan Howard, 21), and then there’s one consistently-used receiver in that group (Kendall Wright, 34).
So change is coming to this group of pass-catchers. And with it is a sort of budding confidence that the group hope pays off on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.
“It’s the most full-strength (group) that we’ve had so far,” wide receiver Tre McBride said. “And outside of Kevin (White) and Cam (Meredith) returning, this is as healthy as it’s going to get right here. So that’s good. That’s all we need. Obviously we love our boys and our teammates, but we’re confident that we can get it done with our group that’s playing right now.”
A look at where these receivers stand heading into the second half of the season:
The 6-foot-3 Inman brings a size component to the Bears’ offense it hasn’t had since Meredith (6-foot-3) and White (also 6-foot-3) suffered season-ending injuries. Coaches have raved about Inman’s work ethic since arriving at Halas Hall two weeks ago — “he's the guy who is in my office at 6:30 in the morning and wanting to go through plays,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said — and he’s lined up to make his Bears debut Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.
Inman averaged about six targets and 3 1/2 catches per game last year; those numbers will probably be lower in these final eight games of 2017 given the Bears probably won’t throw as much as the Chargers did. But if Inman quickly develops a chemistry with Mitchell Trubisky, he’ll be part of the mix to make an impact starting Sunday.
Wheaton was a full participant in practice on Thursday and looks set to play for the first time since he suffered a groin injury in practice in mid-October.
“We’re trying to figure out still where exactly he is, what exactly he’s good at,” Loggains said. “We have to rely a lot on the 2015 tape when you evaluate him because he missed some time in 2016.”
Wheaton has the speed to be a deep play threat, but until he and Trubisky can link up for some big chunks of yardage, defenses may not respect what he can do. And Wheaton knows for Loggains to call for some of those deep shots, he needs to prove he can execute those plays.
“We gotta keep attacking,” Wheaton said. “We gotta build confidence in them (coaches) upstairs to continue to attack. And that comes here, on the practice field every day, in the meeting room, watching film, we just gotta continue to grow as individuals and that’ll continue to carry over.”
If Wheaton (or Inman, or anyone else) can execute some downfield plays, it will greatly help alleviate the pressure at the line of scrimmage faced by Howard, and in turn should lead to a decrease in negative runs for the Bears' offense.
McBride is coming off the best game of his career (three catches, 92 yards) and succeeded when he was schemed into open space via stack/bunch formations. He’s a player the Bears liked when they claimed him off waivers after cut-down day in early September but took a little while to assimilate into the offense. He and Trubisky had a good rapport against New Orleans, and McBride said he’s confident that chemistry will continue to grow going forward.
“It’s reps — not even scripted practice reps, but real, live game reps where you got people flying at you trying to hurt you,” McBride said. “That is what’s going to bring the passing game together as a whole. A lot of it’s going to be done on the fly, and that’s just how it is, the profession that they pay us to do.”
Wright is not only the most established receiver in this group, but he could stand to benefit the most from the addition of Inman, the return of Wheaton and the progress of McBride. It was tough for the Bears to get Wright — who is viewed primarily as a slot receiver — into games without a pair of reliable outside receivers, but if two of the Inman/Wheaton/McBride trio play well, it could lead to Wright being on the field more. That’d be good news for Trubisky, especially on third down, when Wright’s savvy ability to get open past the chains can come in handy.
Despite not being targeted in over a month, Bellamy plays a key role on special teams and is likely to be active on Sunday and beyond because of it.
Gentry may be the odd man out and wind up inactive against Green Bay assuming Inman and Wheaton are active. He’s played no fewer than 86 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps in the three games he was active in October, but only has one catch on three targets in those games.
As for the non-receivers in the Bears' passing game:
Sims has missed back-to-back practices this week with an illness, which could put his status for Sunday in jeopardy. He hasn’t been much of a factor in the passing game this year, but did catch a touchdown against Baltimore and might be in line for an uptick in targets without Miller. Sims’ potential absence, though, will be felt mostly in the run game, to the point where coach John Fox floated the possibility an offensive lineman could line up at tight end some on Sunday.
Brown may see the biggest increase in snaps with Miller out, given he best fits the injured tight end’s pass-catching mold. The Bears liked Brown’s pass-catching ability when they added him from the Ravens last year, and he caught 16 passes for 124 yards in six games in 2016.
While Shaheen hasn’t lived up to the second-round expectations placed on him this year, he can expect to play more than 50 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps for the first time this year, especially if Sims is inactive Sunday. Even if Brown gets some more targets, Shaheen should too.
Braunecker contributed on special teams last year and should be in the mix to fill Brown’s role there after being promoted from the practice squad on Tuesday.
Cohen’s pass game usage declined from September (29 targets, 24 catches, 150 yards, 1 TD) to October (10 targets, four receptions, 89 yards), but the rookie said he doesn’t feel like he’s hit a wall.
“I feel like I’m good,” Cohen said. “I’m refreshed. The bye week came at a perfect time. But even before the bye week I didn’t necessarily feel like I was getting sluggish or running into any type of wall.”
Opposing defensive coordinators quickly schemed to mute Cohen’s production after his explosive debut, but the Bears still can find ways to get the ball in his hands — like on his 70-yard reception against the Carolina Panthers.
While Howard’s catch percentage is up from last year (58 percent in 2016, 67 percent in 2017), he’s dropped two likely touchdowns against Atlanta in Week 1 and New Orleans in Week 8. The next time one of those throws goes Howard’s way, they’ll need their best offensive player to catch the ball.