Rarely will the Bears need more impact from their tight ends than Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks. Rarely will that be more difficult than against the Seahawks, whose safeties (Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas) are the elite tandem in the NFL.
But when coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase declared unequivocally that the Bears would commit to running the football, actions in the preseason underscored their statements: 220 plays, 114 rushes (51.8 percent).
Despite never leading in the loss to the Arizona Cardinals and being ahead only briefly in the loss to the Green Bay Packers, the Bears have stayed the running course: 45.9 percent run.
But there’s something slightly odd about how the Bears are going about this. Or maybe just a little bit unorthodox.
The Bears opened both games with multiple tight ends – three (Martellus Bennett, Khari Lee, Zach Miller) against Green Bay, and two (Bennett, Miller) against Arizona. With no fullback on the roster, there's nothing really unusual there.
What is unusual is the template for Bears tight ends. Bennett is a prototypical tight end (6-6, 275 pounds) with speed and good hands. The Bears have run 149 offensive plays this season. Bennett has been on the field for all but three of them (98 percent).
But Lee is 235 pounds and Miller 240, not the widebody model of a Brandon Manumaleuna or grinder type usually associated with a balanced offense committed to running.
“It's cool,” Bennett said. “I like to see the guys get out there and play. Those guys work hard every single day. Zach and Khari are learning but it's fun to see them get a chance to go out there and compete.
“’Thirteen’ personnel is always good. You see ‘13,’ that means your tight ends, if you've got a good set of tight ends you can roll out 13 personnel for an entire series.”
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Even without a complete complement of wide receivers, the Bears have not tilted over toward being a tight-end-based offense, even in the run component. Miller played 14 snaps against Green Bay and 11 against Arizona. Lee played two against Arizona and 11 vs. Green Bay.
But it is the variety of fits for Lee and Miller in particular that bears notice. Miller in particular has been posted in nearly every alignment, all the more remarkable because he had not played in a regular-season NFL game since 2011 because of injuries.
“I think there’s a place,” Miller said of roles for undersized tight ends. “These last couple weeks I’ve been moving around all over the place and I think there’s ways we can use that to help us a unit.”
It is a very motivated unit. Bennett held out of offseason work as part of an effort to secure a new contract. Lee was an undrafted rookie free agent with the Houston Texans, who traded him to the Bears before the season. Miller, the victim of one season-ending injury after another, including last year when he caught six passes in a preseason game vs. the Philadelphia Eagles, then was done for the year after being injured the next week against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“I'm very proud of Zach and the work he's been putting in all camp and the things that he's been doing,” Bennett said. “Hopefully he'll get a chance to catch some balls and make some plays out there.”
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Miller caught a Jay Cutler pass on the first play vs. Arizona, then another on the Bears’ second possession that culminated in a Josh Bellamy touchdown. Modest beginnings for another “comeback” for a player who has stayed NFL-ready under the most demoralizing circumstances.
“I love it. I love this game. I love the work. I love being around the guys,” Miller said. “It’s just something I’ve grown up doing and want to keep doing it as long as I can.
“I’ve had time to work on my craft and then got hurt. I came back, worked on my craft, and then got hurt. But I was able to stay up on what I was doing. So I don’t feel like I’m out of place. I still believe I can produce and be a good football player.”