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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Johnny Knox Should Not Be Above Devin Hester

Slot, X, Z- it doesn't really matter if you're just faster than the other guy.

After Johnny Knox's hot start to the season, I've heard several fans talk about how he already seems to be a better wide receiver than Devin Hester and how he should be the number one wideout. This ignores some pretty fundamental issues that are the very reasons Why Knox has done so well so far.

1. He's the slot receiver. Slot receivers are typically matched up against the nickelback or even a safety. With his blazing speed Knox is a mismatch for nearly any safety, and he's obviously a better mactch up in coverage with a team's third best corner than their number one.

2. He's Only a slot receiver. Multiple times over the course of training camp the Bears mentioned that they were limiting Knox's practice reps to the slot position, as Earl Bennett last year had trouble digesting the playbook while learning the X, Z, and slot positions. By placing Knox primarily in the slot and only as the X in certain packages, they limit the playbook for the rookie and help him to get on the field early.

3. The slot receiver is the hot read. Cutler isn't necessarily looking for Knox first on many plays because he prefers him to Hester or Bennett, he's doing it because Green Bay and Pittsburgh have been bringing the kitchen sink and the hot route on most plays in a three wide set is the slot receiver. Given Knox's speed, he's the perfect receiver to hit on the quick slant against man coverage (assuming he doesn't just stop mid route and let Cutler get picked off).

I love Johnny Knox. The kid's speed and his ability to make plays despite coming out of FCS (1-AA) Abilene Christian as an unknown are impressive. However, if the Bears were to flip flop Hester and Knox in the lineup, Hester would get the targets Knox has been getting as long as team's choose to blitz the Bears on every passing down.

What this really means, is that despite Morrissey and countless others' gloom and doom, the Bears actually have legitimate talent at wide receiver. Lost in the panic over Cutler's four interceptions was the fact that Bennett (7 for 66), Hester (4 for 90, TD), and Knox (2 for 82) all had the best receiving games of their young careers against a team widely regarded as having one of the best secondaries in football, with corners Al Harris and Charles Woodson and safeties Atari Bigby and Nick Collins. During the game against Green Bay the Bears had a total of five pass plays that went for over 20 yards, easily the highest total the team has had in years.

What's likely is that the Bears will cut back slightly on the two tight end sets they ran most of the time last year and work in more three wide receiver sets. Similar to the base offense of the New England Patriots, the Bears could pull Jason McKie out of the game and use Greg Olsen as more an H-Back than a tight end, a player used to either block out of the backfield or motion to the line of scrimmage as a tight end. They could also, as we've seen, motion Olsen out wide and run a four wide, or even a five wide with Matt Forte also lining up in scrimmage. They experimented with this a bit last week, as they used a three wide receiver set far more than they did in almost any game last year (believe it or not, they just weren't that eager to make sure they got Marty Booker, Brandon Lloyd, or Rashied Davis on the field that often).

If the Bears can run the ball effectively against Seattle (and I think they will), they can set up the play action pass, which is the most effective component of Ron Turner's offense when it's at its best. This will open up both Hester and Knox downfield for even more deep balls. Really, when you consider the mismatches that a healthy Bears receiving corps featuring the speed of Hester and Knox, the hands of Bennett, the power of the Clark/Olsen (or even Kellen Davis for that matter) duo, and the ability of Matt Forte to release out of the backfield, it's a wonder anyone was really all that worried at all about Cutler having enough targets.

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