The Bears use their tight ends in a variety of ways. Some plays, Martellus Bennett is lined up wide, and other times, Dante Rosario may be set in the backfield. Then there are times both players are along the line of scrimmage, serving as blockers.
Tight ends coach Andy Bischoff, in his second season with the team, recently talked with ChicagoBears.com about the reasons for all those formations, along with the value of playing basketball and how the team uses yoga balls to prevent injuries.
How do you prepare the tight ends, given the many different roles they have to play in the Bears' offense?
Well the neat part of the position is how many opportunities they have to do different things. And so, we are the most versatile group, in our eyes, and we are excited for the challenge. In terms of preparation, you just have to learn the whole offense and really focus on each segment: protection, run game, pass game. If you learn the formations and where you are supposed to get lined up, that helps you. But really it's just a focus, part of the position and what these guys are used to have been tight ends for quite some time.
Are there times you feel like a running backs coach or wide receivers coach, with all the different skills you have to teach?
Certainly. But our entire staff relies on one another. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. So when Martellus is lining up as a true wide receiver, I work closely with (wide receivers coach) Mike Groh and (offensive quality control coach) Carson Walch, and they help me through that. When receivers are lined up in places meant for more traditional tight ends, they may ask for my help with that. In the running back-type roles, (running backs coach) Skip Peete is a veteran NFL coach that I can bounce ideas off of there. So it's a part of how we put it all together, is that we have this group of nine men who all have different things they bring to the table, and certainly we help each other out.
Does the same philosophy apply to jumbo packages, where you may have tight ends serving as extra offensive linemen?
Tight end-wise, we use the same fundamentals as an offensive tackle. So when we talk about footwork, hands, eyes, leverage, placement of our body, the run fundamentals are really the same as if you were a tackle. And then you have this pass fundamental that has to be the same as a wide receiver. So there has to be this skill-set that has to be translated back-and-forth. Particularly in the run game, we have to be able to mirror that to the offensive line or else they wouldn't know to co-exist with one another.
Where has Martellus improved since you and he both arrived in the spring of 2013?
I think his biggest sense of improvement has come as he's become more comfortable with what we are asking of him. He asks questions to clarify his role, his responsibility on a play, so that improvement is that he's willing to listen to what we are saying. He's adjusted to our offense and is now more comfortable with what we are doing. And that's just part of a process of getting to know one another. And I think the comfort level is helping people see a better version of him. He's always worked hard, he's always studied hard and he's always taking great notes, but what I think he's now feeling is being more comfortable, which leads to more confidence.
One area where he has really shined this season is in the red zone, especially near the goal line. What makes him such a force in that part of the field?
Well he's a big target – he's 6-foot-7, 270 pounds of twisted metal. I think whenever you have that kind of target, it becomes attractive the closer you get to the end zone. You also look at the rest of our team and say, 'What's not to be attractive about Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and the rest of the guys?' So I think, he may catch five more red-zone touchdowns in the next five week and he may not catch any. We try to spread the ball around, we try to have balance, but he's certainly an attractive piece to what we can do in the red zone.
Martellus is one of many tight ends around the league, including Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham, that have a background playing basketball. How do you see skills on the court translating to the skills needed to play tight end?
I think there are times when you can say, 'Go up and high point the football like you are going to slam-dunk a basketball.' I think you can reference boxing a player out as it comes into play with some of the skills as a tight end.
Generally what you have is this unique athlete, and this tight end position in the NFL full of these very interesting athletes, these long, athletic explosive guys. And Martellus is in that same category with anybody around the league. And certainly his basketball background helps him on the football field.
One drill that I know fans noticed in training camp, and we in the media see often when observing some of practice, is the one where tight ends run around yoga balls. Can you describe this drill and explain why it is done?
I think as the league continues to change, safety is always a major aspect to any practice. So if you have a body flailing at you to simulate a tackler, or a something like a yoga ball. You are trying to give the guys an experience that's similar to the game in the safest possible capacity. So these yoga balls can be used as a device to make them change directions, have to make them make a decision about something in a fairly safe situation.
You just don't have enough time to work the fundamentals. So when you do get that individual time, you need to stress the daily fundamentals to have success in a practice. At the same time, what I try to focus on in the individual period, is things that we maybe had a mistake on in the previous week or in an area that we felt short in the previous week, technique-wise. That way we can say, 'On play 38 against the Packers, we were supposed to use this technique and we didn't. Or we weren't able to do it properly, now let's focus on that today and make it a point of emphasis.' So there's a balance of doing the daily routine, but also identifying the areas where we aren't getting our job done and trying to help them improve.