The Bears have insisted from Day 1 that they don't need a traditional go-to guy for the passing attack to be successful in offensive coordinator Mike Martz's scheme.
And they haven't made an obvious effort to feature any one player.
But, heading into Sunday's clash with the Lions in Detroit, they do have a clear-cut No. 1 receiver: Johnny Knox.
Martz's play-calling has kept everyone involved in the passing game, and quarterback Jay Cutler has done an impressive job of distributing the ball judiciously. As a result, five Bears have between 29 and 40 catches after 11 games.
But Knox, whose 40 catches lead the way, has 740 receiving yards, which are exactly double that of the next teammate, Devin Hester, who has 370 yards on 31 catches. Knox's average of 18.5 yards per catch ranks seventh in the NFL, and among players with at least 40 catches, only the Broncos' Brandon Lloyd is averaging more yards per catch (19.3) than Knox, who is on pace for a 1,076-yard season.
"He's the kind of guy you've got to account for defensively," Cutler said. "If not, he'll get going. He's got so much speed in that second level that he'll get away from you in a hurry."
When the Bears drafted Knox last year in the fifth round out of Division-II Abilene Christian, they knew he had elite speed. He officially ran a 4.34 at the Scouting Combine and was clocked as low as 4.26.
Add in soft hands that gently absorb even the hardest of Cutler's fastballs and a toughness across the middle that belies his slender, 6-foot, 185-pound frame, and Knox is a legitimate go-to guy. He's ideally suited for the Bears' "X" position, where he is split wide and can frequently be a deep target.
"The X position has a tendency to get isolated, and a guy with real speed, like Johnny has, creates a lot of opportunities," Martz said. "One on one, like you saw in that [Eagles] game, I think he's an elite player. I'm not sure he even knows how good he can be yet with that much speed. He's just learning, too. Absolutely, he would be considered [a No. 1 receiver] at that position."
But you won't hear the soft-spoken Knox refer to himself in such glowing terms.
"Not at all," he said, when asked if he was the Bears' go-to guy. "You really couldn't tell who was a No. 1 in the past in Mike Martz's offenses. There were three or four guys getting balls, and in this offense you see the same thing. So I really don't feel like a No. 1 in this offense. I just feel like another playmaker."
He definitely is that. Although seven different players have led the Bears in receptions or tied for the lead on game day through the first 11 games, Knox has led in yards six times and he was second in four other games, including Sunday against the Eagles when his three catches totaled 68 yards.
The only game in which Knox wasn't first or second in yards was the season opener against the Lions, when he had three catches for 52 yards.
As a rookie last year in Ron Turner's offense, Knox caught 45 passes for 527 yards, and his five receiving touchdowns were second on the team. Learning Martz's offense has taken time for everyone, but Knox hasn't let it slow his development.
"He's getting better and better with his routes," Cutler said. "He's getting better and better at learning the offense. He's still a young player in the league, so to have to learn two different offenses quickly is tough."
Earlier in the season, it seemed there was one play in almost every game when Knox cut one way and Cutler's pass sailed in the other direction. But lately, they're more in sync.
"In the past month, we've been clicking and getting that timing right," Knox said. "We're just trusting in each other and each week working on getting our timing right so we'll be on the same page come Sunday."
NOTES AND QUOTES
The Lions' third-string quarterback, Drew Stanton, will be making just his second NFL start Sunday against the Bears.
Stanton, who gets the call because Matthew Stafford and Shaun Hill are out with injuries, was a rookie in Detroit when Martz was running the Lions' offense. The Michigan State product does not recall that year fondly.
"That's behind me, and I want to leave it back there," Stanton said. "That was something that I had to go through, and I grew up in the process. I'm stronger now because of it.
"Obviously, with some of the stuff that he was doing with my mechanics and what-not just wasn't natural for me. That's not my focus. I'm not taking a snap against Mike Martz, so I'm not really too worried about what he's got going on over there, other than just trying to get more points than they do."
Asked if he had retained any of the many changes that Martz made in his fundamentals, Stanton said, "Not a single one. This is a different offense. [Lions quarterbacks coach Scot] Loeffler definitely helped me change all of that around and showed me how to get my body in a position to throw."
Stanton, whose only start was last season, has completed 20 of 36 passes this season for 233 yards with one touchdown, one interception and a 73.0 passer rating.
Martz had this to say about Stanton: "Great competitor, smart guy. He's a strong guy, but when things break down, he can make plays with his feet. The thing that impressed us in college was his ability to come back and make plays to win big games. That's what the job at quarterback is, to get that team in the end zone and win however you do it. He's got that about him. He's got that quality." ...
Defensive end Julius Peppers was less than overwhelmed with his NFC Defensive Player of the Month award for November.
"I like to get those things, but it doesn't really mean anything," Peppers said. "Winning games is what's important around here, and that's what we're trying to do."
For the month, Peppers had four sacks, second best in the NFL, 13 tackles, a pass deflection that led to an interception and two tackles for loss. More important, according to Peppers, the defense held opponents to an NFL-low 65 rushing yards per game in November and quarterbacks to an NFL-low 69.5 passer rating.
"My name is on it, but it's a team award," Peppers said. "It's good recognition to show how hard and how well we've been playing as a unit. We don't want to have Pro Bowl players. We want to have Super Bowlers. That's what a coach told me one time. We don't want to get too full of ourselves just yet." ...
Cutler was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week after completing 14 of 21 passes for 247 yards and four touchdowns with a career-high 146.2 passer rating in the 31-26 victory over the Eagles.
"It's special, especially for the rest of the guys in this offense," Cutler said. "Without them, I'm not able to do anything, so the offensive line should take a lot of pride in that." ...
Linebacker Brian Urlacher leads the Bears with 89 tackles, nine tackles for loss, three fumble recoveries, is second with seven pass breakups and third with 2.5 sacks after missing 15 1/2 games last season with a dislocated wrist.
He's made an impression on Lions coach Jim Schwartz.
"I think he's been outstanding this year," Schwartz said. "Obviously, missing all of last season was a big setback, not only for him, but for the Bears and their defense. But he's got a time machine somewhere because he dialed it back about three or four years, and he's playing at a really high level. I don't know if there is a middle linebacker playing at a higher level in the NFL."
QUOTE TO NOTE
"It's way too early for that. We ain't even thinking about that right now." – DE Julius Peppers, when asked about the Super Bowl.
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