It was a simple play for most NFL offenses, but a notable one for the Bears.
On first-and-10 from the Bears’ 47-yard line in the fourth quarter against the Packers last week, tight end Cole Kmet sashayed off the line of scrimmage and found a soft spot between four defenders — two linebackers in front of him, two safeties in back of him — turned around and was wide open for a 21-yard catch from Justin Fields for another first down at the Packers 32-yard line. Seven plays later, the Bears scored a touchdown to cut the Packers lead to 17-14.
It was a good play call, a good route, a good throw and an easy catch.
“It’s nice — the kind of play where I can just read the coverage there and just kind of find a void in the defense,” Kmet said. “So hopefully we’ll get more plays like that where you’re just kind of able to run vertical and find that void. I’m a big target and Justin is able to hit me. So it was a good play, good execution on that.”
An open tight end is the sign of a good offense — sometimes it’s a good play call and good route running; other times its conflict-of-assignment caused by other weapons a defense has to account for. It takes more than one time to be a true harbinger. But, as has been made painfully clear over the last four seasons, this Bears offense has to take small steps before taking a big one.
Kmet’s four receptions for 49 yards against the Packers was his biggest day of the season. That was tied with the Buccaneers’ O.J. Howard for the 12th-most yards for a tight end in the NFL last week, so it’s too early for a parade. But still a sign of progress for the Bears’ offense that Kmet acknowledged felt good.
“Yeah — finally get some stuff downfield and what-not,” Kmet said. “The stuff I like doing as a tight end — just big-body catches and things like that. So hopefully we can continue with that this week.”
Tight end production has been a particularly sticky issue for Bears coach Matt Nagy this season. Coming from the Chiefs, the tight end is almost a bellwether as much as a weapon for Nagy’s offense. Yet the lack of production in the passing game looms more and more like a red flag — that something’s not working.
Tight ends Kmet (14 receptions, 130 yards, no touchdowns), veteran Jimmy Graham (1-11, no touchdowns) and Jesper Horsted (1-2, one touchdown) have combined for 16 receptions for 143 yards and a touchdown in six games this season.
But as the Bears’ offense has focused on establishing a running game after the nine-sack, 47-total-yards debacle against the Browns, Kmet and Graham, have been used more as blockers than receivers. That’s been effective — and Graham’s effectiveness as a blocker has been a pleasant surprise — but that’s not the main reason why either player is here.
Nagy was hopeful the success with Kmet last week will lead to more.
“Hopefully that’ll grow a little bit as we build this identity on offense. They’ve been so valuable blocking. And to be able to get that second element of being pass-catchers and morph that together, [like] if you do a play-action, they’re blocking well and now all of a sudden they release and you can hit them like we hit a few last week — we want to keep that growing. I give those [tight ends] a lot of credit, because they’re selfless individuals that just want to win. Not winning last week [against the Packers] and knowing we can play better is what keeps them hungry.”
Last year against the Buccaneers, Kmet wasn’t even targeted once in the passing game in a 20-19 victory at Soldier Field, but Bears tight ends coach Clancy Barone celebrated a block by Kmet against Bucs linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul on a jet-sweep by Cordarrelle Patterson that gained two yards as a breakthrough.
“When the game was over … I had a couple of calls on my drive home from some of my peers around the league,” Barone said last year, “and they were all talking about the same thing — the very first play of the game and something that will never show up in any box score.”
Indeed, Kmet already is an effective blocker. But this offense needs more. A blocking tight end is an asset. An open tight end is a weapon that takes an offense to another level.