Normally, the Browns’ secondary plans are pretty obvious: Joe Haden will cover the opposing team’s No. 1 wide receiver and Buster Skrine will operate on the No. 2 receiver and occasionally slip into the slot.
The Chicago Bears, though, present an uncommon problem for opposing secondaries: they have two No. 1 wide receivers.
The known commodity is four-time Pro Bowler Brandon Marshall. The newcomer is second-year pro Alshon Jeffery, whose emergence as a lethal down-field threat has bolstered an already strong Bears passing attack.
No tandem has been as productive as Marshall-Jeffery in the NFL this season. Both have more than 1,000 yards for the season. They have the most receiving yards as a duo in the league with 2,283 (1,193 for Jeffery and 1,090 for Marshall), topping even the Denver Broncos’ Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker (2,237 yards combined), who have future hall of famer Peyton Manning throwing to them.
Marshall is fourth in the NFL with 84 catches, Jeffery is tied for seventh with 75. Marshall has nine touchdown receptions and Jeffery has six.
“It’s going to be a good test for the whole secondary, for the whole team,” Haden said Wednesday. “They have really, really talented receivers. ... They have a lot of weapons and we just have to be prepared and definitely come out and be ready to play our best.”
Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton likened the Bears to the Detroit Lions, who have multiple talented receiving options. The Bears and Lions also each have running backs who can catch the ball out of the backfield, Reggie Bush for the Lions and Matt Forte, who Horton called the league’s best at catching the screen pass, for the Bears.
“This team, Chicago, is a lot like Detroit in that they have weapons at every position,” Horton said. “Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery have the most catches in the league. They have the most combined yards in the league. They are both, in our mind, No. 1 receivers. They present a challenge that you can’t double everybody. You can’t roll up to one guy because the other guy’s open.”
Marshall and Jeffery aren’t just fantastic receivers, they’re big, too. Jeffery, at 6-foot-3, 216 pounds, is the smaller of the two. Marshall is 6-4 and weighs 230 pounds. Which means Marshall has 5 inches of height and 40 pounds on Haden, and Jeffery is 6 inches taller and more than 30 pounds heavier than Skrine.
Haden is prepared for a fight.
“He [Marshall] is super physical, and he’s super athletic,” Haden said. “When he catches the ball, he’s not trying to go down. Every time he catches the ball, he’s trying to score. ... You just got to do what you can do, see what you can get away with in the beginning. You’ve got to try to be physical, because they’re going to be pushing off, so you’ve got to be able to play that game.”
Haden will most likely be on Marshall for most or all of the game. He knows a thing or two about Jeffery, too, as the two played against one another in college (Haden went to Florida, Jeffery to South Carolina).
Jeffery is the only other receiver in the league to have multiple 200-yard receiving games besides the Browns’ Josh Gordon. Jeffery had 249 yards against the Minnesota Vikings on Dec. 1 and 218 against the New Orleans Saints on Oct. 6. Those are the top two receiving days yards-wise in Bears history.
His emergence, which takes some heat off Marshall, is prolonging the elder receiver’s career.
“From a personal standpoint, it definitely makes my job easier. It’s going to extend my career,” Marshall said. “Whenever you’ve got a guy that can take pressure off of you on the other side and also be the guy that [can] lead the way, it’s special and it definitely helps me out because teams can’t double me and triple me the way they used to.”
Marshall and Jeffery’s career playing together is only in the beginning stages. Both are in the top 10 in nearly every major receiving category, and they’ve done it in the midst of a quarterback change from Jay Cutler to Josh McCown and back.
Haden, though, says he and Skrine look forward to the challenge.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RyanLewisABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.