Eben Britton: How the Chicago Bears’ 6th Offensive Lineman Has Become Their Secret Weapon
The Chicago Bears have gathered many weapons for Jay Cutler, or whichever quarterback is under center. General manager Phil Emery brought in Brandon Marshall through trade, drafted Alshon Jeffery, signed Martellus Bennett, and re-vamped the offensive line. All of these players have been excellent this season, and their play has helped display Emery’s brilliance. However, there is another, lesser-known addition to the offense that has also increased their offensive potency. That player is Eben Britton.
Britton’s road from second-round right tackle to struggling guard to versatile tight end has been a strange one, but it is one that has worked out well for the Bears. He was drafted out of Arizona by the Jacksonville Jaguars with the 39th overall pick in the 2009 draft, and he would start every game of his rookie season at right tackle. During his second season, a shoulder injury ended his season after seven games, and a back injury slowed his return. While injured, a new right tackle emerged for the Jaguars, so they moved him inside to guard. That back injury would continue to bother him, and it resulted in another season on injured reserve. An ankle injury in 2012 year kept him banged up, and he quickly lost his starting spot once again.
Hitting free agency, Britton was not a highly desired player. He did not sign with the Bears until a week before the draft, and entering training camp, he did not have a guaranteed roster spot. He battled with J’Marcus Webb for the right tackle spot, and both would wind up losing to rookie fifth-round pick Jordan Mills. What kept Britton on the roster was his versatility, and he has been active every game because of it. He allows the Bears to keep a backup tackle and guard active in only one player.
It was not until the team’s week four game against the Detroit Lions that he was used as a sixth offensive lineman. At this point, the Bears were becoming increasingly disappointed in backup tight end Steve Maneri, and recently acquired Dante Rosario was and still is getting up to speed on the playbook and the offense. By the team’s next game, Maneri was inactive, and Britton has usurped him as the “blocking” tight end.
In that next game against the New Orleans Saints, Britton’s impact was really beginning to be felt. He was on the field for 16 offensive plays, roughly 29-percent. Two of the Bears’ top four longest plays in that game came when he was on the field. The longest was on a first and 10 in the third quarter. The Bears were down 23-7 at that point and they needed to put a drive together. After a few successful runs, they brought in Britton as an eligible receiver. This drew more defenders in the box, which allowed Alshon Jeffery to have one-on-one coverage deep over the middle, and Cutler would find him for a huge, 42-yard gain. That play would put the Bears in the redzone with a great opportunity to build some momentum and score. In that game, six of the plays that Britton was on the field for were runs that went for five or more yards, and three of them went for more than 10. In both the running and passing game, Britton was making a difference.
Against the New York Giants the following week, Britton saw the field for 24 offensive plays, and once again he would be involved in some momentum-building runs and passes. While none of his plays would be as spectacular as the bomb to Jeffery against the Saints, Britton’s impact was still felt. He saw the field on the team’s very first play, although it only resulted in a Cutler scramble for a few yards. It was becoming apparent that Britton was not just a gimmicky package, but rather a legitimate offensive tool. In the second quarter, he helped jump-start two straight scoring drives with run blocking that allowed Matt Forte to get to the second level. Then, on the first play of the third quarter, he comes in the game, and the Eben Britton Effect draws defenders into the box, allowing Cutler to find Brandon Marshall for a 15-yard game. That would be yet another scoring drive that Britton helped accelerate.
In the Bears’ most recent game against the Washington Redskins, Britton’s snap count came down but his impact did not. Although he only saw the field for 11 offensive plays, he made them count. In the first quarter, after a Charles Tillman interception return, the Bears were in the redzone and looking to punch it in. So, from second and goal from the two, the Bears brought in Britton in the shotgun formation, and his blocking helped spring Forte into the endzone on an always-physical goalline run. At the start of the third quarter, with Cutler out of the game, Britton blocked on a few key runs that put the Bears in field goal range, although Robbie Gould would miss it. Later, with the Bears down seven in the fourth quarter, with Josh McCown running the offense, they would bring in Britton on a first and 10 from their own 46-yardline. His presence brought defenders in the box and gave Jeffery a one-on-one on the outside, where McCown hit him for a 20-yard gain, putting the Bears in field goal range once again.
The utilization of Britton by the Marc Trestman and the Bears’ offense has been impressive. Has Eben Britton been single-handedly making the Bears’ offensive more effective? No, but the team has been better when he is on the field than when he is not.
As the chart shows, on the 52 plays that Britton has seen the field, the Bears have had more success as an offense than they do without him. Even more so, having Britton on the field has been significantly more effective than any two tight end formation that the Bears have fielded. When he is on the field, typically good things happen. He has been on the field for his share of negative plays too, but overall, his presence has been a very good thing for the Bears. Rushing for 6.23 yards per carry when he is on the field is huge. As an offensive lineman playing tight end, teams know that he is not a pass-catcher. He is going to block on every play and opponents know that, so they bring up extra guys to the line of scrimmage. Even with all the defenders against them, they can still get an average of six yards per run.
Does this mean the Bears should use Eben Britton all the time? No; he is not some unstoppable weapon. What it does mean is that Trestman understands how to effectively utilize a sixth offensive lineman and make do with the players he has. Britton is not a dominant blocker. If he was, he would be starting on the offensive line. But he has been a good blocker when called upon, and his new-found versatility is something that should help him earn paychecks in the future. He is an underrated part of this offense, and it will be interesting to monitor his use as the season continues. It seems as though the team would rather use Rosario in his place, but so far, Britton has really been effective. As long as he remains effective, the snaps should come. If someone had said before the season that Eben Britton would make this much of a difference in offensive production, they would have been ridiculed, but he really has made a difference. More power to him.
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