- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The expected return of rookie receiver Alshon Jeffery for the matchup Monday night against the San Francisco 49ers might restore, or at least boost, offensive production in the passing game down the middle of the field for the Chicago Bears.
That’s an area where the Bears seem to be lacking, but interestingly, it’s where Jeffery excels based on the statistics.
“We’re very happy to see that he’s out there practicing,” Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice said. “He hasn’t had any setbacks. He’s taken his reps, and it’s very encouraging.”
The Bears tabbed Kellen Davis as the answer on throws down the middle of the field, where the team could use the tight end’s 6-foot-7, 267-pound frame to exploit potential mismatches. Targeted 22 times down the middle, Davis hauled in nine balls and dropped five, contributing 104 yards and two touchdowns as quarterback Jay Cutler produced a 67.8 passer rating on throws down the middle with six interceptions and seven touchdowns through the first nine games.
Set to start in Cutler’s place on Monday, backup Jason Campbell completed 5-of-10 passes for 22 yards down the middle in the second half against the Texans.
“For me, it’s just getting out there and just getting comfortable, trying to get my rhythm and go from there,” Campbell said.
The Bears might be able to help by sending Jeffery on routes down the middle, where he’s proven to be more reliable than Davis. Over the first five games Jeffery played, Cutler targeted him eight times down the middle of the field with the rookie catching five balls for 90 yards and both of his TDs.
The only time Cutler targeted Jeffery down the middle on a throw 20 yards or longer, the rookie pulled it in for a 42-yard touchdown in the opener against the Indianapolis Colts.
Bears coach Lovie Smith said it would be “huge” for Jeffery to play against the 49ers, adding the rookie “was playing great ball when he went down with the injury,” and gives Campbell “another big target.”
“It will just help period, getting a guy like that back,” receiver Brandon Marshall said. “He's a great talent, and whenever you have a guy like that on the field it just opens it up for the other guys.”
Rookie Evan Rodriguez falls into that category, and he’s expected to play a more significant role in the offensive game plan against the 49ers. The team wanted to expand Rodriguez’s role earlier than now, but he’s struggled to return to form after spraining a knee on Sept. 23 against St. Louis.
Tice said the team needs to find more consistent options in the passing game.
“He’s worked his way back in over the last three weeks,” Tice said of Rodriguez. “We’ve got to see if we can get someone else the ball besides Brandon. So hopefully he’s one of the guys.”