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Can Anthony Miller rediscover his mojo before the playoffs?

December 22, 2018

Since catching the dramatic touchdown to tie the game with no time on the clock at the end of regulation in the eventual overtime loss to the New York Giants, Chicago Bears rookie WR Anthony Miller has been shut out.

Zero catches in two games.

It’s the first time this season that Miller has gone through what you might call a production slump. That catch against the Giants was his only one of that game, and he was shut out in the second half of the previous game at Detroit.

So we’re talking about one catch for 1 yard now over his past 210 game minutes. That is what you might call a reduced role.

Is he burned out? Hitting the rookie wall? Not as good as Josh Bellamy? What’s the deal here?

The second-round pick got in a nice, little groove early in the season as a complementary part, and it was easy to see his upside, competitiveness and confidence. The Bears’ coaches saw it, too, and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said Thursday they “probably overloaded [Miller] to some extent in the middle of the season.”

In a five-game period from Week 8 to Week 12, Miller had some pretty steady statistical production: 18 catches (on 26 targets) for 274 yards (a 15.2 average) with three TDs, adding three rushes for 15 yards and an 8-yard passing completion.

But beginning with the two games Chase Daniel started at quarterback, and continuing on through the return of Mitch Trubisky the past two games, Miller has been a forgotten man. Against the Rams, Miller was only on the field 37 of the Bears’ 71 offensive snaps, and he followed that up with 26 out of 60 vs. Green Bay. He was only targeted by Trubisky once in those two games combined.

His only touches in those games have come as a kick returner. You can tell that duty remains new to him after barely doing it in college, and Miller occasionally will force the issue and bring a ball out of the end zone that he probably should take for a touchback. Some of that might be borne out of frustration from the limited opportunities as a wideout.

Helfrich admitted that part of that is because the Bears have dialed things back for him recently after force-feeding Miller earlier in the season.

“[We said,] ‘Oh, my gosh, throw everything at him!’ And we kind of throttled that back a little bit,” Helfrich said.

It’s not exactly the same situation, but I recalled a conversation I had this summer with Miller’s former wide receivers coach at Memphis, Holmon Wiggins, who told me that Miller went from zero-star recruit (and walk-on) as a freshman to the team’s best scout-team player by the end of his first season on campus. They had redshirted him but mulled the idea of burning the redshirt so he could play in the Tigers’ bowl game that year.

Ultimately, Wiggins delivered the news: Miller would have to wait his turn. It benefitted him and the team in the long run, as Miller would end up as the school’s all-time leading receiver. Wiggins told me that Miller didn’t voice his clear frustration but chose to channel that energy into being an even better practice player. That when the coach knew Miller would be special.

“And in a way only Anthony Miller could say it, he told me, ‘Coach, we are going to get to a game better than this, trust me,’” Wiggins said. “That’s just the confidence that kid has in himself and his ability.”

Helfrich echoed those sentiments on Friday, saying it was easy to envision Miller’s confidence on kick returns “[carrying] over to playing receiver at some point,” adding that he and the team remained “very, very excited about his future.”

But can Miller reemerge this season and help the Bears down the stretch? He might not have to, but having another arrow in the quiver certainly would be a benefit for Trubisky, Helfrich and head coach Matt Nagy.

This is as good a week as any to find that mojo again. Sunday’s opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, have allowed a league-worst 22 receiving touchdowns to wide receivers, two more TDs than any team has allowed so far. Richard Sherman has been mostly great for them, but the rest of the secondary isn’t great.

Overall, even with this recent dry spell, Miller has had a successful rookie season with 30 catches for 399 yards and an impressive six TD grabs over his 13 games. If you’d care for some context from recent high draft picks, former 2012 second-rounder Alshon Jeffery had 24-367-3 receiving in 10 games his rookie year, and 2007 first-round TE Greg Olsen totaled 39-391-2 in 14 games his first season. The high-water mark over the past two decades among Bears receivers and tight ends came with Johnny Knox’s 45-527-5 receiving line in 15 games (zero starts) back in 2009.

Miller’s six TD catches are tied for the most by a Bears rookie since Willie Gault’s eight in 1983, and that figure carries further significance. Back in May, Miller told ESPN’s Matthew Berry that the fantasy analyst’s preseason projection of four rookie touchdowns was painfully low. Miller had that part right, but he’s got two more in two games to match his own prediction of eight in Year 1.

That could be tough. But don’t be shocked if Miller makes a little more noise down the stretch after this recent lull. Helfrich says the key is playing fast.

“Particularly at receiver, [you need] the ability to play at top speed,” he said. “You know, a guy that is not thinking too much. You can see guys think through their route rather than just run their route or think through a blocking scheme rather than just execute.”

If Miller heeds that advice, and Trubisky rediscovers his connection with the rookie, it wouldn’t be stunning to see an uptick before the Bears hit the playoffs.

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