Chicago Bears Training Camp Preview: Special Teams

Chicago Bears Training Camp Preview: Special Teams
Bears' LB Dom DeCicco (58) had 12 return tackles and eight return stops on special teams in 2011.

Part 2: Special Teams . . . “I'm telling you, every year special teams is going to win or lose you two or three ballgames. That proves true time after time." Matthew Slater, New England Patriots’ special teams captain.

In Chicago, the Bears have won their fair share of games thanks to a stellar special teams performance. And no player has been more game-changing on special teams in recent years than Devin Hester. Just have a look at these stats I extrapolated:

  • The Bears win, statistically, 76.5% of games in which Hester has a return for touchdown.
  • The Bears have won 17 total games in which Hester had a return for touchdown through four separate seasons (’06, ’07, ’10 and ’11). Broken down evenly, that’s 25% of their games each season.
  • The Bears have won at least four games as a direct result of a Devin Hester return for touchdown. Through every season in which he had scored one, that’s one win per season squarely on Hester’s shoulders.

Wow.

In this, the second of a three-part “Back to Bourbonnais” series leading up to Training Camp, we’ll take a look at the Bears’ current state of affairs on special teams, and I’ll give you an inside look at what I will be watching for as I cover the Bears from camp this preseason.

Coaching

A part of me (the bigger part, I promise), wants to see Dave Toub get his shot as a head coach in the NFL someday. The other part of me (the scared little girl part), wants him to stay in Chicago forever. Heck, maybe someday I’ll get to have my cake and eat it, too, and Toub will ultimately take over for Lovie Smith.

Regardless, I’m just happy he’s here for another season.

I won’t spend any more time on the coaching aspect here other than to say if you want to know how I feel about Dave Toub as a coach, just read.

Moving on . . .

The Kickers

Adam Podlesh: Listen to what I’m telling you: Adam Podlesh is one of the best young punters in the NFL. Period. But here’s the kicker (pun intended): he’s an athlete, too. Podlesh has receiver-like speed (4.4 40) and excels with directional kicking and ball placement. He has a strong leg and averaged 43.9 yards per punt in 2011. He’s not as good as the great Brad Maynard, he’s better.

Robbie Gould: The $2.85 million dollars Robbie Gould will receive this season makes him one of the higher paid kickers in the league in 2012. Prior to 2011, one of the knocks on Gould’s game was his lack of distance. But, last season, he stunned coaches by nailing six of six field goals from beyond the 50-yard mark. He hasn’t missed an extra point since his rookie season in 2005, and he hasn’t missed but two out of 88 field goals inside the 40-yard mark since 2007.

Will I be specifically watching these two guys in camp? Not so much. But it doesn’t hurt to remind why I don’t need to.

As for the rookie punter, Ryan Quigley, the Bears only carry one punter, so he’s behind Podlesh and likely to be released should Podlesh stay healthy through the preseason. Even then, it’s likely the Bears would look to a free agent veteran first if they had to. Best of luck all the same. He will get a chance to show teams around the league what he’s got in the preseason, however, and that’s what it’s all about for guys in his position.

Holders and Snappers

Mannelly’s back in the saddle again. Ahh, Patrick: the League’s buffest long snapper. He sometimes reminds me of one of those romance novel guys with the long hair and the . . . look at me, I’m rambling. The thing to watch with Pat is simply his health. Can he remain healthy through the preseason and keep snapping at 37?

Podlesh will be your holder.

The Return Men

You already heard me talk about what Devin Hester means to this team, and I’ll have more about just what I’m watching to see out of him in Training Camp when I get to the offense next week. As a return man, there’s little to make note of in advance. My eyes in the return game at camp/preseason will be on . . .

. . . Eric Weems: Despite what Mike Tice is trying to sell us, I think it makes all the sense in the world to make Weems your full-time kick returner and Devin your full-time punt returner. Weems has a better return net on kickoff returns than Hester and is a Pro Bowler himself. He’s not Devin Hester, let me be clear on that. But he is explosive on special teams.

I have my doubts about him on the offensive side of the ball, but that’s for another time. One thing to watch with Weems is how he’s faring coming off knee surgery just under one year ago.

Devin Thomas: Until I see him in action, I’m not sure what to make of him. And so, I suspect my eyes will be drawn to his performance in camp. Assuming he makes the roster (he very well may not), he’s sure to contribute on special teams. He’s extremely fast, can elevate the return game and can make plays. Keep your eye on him.

The Coverage Unit

LB Dom DiCicco, FB Tyler Clutts, S Chris Conte and RB Kahlil Bell (Conte and Bell for a portion of the season), and Craig Steltz are among those returning to the line-up, who also performed well on special teams in 2011. But, it will be the new guys my eyes will be on. Rookies Evan Rodrigues, Greg McCoy, and Brandon Hardin should be fun to watch. And veteran newcomers like linebackers Blake Costanzo and Geno Hayes have previously established track records of success on ST.

Phil Emery even talked about the possibility of putting first-round draft pick DE Shea McClellin on special teams duties here and there. This should come as no surprise to anyone—although it seems to be for some. It’s not at all uncommon for teams to do this. The Bears themselves did it with Brian Urlacher in his rookie season, and he excelled greatly.

All in all, the Bears have a plethora of personnel to choose from on special teams this season, and while not every player listed above is guaranteed a roster spot, the ability to play and excel on special teams is always a plus up at Halas Hall.

I’m excited to watch!


Filed under: Back to Bourbonnais

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  • Dave Toub will be a head coach in this league soon. Bears special teams play for the past several years has been nothing short of spectacular! All the more reason to be frustrated with Goodells constant attack on the fabric of the game....I hope the owners get their heads screwed on straight and push back on him when he sets a course for planet Yum Yum...a place where you can play football and nobody gets hurt and everybody is a winner!

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