Bears' special teams something to watch
Bears' special teams something to watch
Keep your eyes on the return games if you want to see today's 'showdown'
Jay Cutler and Julius Peppers will be the focus -- as they should be -- when the Bears play the Seahawks today at Soldier Field.
We'll all be watching with breathless anticipation to see how Cutler responds to each big hit after missing the game last Sunday at Carolina with a concussion: Will he get up? Will he stay in the game? Will he know what day it is?
And Peppers already is more fun to watch on every down than any Bears defender since Brian Urlacher was in his prime in 2004-06.
But if there's a ''showdown'' in this game between the 4-1 Bears and the 2-2 Seahawks, it's on special teams, where Dave Toub's Bears will face the most lethal kick-return game in the NFL this season. Leon Washington vs. Josh Bullocks. Golden Tate vs. Corey Graham. Danieal Manning vs. Matt McCoy. Devin Hester vs. Devin Hester.
The biggest challenge might be on kickoffs, especially if special-teamer Brian Iwuh is called upon to replace injured starter Lance Briggs at weak-side linebacker.
Washington best in NFL
Washington, acquired by the Seahawks from the Jets for a fifth-round draft pick, is averaging 40.4 yards per kickoff return, which leads the NFL. He had kickoff returns of 101 and 99 yards for touchdowns against the Chargers.
And it's not like they're flukes, either. Washington is averaging 25.5 yards per return on his other eight returns.
The Bears, on the other hand, haven't allowed a touchdown on a deep kickoff in Toub's seven seasons as special-teams coordinator. The last one was a 96-yard return by the Lions' Reggie Swinton in 2003.
(The Lions' Casey Fitzsimmons returned a Bears kickoff 41 yards for a touchdown in 2007, but that came on a desperation onside kick in the final minute of a 37-27 loss.)
Bears punt coverage could be interesting, too. Seahawks rookie Golden Tate, the former Notre Dame receiver, is second in the NFL in punt returns (18.0 average, minimum eight), including a 63-yarder. The Bears already have been victimized by a rookie on punt returns -- the Cowboys' Dez Bryant took one back 62 yards for a score in Week 2.
But most of all, I'm looking to see how well-prepared Toub's units are for such an obvious challenge. By most accounts, Toub is a head coach-in-the-making. He learned under John Harbaugh, the current Ravens head coach who was Toub's boss as special-teams coordinator with the Eagles.
And I'm not going to argue with the notion that Toub is the best coach on the Bears right now. His units are not flawless, but they seem to have fewer problems that affect the Bears as a team.
You can't have enough aces
Toub and assistant Chris Tabor seem to adapt and adjust to adversity better, for one thing. Every time he loses an ''ace,'' such as Pro Bowler Brendon Ayanbadejo, another one appears. Tim Shaw wasn't even signed until Week 2 last season and ended up setting a team record with 30 special-teams tackles.
Shaw was a candidate for the Pro Bowl this season, but not here. The Bears cut him in favor of Iwuh, a better fit as a linebacker for the Bears' defense. No matter. Graham has stepped up with 11 special-teams tackles, and he's on pace to break Shaw's mark with 35.
''He puts good schemes together and lets us play off each other and lets us kind of feel the game and use our instincts,'' said Iwuh, who played special teams for four seasons at Jacksonville before coming to the Bears. ''He's very detailed in what we do, and everyone has to do their job.
''He just gets everybody to play hard.''
When Hester lost his kick-return mojo when the Bears made him a full-time receiver, Manning, Knox and Earl Bennett have returned kicks for touchdowns.
And Toub seems to make the most of what he's got. Garrett Wolfe is a 5-7, 185-pound running back lacking breakaway speed that the Bears can't seem to find any use for on offense. But he's a key special-teamer, and not as a returner, but as a coverage guy. Wolfe led the team with 21 special-teams tackles in 2008. And he's second to Graham this season with seven.
And players seem to respond to Toub -- another good sign. When asked about his 62-yard kickoff return against the Panthers after the game last Sunday, Manning said he read his blocks and quickly added, ''Coach Tabor and coach Toub scheming up a great return. It all goes hand in hand.''
So while watching Cutler and Peppers today, you might want to keep an eye on special teams. It might provide an insight into how well-coached the Bears really are.