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Bears Fri Oct 26 2012
The only time the third phase of the game gets press is when it's either incredibly good, or absolutely appalling. The Bears haven't been either, but that's the problem: they normally are outstanding. They haven't scored any touchdowns, and only gave up one on a beautifully executed fake field goal from the Packers. In fact, the unit is seventh in the average kick return yards allowed, and second in punt return yards.
Devin Hester who? The potential Hall of Famer has looked lost in the return game, which is unusual considering his workload on offense has been much lighter than in recent years. Heavy usage on offense has often been the cause of poor returns by Hester in previous seasons. This year, he just can't find a groove. It's not just running after the catch either. Hester has struggled tracking the ball in the air, and has waived off a number of punts to let them bounce, resulting in worse field position for the Bears.
It got to a point on Monday night where Earl Bennett and Eric Weems each took a turn to try and get the unit going with a big return. Hester also got the start at receiver due to the Alshon Jeffery injury, but he wasn't getting overworked to a point of a replacing him on the return team. He got benched due to ineffectiveness.
It's far from panic time though. One big return is all Hester needs to get his game rolling again. When he scores, he does it in bunches. And honestly, the Bears haven't needed him yet. But they will when the schedule gets tougher in a few weeks. Just ask Mike Tice. He believes this Sunday's tilt against the Panthers is a must-win because of the teams on the calendar come November and December.
Don't be surprised if you see special teams coordinator Dave Toub dial up something tricky over the next few games either. Carolina and Tennessee have both been hit with the injury bug, which means the special teams see some new faces that may not be totally prepared. Remember that crazy punt return that got called back against the Packers last season? Think about something similar to that over the next few weeks.
Punter Adam Podlesh has been miles from stellar too. Part of the reason why the Bears have been so adept at covering punts is simply because they haven't had to run very far to reach the returner. Podlesh is third to last in the NFL in punting average, and is in the bottom 10 in net average. When some of the top punters in the NFL are booting it over 50 yards on average, it may be time to make a change when your guy is averaging nearly eight yards less.
Robbie Gould is really the only special teamer that has been exemplary. His only field goal miss came against Detroit on a block that wasn't his fault. His kickoffs have had plenty of hang time and he's blasted a few out of the back of the endzone to prevent a return. Good as Gould, indeed.
An improvement is needed, and the Bears may open up the playbook a bit to get the unit that is struggling the most a breakout moment. Panthers beware.