CSNChicago.com takes a look at three preview points going into the Bears first preseason game.
The Bears, once a perennial special-teams power, slid down to No. 26 last year (from ninth in 2013) based on the ranking system developed by Dallas Morning News football guru Rick Gosselin. They were solid defending kickoff returns but were the league’s worst at returning punts as the unit under coordinator Joe DeCamillis struggled with patchwork personnel on almost a weekly basis.
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This year, starters have been turning up on coverage units in particular as a change in staff is being reflected in what appears to be a commitment to the too-often-overlooked phase of the game.
“I was at a place where we went through three specials teams coaches in five years,” said Bears head coach John Fox. “And when we picked our squad, I don’t know that that was an emphasis.
“Sometimes you don’t pick the fourth best wideout or the fourth best back. It might be the best guy on fourth down [special teams]. Because the special teams coach needs players just like offense and defense does. We keep it fairly simple, very technique oriented. And then make sure we keep guys who are capable of performing the skill set it takes in each phase.”
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Play on special teams is a tipping point on roster decisions. But it is more than that. New England, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Indianapolis all finished in the Top 7 of the Gosselin rankings.
And in the playoffs.
The switch to a 3-4 means that the final roster will have more linebackers beyond the typical six that the 4-3 Bears kept. That theoretically gives the Bears as many as four backup linebackers available for special teams, for instance.
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The Bears were the league’s worst returning punts last season and have had as many as six players fielding punts and kickoffs during training camp. In-season addition Marc Mariani gave the Bears some burst in kickoff returns (25.5 yd. avg.) but the two return jobs are available for the winning.
“We’re going to scheme our return stuff based on whatever the player does well,” said special-teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers. “That’s still yet to be determined.”