Losing impact players is devastating to any unit of a football team and finding a source for replacing them is critical. For Bears special teams, that will be especially difficult.
Defensive lineman Cornelius Washington suffered a quad injury in last Sunday’s loss to the Green Bay Packers, serious enough to land him on season-ending injured reserve. The injury cost the defense one of its only five linemen, which the organization moved to replace with the pickup of defensive end Lavar Edwards, a reserve with small amounts of playing time in Tennessee and Dallas over the past two seasons.
Edwards’ exact role will become more apparent on Sunday vs. the Arizona Cardinals. The Bears need pass rush but they may need Edwards, 275 pounds, on special teams even more.
Washington contributed seven special-teams tackles in 2014, primarily on kickoff coverage, an uncommon total for a defensive lineman. But Washington, who’d added bulk this season to fit the Bears’ 3-4 scheme, is himself uncommon.
“Cornelius is a little bit unique in that regard,” said special-teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers. “The guys that we have, the true defensive linemen, the guys who are going to be in the 290-plus range – it’s rare around the league that that guy’s going to fill a heavy role in the kicking game…
“He’s unique in that regard. I don’t know that too many of those guys are walking around the planet, though.”
The Bears have had the good fortune to have the likes of Israel Idonije, another defensive end with the speed to be a force for the perennially elite coverage units of former coordinator Dave Toub.
Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Bears’ kickoff coverage struggled against Green Bay with Washington hurting. The Packers returned three kickoffs a total of 105 yards (35.3 average).
The issues were more than just losing Washington, however. “The first kick wasn’t Robbie’s best kick; we didn’t do a good job of beating enough blocks or playing with leverage,” Rodgers said. “The second one was a better kick and we didn’t squeeze as far as we needed to.
“Some of those things have come up in the preseason and were addressed. Some of those things were new; there were a couple new guys out there who maybe got a different look than what they’d seen before.”
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Veteran linebacker Sam Acho was re-signed and is expected to return to his roles on all four special-teams units.
The Bears got special-teams solo tackles from linebacker Lamin Barrow and rookie safety Harold Jones-Quartey. Barrow played for Rodgers in Denver last season and Jones-Quartey, an undrafted rookie free agent waived by the Cardinals.
Why those were significant is that Barrow was not signed until Sept. 7, the day after Jones-Quartey was claimed off waivers. A goal of Rodgers’ scheme is to integrate new personnel quickly, which will be required to fill in the loss of Washington.
“You’ve got to be flexible enough with your system to try and minimize the things that’ll show up with newer people,” Rodgers said. “You try not to ask the new guy that week to do 700 things and it’s something you’ve got to be mindful of early season, mid season, late season as we put together game plans and try to get those matchups we’re trying to get.”