Suddenly, when not a lot of people were noticing, Bears special teams turned a corner. A huge corner.
The unit that was embarrassed on a near-weekly basis, epitomizing the problems of the Bears’ 0-3 start to 2015, started tackling more people, stopped committing penalties in bulk and generally stabilized itself. The rankings for opponents’ kick and punt return averages are only incrementally better, in part because of the early disasters vs. very limited numbers of runbacks to offset those.
But coach John Fox has maintained “improvement” as his mantra and special teams have picked up that tune amid shuffling personnel.
“I think we've improved as a football team, and that includes special teams,” Fox said. “You go through some growing pains when you change personnel, especially personnel that maybe wasn't at camp with you, wasn't in the preseason with you.
“The only way to truly get experience in games — sometimes it can be negative experience — but I think we've gotten better there from a talent standpoint. There were some growing pains and now as far as execution I think we've got a better understanding of what we're doing.”
After allowing a 64-yard trick play punt return and 105-yard TD kickoff return at Seattle; a 108-yard TD return vs. Arizona; and two 40-plus kickoff returns to Green Bay, the Bears have at the very least slowed their rate of embarrassment on ‘teams.
Coverage units have allowed just two punt returns longer than 20 yards and one kickoff return longer than 30 over the six games since Seattle.
St. Louis Rams return terror Tavon Austin has had a touchdown punt return in all three of his NFL seasons and was averaging 10.1 yards per return coming into last Sunday. The Bears held him to 5.3 yards average on his three returns.
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“Kind of kept leverage on him,” said special-teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers. “I thought we tackled pretty decent. Punter hit the ball well. We had some hang time on there. I thought our gunners played well. It was a collective effort to kind of pin him to a sideline and keep him there.”
The Seahawks humiliated the Bears with their trick punt return; fast forward to last Sunday when the Rams tried a fourth-down pass out of punt formation that fell incomplete as the Bears left their defense on the field for exactly that scenario, which they had anticipated.
“We kept our defense on the field just not really for field position,” Rodgers said, “but just the course of that game, when you’re up a couple of scores, you know that that’s something that they’ve tried to do at various times.”