When the Bears brought Cordarrelle Patterson in on a two-year, $10 million contract, there were probably grand designs of red zone jet sweeps, reverse tosses and a dynamic return game that didn’t involve those panic-inducing, one-handed punt returns from Anthony Miller.
As it turns out, Patterson hasn’t been the natural fit in Nagy 202 that people expected (is anyone?) – he’s only been on the field for more than 25% of the offense’s plays three times this season. He was on the field for 20 snaps in Week 1’s loss to the Packers, and has yet to reach that number since.
What he has been, surprisingly – or perhaps not – is one of the league’s premier special teams weapons. His abilities as a kick returner are well known, but it’s Patterson’s role on punt coverage that’s pleased the Bears more than anything else this year.
“He's doing it – I'm obviously biased – at a high level this year in that cover area,” special teams coach Chris Tabor said on Tuesday. “There's other things that show up on tape with him that people don't see, [like] when someone else gets a tackle. But he comes down and he takes his guy and essentially throws him into the hole, causing the guy to hang a left into someone else. We give him a forced tackle for that. He's playing really well.”
Sunday may have been Patterson’s best game of the year on special teams, even considering that electric return score against the Saints a few weeks back. Against the Giants, the gunner downed two of Pat O’Donnell’s punts inside the 5-yard line and made a touchdown-saving tackle on Jabrill Peppers’ 40-yard punt return.
“Honestly, I thought he fair-catched the ball,” Patterson said. “I kind of gave up on the play, I was out of bounds and was like, ‘he fair-catched it’ … I looked up and he was running my way. I was like, oh shit, I need to get in and make a play.”
After the tackle, Patterson went right to Tabor and apologized for pulling up early. When asked if the punt he downed inside the five later on made up for it, Patterson wasn’t having it. Tabor wasn’t too worried about it either, pointing to the fact that Patterson hasn’t played much gunner since his time in Minnesota, when then-Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer asked him to do so.
“I started doing it during my fourth year in the league,” Patterson said. “It’s fun. I enjoyed it, and I haven’t looked back ever since.”
Playing on special teams is still somewhat stigmatized as a unit where backups can get reps and younger players are placed before the offense or defense can trust them. Patterson, who’s been on four teams, won a Super Bowl, and signed multiple contracts, disagrees.
“It’s just fun. It’s special teams,” he said. “A lot of players look past special teams probably, and have a lot of pride because it’s special teams and they can’t make a lot of money or whatever. But there’s a lot of guys where we’ll die for special teams.”
Patterson’s value on that unit will only rise if the Bears are without their other special teams star, Sherrick McManis, for an extended time. McManis was hurt on that same punt return – part of the reason why Peppers got 40 yards down field, according to Tabor – and there are some concerns that the groin injury is somewhat serious. Patterson, even as a $5 million insurance policy, mitigates some of that.
“I haven't had a player like this since I coached Josh Cribbs, to be honest with you,” Tabor added. “Cribbs was a great returner and he was an excellent cover player, also. Kind of the same type of player. Blessed to have him.”