Bears-Jaguars preview: Cleaner special teams a must

August 14th, 2014 - 3:30 pm

If NFL team units were a family, think of special teams as the little brother to the twin brothers of offense and defense. They often get left out and don’t pull as much weight as their more prominent siblings. But a great little brother gives that family an advantage.

Obscure metaphor aside, when the Bears’ “little brother” special teams had Devin Hester returning kicks in his prime, Patrick Mannelly flawlessly long snapping, and Dave Toub calling the shots, the Bears were competitive and had a distinct advantage over most opponents they faced, even with a weaker offense. Now that all three of those men have moved on, the Bears have struggled in that phase of the game and are in danger of losing close games this season because of it.

I think we’re all interested in seeing how that unit takes shape. Who will be replacing Hester in the return game? Chris Williams looked to have a leg up on the competition and had some dynamic playmaking ability, but he suffered a hamstring injury last week against the Philadelphia Eagles. The veteran Eric Weems is the next to step up, and he made a Pro Bowl as a special teamer in Atlanta.

As for long snapping, it’s been difficult to replace Mannelly, who was arguably the best long snapper in the game throughout his career. While that position doesn’t sound that important, Mannelly did his job flawlessly for 16 seasons and it’s difficult for a team to replace near perfection. One bad snap could mean the difference in a ballgame, and the Bears are still trying to find out who can adequately fill in. Chad Rempel and Brandon Hartson are in the middle of an uninspiring competition.

And then there’s the punter position. The Bears let go of Adam Podlesh after last season because he couldn’t flip field position or maintain any consistency. They brought in Tress Way and drafted rookie Pat O’Donnell, and while the latter has occasionally launched a “megapunt” or two, neither one has looked consistent. And when the temperatures drop and the swirling winds of Soldier Field pick up, that could spell trouble.

Finally, there’s the coverage units that need to shore up. Last week, the Bears gave up a 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and over 180 total kickoff return yards. Special teams generally are shaky in the preseason because there are so many moving parts, injuries, players resting, etc. But there are still reasons to be concerned if the Bears can’t keep the opponent on the other end of the field.