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Silverman: Special Teams Slump Has Hurt Bears

By Steve Silverman-

(CBS) The Bears have become a team that can be prolific on offense when they are at their best.

Unfortunately, this team that has long been identified by its ability to play a bone-crunching and intimidating variety of defense no longer can do that.

The Bears are slow on defense and they are poor tacklers. They rank 29th overall on defense and 31st against the run, and when a team fails so miserably on the defensive side of the ball, there is little margin for error on offense and special teams.

With impressive performances from Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett, along with the versatility of running back Matt Forte, the offense has held up its end.

But the special teams have often caused huge problems this year. Robbie Gould has been as consistent as expected, making 26-of-29 FG attempts, but punter Adam Podlesh and return specialist Devin Hester have been the source of big problems.

In the Week 16 blowout loss to the Eagles, Podlesh and Hester earned their share of the blame for bad plays in the first quarter. At the end of the Bears' first possession – a three-and-out against a very vulnerable Philadelphia defense – Podlesh threw up a 25-yard punt that gave the Eagles possession at the Chicago 43.

That made it easy for Nick Foles to lead his team into the endzone six plays later when he hit Riley Cooper with a 5-yard TD pass.

Hester had a chance to give the Bears a boost on the ensuing kickoff when he caught the ball just inside the goal line with room to run. Hester ran 36 yards and seemingly gave the Bears good field position, but that went out the window when Bradley Fletcher delivered a decent – but not overpowering hit – and Hester fumbled the ball. Cary Williams recovered for the Eagles and they were back and running again.

Five plays later, LeSean McCoy was in the endzone and the Bears were down 14-0.

The Bears were not about to show any fight the rest of the way and the Eagles continued to add touchdowns until the Bears left Philadelphia with a 54-11 defeat to contemplate until kickoff against the Packers on Sunday.

But as bad as the initial Podlesh punt and the Hester fumble were, there was a hidden special teams play that may have been just as significant.

Go back to the opening kickoff. Hester caught the ball at the one and started his journey upfield. It ended just a short time later when he got to the 19, and it didn't seem very unusual.

However, the Bears had the opening kickoff blocked well. Hester had an opportunity to get past the first wave of tacklers and break into the open.

But Hester was running in slow motion. He was not moving any faster than any of his blockers, and he was moving a lot slower than the Philadelphia special teamers. Instead of hitting full speed and getting to midfield or further, Hester went down easily.

Hester has one punt return for a touchdown this season, but he does not have same speed or flash any longer. This is almost certainly going to be his last year in a Chicago uniform, because he has lost his game-breaking speed.

Podlesh has failed at key moments too many times this season. He has an average 41.0 yards per punt and a net of 38.4 yards. That last figure is 27th in the league, and that's not viable for a team that struggles so badly on defense.

The Bears can't afford to give yards away on special teams, but they are doing that in generous fashion.

Under Dave Toub, the Bears had tough, athletic and effective special-teams coverage. Under Joe DeCamillis, the Bears special teams have fallen into a deep hole.

Elite teams generally have excellent special teams coverage. The top five coverage teams in the league are Kansas City, Baltimore, St. Louis, New England and Seattle. The Rams are the only team in that group that is not in playoff contention.

The Bears could have set a much better tone against Philadelphia with good special-teams play, and that has been the case all season.

Ordinary performances have been the rule for them, and it may keep them out of the playoffs if this continues in their showdown against the Packers.

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