Chicago Bears kick returner Devin Hester looked like his old self last week. After an extremely disappointing 2012 season, Hester exploded against the Minnesota Vikings. He had kick returns of 80 and 76 yards, accumulating 249 total return yards, a franchise record, breaking his own mark of 245 set in his rookie season.
For his efforts, Hester was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week. It marks the 13th time in his eight-year career he's received the award.
"It's a team-effort award," Hester said today. "I give credit to my coaches for the great calls, my teammates for the great blocks and the passion they had this week for the game to go out and dominate on special teams.
"It was just opportunities. I can't remember a game where I had five returns. The opportunity was there. They gave us good returnable balls. That was a key thing. We had some great returnable balls that we were able to bring out and when we get those opportunities, we build on it and the momentum gets going. When we get the momentum swinging our way we just feel like we can't be stopped."
After years of underachieving as a wide receiver, coach Marc Trestman took Hester out of the offense this year, which has helped to keep the three-time Pro Bowler fresh.
"It helps out a lot, just throughout the week mentally preparing," said Hester. "I spend more time with the special teams unit and more time with the coaches on game-planning our opponent."
Hester is 30 years old, an age where the production of kick returners has historically dropped off. He was caught from behind twice on Sunday, so he's obviously no longer the player he was earlier in his career. But Hester's ability to swing field position, particularly after the Vikings returned the opening kickoff for a score, was huge last week and will be all season.
"He does a great job, that's for sure. I'm real proud of him," said special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis. "I thought we came back from adversity, that first one. We had a bad play that first one, and he comes back and gives it right back at them. I thought it put us right back into the game."
Running back Matt Forte is on pace to break the franchise record for receptions, 118, set by Brandon Marshall last season. With 15 catches through two contests, Forte is tied for sixth-most in receptions in the NFL. At this current rate, he'll finish with 120 receptions, which would be fairly ridiculous for a running back.
Last week he led the team with 11 receptions on 11 targets. He cited the game plan, as well as the Minnesota defense, for his expanded role in the passing attack.
"There's called plays where I might be the main read on a pass play, but last week they had a lot of Cover-2 where they dropped everybody out and I'm open on the check-down," Forte said. "We're not going to bypass an eight-yard pickup to throw the ball into double coverage."
Forte's number also signify the continual development of Jay Cutler and his ability to work through his progressions and take what the defense gave him.
"[Forte's] involvement in those catches last week, he was not the primary on any of them," Trestman said. "It was just Jay working through his progressions and getting the ball into Matt, which was somewhat expected because the style of defense taking away the big plays and giving you the underneath stuff. I shouldn't say … Matt was the primary on two of them, but other than that, he was the secondary receiver on the rest."
It's unlikely Forte will keep his current pace but it's obvious he's going to be a major part of Chicago's passing attack this year. Even more exciting: Forte said the Bears' offense has only shown a small part of the playbook.
"We haven't really showed a whole lot and I don't expect us to two games into the season," said Forte. "This is a hefty playbook. We've got a lot of games left so we have lot of stuff saved for teams that play certain coverages or certain fronts. We have a lot of stuff I would say leftover that we ran it in camp and gone over it. We know the stuff. We just put it back on the shelf so that when it is the opportune time to call it it'll be called."
Against the Steelers this week, the Bears will likely break out more of the playbook, facing a 3-4 defense for the first time in 2013.
"It just changes the protection base and actually your run reads too, and how to get a certain linebacker if we're blocking zone schemes and then they start blitzing and everything changes. So it just makes it more difficult that way," said Forte. "I would say most of the NFL runs 4-3 , so when you get a 3-4 team, you've got to study that 3-4 more than you do 4-3s."
Peppers Feels Fine
Julius Peppers hasn't been much of a factor in Chicago's first two contests, logging just one total tackle and no sacks. Trestman said the eight-time Pro Bowler was sick last week, thus the down performance. Peppers said the sickness is no longer an issue.
"I'm feeling fine," said Peppers. "I'm not interested in talking about the first two weeks right now. My focus is on Pittsburgh and winning the game this week."
As a team, Chicago has just two sacks in two games, so it's not just Peppers who must step up his game. Fortunately for the Bears, they face the Pittsburgh Steelers this week, a team whose offensive line is in shambles and has given up seven sacks combined the first two weeks.
"This week [the pass rush] is going to be improved," Peppers said. "We're just going to continue to work. We're not going to do anything different, we're going to do what we've been doing for four years since I've been here and everything is going to work itself out."
Despite starting the season 2-0, with both wins in dramatic come-from-behind fashion, Trestman isn't getting too excited about being undefeated as an NFL head coach.
"We're very tempered," he said. "We're not going to get caught up in certainly the hype of what happens this early in the season. Our guys are a pretty savvy bunch of guys. They acknowledge the fact that we have a lot of things to do to get better. It's as simple as it sounds. We know and the guys know that there's not much difference between 2-0 and 0-2 and in our league there's a lot of very, very good football teams, one of which we're going to play on Sunday. So we've got our feet on the ground.
"Our coaches had a laundry list of things we could correct, both individually and collectively in our segments. We just went to work. And it sounds like a broken record because I've said it every week but it's really the truth. That's really what our focus is and we're going to stand by that through the week and Sunday will get here soon enough. We've got a lot of work to do before that. We're just trying to stay focused on that and not fuel the hype."
Charles Tillman (knee) did not practice today, although Trestman said it was precautionary.
"Just precautionary," he said. "He should be ready to go in practice tomorrow."
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.