Against the New York Giants this past Monday, the Chicago Bears special teams were anything but special. The group had a hard time getting anything going early on in kickoff returns, averaged just 5.3 yards per punt return, allowed a 73-yard kickoff return against, averaged just 35.5 yards per punt, and allowed one punt to be blocked and subsequently returned for a touchdown.
One has to page through the Bears history books to find a game where coordinator Dave Toub's unit played so poorly across the board. Chicago puts a premium on special teams play and is annually one of the best in the league at the game's "third" phase. It was a little surprising but it isn't an indication of things to come. Toub said you can chalk up Monday's performance to the team trying to get a good look at a number of younger players.
"The guys that made mistakes were all rookies and rookie mistakes get you beat," he said. "It was a learning experience for us."
The team feels comfortable with the veterans on the roster, which is why the younger players are getting most of the playing time during games.
WR Earl Bennett
"Guys like Nick Roach and Craig Steltz and Corey Graham, those guys are solid. I'm not worried about them," said Toub. "That's why you don't see a lot of them. They're going to be in and out of the game real quick.
"We want to try to get the rookies in against good competition. We don't need to see the rookies against [the opposing team's] fives and sixes, or whatever. We want to see them against their ones and twos. So we put them in there and throw them in the fire so to speak."
Rookie linebacker Dom DeCicco is hanging on to his roster spot by a thread after letting through Greg Jones on the blocked punt. Yet Toub said DeCicco wasn't the only player at fault.
"It was a mental mistake on the blocked punt. Dom, he tried to get out real quick. He was trying to be aggressive by covering early," said Toub. "[Jones] showed his hands like he was going to hold up and then he rushed and he got us. But [Chris] Conte is in there, he should be able to see that and pick him up. He didn't pick him up. The punter [Spencer Lanning] was kind of short. So it takes three guys at the end of the day to cause a block."
Through the first two preseason contests, one player has stood out amongst his teammates.
"I thought Earl [Bennett] was excellent," said Toub. "Every time we put Earl in on special teams he does something good. He broke that tackle on the punt return and turned it into a 20-yard gain. He always stands out to me."
The starting lineups for all four phases of special teams are still in flux. Many roster spots will be decided by what happens on the limited number of punt, punt return, kick and kick return plays the following two weeks.
"We don't have a starting lineup yet," Toub said. "We're still continuing to figure out who that's going to be. Guys make mistakes and we find out how they're going to do under pressure. Maybe those aren't the guys. We have to find out now; we have to find out quick."
He said the lockout has substantially affected the team's ability to evaluate its players.
"Not having OTAs and minicamps, that's kind of set us back a little bit. Some of the things that we're learning now we probably would have found out in OTAs. So these next two weeks are critical for these young players."
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.