Zoom Lacking Boom

<b>Lake Forest - </b>While Jerry Azumah's only played in two games this year because of injury, he's missing the same burst that earned a trip to the Pro Bowl a year ago.

Although the Bears finished 7-9 in '03, for Azumah it was a breakout season. The five-foot-10, 192-pounder led the NFL with an average of 29.0 yards per kick return, including returning two for touchdowns. He also tied for the team lead with four interceptions.

The possibilities for being a playmaker in Lovie Smith's turnover friendly defense made Azumah a favorite of the new head coach.

"I think he's as good as I've seen playing that nickel position," Smith said. "And of course the guys who have played the position in the past - Ronde Barber down in Tampa, Aeneas Williams in St. Louis - Jerry has much talent as anyone I've seen really."

However, an injury in the first week of training camp sidelined Azumah for two months. Things could have been worse. Granted, the herniated disk in his neck required surgery, but the original estimation for recovery was three to months.

In his '04 debut, Azumah proved why the Bears are so high on him as a difference maker. After Alex Brown deflected a Mark Brunell pass, Azumah caught and returned the interception 70 yards for a touchdown.

The other part of his game hasn't been so quick to revert back to form. He's averaging just 18.5 yards on six kick returns with a long of 23.

There are a couple factors for the low output.

Teams are kicking away from Azumah. Tampa Bay opted to boot short line drive balls rather than giving him a chance to catch one with the blocking team in proper position.

The kick return scheme under Dave Toub is different than the one used by former special teams coach Mike Sweatman. Last year, the Bears used a basic four-man wedge to spring Azumah, while this year a wedge is used it isn't quite the same nor are the same players involved.

Alfonso Boone and Joe Tafoya were two of the key members on the return team last year. Boone has missed a month because of a knee sprain and Tafoya was cut in training camp.

Jason McKie, who suffered a knee sprain against Tampa, has been Azumah's lead blocker. McKie will be out for at least two weeks because of the injury, which means Azumah will have to work with another escort. Bernard Berrian took over the role initially, but at 185 pounds isn't the intimidating blocker McKie proved to be at 240 pounds.

Finally, there is a rhythm to kick returning that requires 11 men to be in sync for success. Without the benefit of training camp and preseason, Azumah has struggled to find his comfort zone.

"You look at kickoff and it's all about timing and spacing and it's all on rhythm," Azumah said. "We just have to establish that and we're going to look to do that especially this week."

With Craig Krenzel making his first start in the NFL, Azumah could provide a boost to an offense that has scored just 19 points since Rex Grossman went down.

Shortening the field would allow the offense to be more aggressive, as offensive coordinator Terry Shea looks to be less predictable.

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