Special Teams Problems Run Deeper

Lake Forest – So much focus has been put on the problems in the punt return game that the lack of production from Jerry Azumah has been overlooked. Despite being a former Pro Bowl kick returner, the Bears have seen little from the free agent to be.

In 2003, Azumah went to the Pro Bowl after averaging 29.0 yards per kick return and brining back two for touchdowns.

Azumah has found it difficult to match those numbers the past two seasons. He's currently averaging 22.1 yards on 31 kick returns. The number is nearly identical to his 22.0 average from a year ago.

The five-foot-10, 192-pounder struggled in Dave Toub's zone blocking scheme. While trying to adjust to a new system, Azumah found out he needed surgery days into training camp to correct a herniated disk in his neck. The procedure forced him to miss the first four games of the regular season and he was never able to get on track.

The Bears had planed to tailor their blocking scheme to fit Azumah's strength for seeing and hitting a hole. Man-on-man blocking would allow him to weave through traffic like when he was a running back in college.

However, Azumah missed the preseason for a second straight year because of surgery. This time a procedure on his hip sidelined him and stalled any chemistry the unit was trying to build.

Azumah recently moved into third on the franchise kick return yardage list. He passed Gale Sayers for that honor and now has 2,864 yards on 118 attempts. Still his longest return this year is 40 yards. He had six returns that were equal to or longer in 2003. Even in a disappointing campaign last year he had three such returns.

So why have his numbers dropped across the board?

"I wish I knew," said head coach Lovie Smith. "We need Jerry to get it going, but it's hard to say exactly why. He's been banged up a little bit. Maybe it's that. But whatever the reason we need to get more production from our kickoff return team."

Azumah missed Wednesday practices for much of the first half of the season. There is a possibility at 28 his body is starting to breakdown.

Surgeries in consecutive years are not a good sign. There were also reports that he has an arthritic hip. Not to mention he carried the ball 926 times in four years at New Hampshire.

The seven-year veteran has been relegated to nickel back this season after starting 37 games over the last three seasons.

The chances of the Bears trying to re-sign the unrestricted free agent appear to be slim. He will likely get more lucrative offers on the open market from teams in desperate need of a starting cornerback.

The Bears will look to add depth in the secondary this off-season through free agency and or the draft. It will be equally important to find someone to provide punch the return game.

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