John Crist, Editor in Chief, BearReport.com: There is no question that Berrian has turned himself into the main deep threat on this team and one of the more dangerous home run hitters in the NFL. When he missed some time after bruising his ribs in Week 9 against Miami, second-year wideout Mark Bradley took over as the fly guy and scored from long distance in back-to-back games. Muhammad is obviously at the tail end of his career and probably doesn't run as well as he used to, but he's still a fantastic possession receiver and a reliable target in the red zone. Berrian appears to be healthy again and went for 104 yard in last week's loss at New England, although all five of his receptions came in the first half. To further illustrate the difference between Berrian and Muhammad in terms of what they are asked to do, Muhammad has 14 more catches than Berrian on the season but only 33 more yards.
TY: The last time these two teams met in Chicago last year, tight end Jermaine Wiggins had a career-high 10 catches. Have other tight ends experienced good success against Chicago's defense, and is that one of the few vulnerabilities on this top-rated unit?
JC: Ben Watson caught six passes for 89 yards and a touchdown against the Bears last week in New England, but he is an elite tight end and the leading receiver for the Patriots this season. If we go back to the Mike Brown injury in Week 6, which was the first time this defense really had to face some adversity, opposing tight ends really haven't done too much. San Francisco's Eric Johnson (three receptions for 40 yards), Miami's Randy McMichael (1-11), the Giants' Jeremy Shockey (1-15), and the Jets' Chris Baker (1-3) were held in check, and all of them are pretty good pass-catchers. Usually, a fast tight end that can wreak havoc between the hashmarks is a great way to exploit the cover-two defense because the safeties' main responsibility is to take away the deep ball on their half of the field. Wiggins is a good tight end with very soft hands, but I would be surprised if he was a major factor in the game.
TY: Devin Hester has two punt returns of 80-plus yards but ‘only' a 12.9-yard average. Is he one of those returners that takes a lot of chances and ends up losing yards once or twice a game?
JC: That's the best way to describe Hester, no question about it. I featured him in Bear Report Magazine back in the November issue, and that's exactly what he told me when I interviewed him. At no point does he ever think to himself, "OK, just make a clean catch, gain a few yards, and then get safely out of bounds." Hester is a special player in the open field and truly trying to score every single time he gets the ball in his hands. He'll run around like a chicken with its head cut off and have his share of negative returns from time to time, but head coach Lovie Smith has stated over and over that he'll live with that because of Hester's big-play ability.
TY: Early in the season, Hester really struggled with fielding the ball cleanly. Has he improved in that area?
JC: Hester was nothing short of flawless fielding punts throughout training camp and the preseason, but all of a sudden, he started to get the dropsies from time to time once the regular season started. Special teams coach Dave Toub works extra hard with Hester and has come up with some interesting ways to increase his focus. Every now and then, he can be seen fielding punts in practice while Toub tosses a white towel in Hester's field of vision to teach him how to eliminate peripheral distractions. The former Hurricane is much more of a natural athlete than a football player, and to this point in his career, he has done what he has done almost entirely on natural ability alone. If there is one thing Hester really needs to work on, it's letting punts go when he's inside the 10-yard line.
TY: Looking at Hester's production and eight sacks from Mark Anderson, along with Danieal Manning in a starting role, it looks like Chicago hit the jackpot with their rookies this year. Long-term, who do you think will make the biggest impact?
JC: GM Jerry Angelo has a track record of success finding talent outside the first round - especially on the defensive side of the ball - and he looks to have found a few more gems in 2006. Hester is nowhere near ready to contribute as a cornerback and may ultimately be moved to wide receiver next season, but he is already one of the most feared return men in all of football. Anderson was a classic `tweener coming out of Alabama – not fast enough to play linebacker and not big enough to play end – but leads the team in sacks and has a motor that doesn't stop. Manning may have come from a small college (Abilene Christian), but he originally signed with Nebraska out of high school and moved right into the starting lineup on one of the best defenses in the NFL. Hester is electrifying and Anderson has made an early splash, but if I had to project which one will be a dependable starter for years to come in Chicago, I'd say Manning.
Be on the lookout for Part IV of this four-part series as Tim will answer five more of John's questions.