2011 NFC Championship: Special Teams The X-Factor For Chicago Bears
As the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers bring the NFL's oldest, fiercest rivalry to Soldier Field on Sunday in the 2011 NFC Championship game for the world to see, there are pundits everywhere trying to pick apart the advantages for both teams.
There are three main phases in football: offense, defense and special teams. Oh, and in Chicago, the Bears boast the league's best fourth phase: its fans!
On the field, it will be the third phase, special teams, that will mean the difference in this game. Say all you want, but the proof will be in the pudding, spooned out for all to see on the frozen mess of sod in Chicago this Sunday, starting at 2:00 p.m. CST.
And the one thing the Bears have that no one else has is the guy wearing number 23. He and his unit are the keys to the game.
If You Kick To Devin Hester...
...well, that spells trouble, my friends.
In the first meeting between the Bears and Packers, Hester burned Green Bay for a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown that spelled the difference in a 20-17 win over the heavily-penalized Packers.
18 penalties for 152 yards notwithstanding, that's what kicking to number 23 will do to you.
During the second matchup in the last regular season game, Hester fielded only two punts for 35 yards and had no kick returns; the Packers won that game.
It's not that simple of a correlation, of course, but you get the point.
On the season, Hester had three punt returns for a touchdown and averaged almost 36 yards per kick return. He also broke the all-time record for touchdowns by a return man this season.
You kick to him at your own peril.
And If You Kick Away From Devin Hester...
...ah, but here is the rub. If you choose to kick away from Hester, you're still asking for trouble. Sort of a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" kind of scenario.
When teams try to avoid punting to number 23, it often ends up in punts going out of bounds too early, or squib and/or misdirected kicks that often result in the punter making a mistake.
In short, the end result is usually good field position for the Bears.
Oh, and by the way, guess who ranked second in the NFL in kick return average? Why that would be Hester's running mate, Danieal Manning.
Good luck with that, Green Bay.
Speaking of Manning...
Manning is valuable on defense and special teams.
When teams kick away from Hester, the fourth ranked kick returner, they face the league's 14th (out of 39) kick returner in Mr. Manning.
Manning had a 44-yard return in the Bears' victory against the Packers, but averaged only 15.5 yards in the Bears' loss.
He has 17 kickoff returns of 40 yards or more since 2008, which is tops in the league.
Dave Toub's Unit Is More Than Hester
As good as Hester is, Chicago's entire special teams unit is great on its own. Coach Toub's unit has generally placed in the top 10 percent of NFL teams, and this year they ranked ninth in the NFL in punt yard average against them.
As DaBears.com reports, "Special teams rankings developed by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News have become the gold standard. Although the rankings, which incorporate 22 different statistical categories, aren’t released until after the Super Bowl, the Bears project that they will rank fourth overall."
In Toub’s seven years with the team, the Bears have finished no lower than 11th and were No. 1 in 2006 and 2007. Since his arrival, the Bears have led the league in punt return yards, touchdowns (13) and punt return average.
As the man himself says, the organizational commitment to special teams matters a lot.
"When it comes from the top, the players understand how important it is and there is a pride factor," Toub said. "It has taken on a life of its own. It’s who we are after seven years."
And who they are is pretty damn good.
Special Teams Stopper Extraordinaire: Corey Graham
One reason Toub's unit is so good is Corey Graham, who may not have the name, but deserves a Pro Bowl spot regardless. He has been the first downfield on coverage most of the time delivering hard hits, solid tackling and helping to ensure poor opponent field position.
Graham led the league with 22 special teams tackles this season.
And yes, that's Graham in the picture. One of the lone bright spots in the New England disaster.
Bears Get a Kick Out Of Brad Maynard
Brad Maynard may not have the strongest leg around, but this veteran is one of the best at punting the ball inside opponents' 20 yard lines. In fact, this season, he is the best.
Maynard has landed the most punts inside the 20 this year, and it's no accident. He sacrifices punt yardage average for what's best for the team.
One of the team's unsung heroes, Maynard has more than 400 career punts inside the 20-yard line.
Robbie With The Goulden Leg
Hey national broadcasters and Madden '11 announcers, it's pronounced "Gold". As in the "gold standard" for kicking field goals.
No, he isn't statistically the best, but Robbie Gould is the best kicker in Bears history. His 83 percent ranks tied for 13th in the NFL, but he is perfect inside 30 yards and fifth best outside of 50 yards.
He is clutch and rarely has a kick blocked. If it comes down to a field goal (and it could), with both games within seven points, I'll take Gould over the 78 percent Mason Crosby. In four full seasons, he has never approached 80 percent.
Long Snapper Patrick Mannelly
Wikipedia may not be the best source for information, but these are facts:
In 2006, kicker Robbie Gould claimed that Mannelly played a pivotal part of his productive season, and praised him in his Pro Bowl acceptance speech."
Hey, the man has his own website for cryin' out loud!
Blocking Kicks, Taking Names Later
With so much focus on Devin Hester, people may be surprised to learn the Bears have blocked an NFL-best 20 kicks.
In the Monday night game against the Packers, Peppers blocked Crosby's 37-yard field goal attempt, which could have changed the course of the game since the Bears won by a field goal.
The Best Special Teams Ever?
"'You’d have to say it’s matching the best that has ever been done because they’re so consistent,” said former Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Rams coach Dick Vermeil. 'You have a team once in a while that has a great year and next year they aren’t even close. The Bears have been consistent. From time to time one team has had a spectacular year that might have topped their performance, but no team has been more consistent.'"
Neil Hayes of the Chicago Sun-Times got this quote from a guy who knows about special teams.
And, for good measure, here's what Hayes had Marv Levy saying:
"'They are superb,' Levy said. 'They have the best special teams in the National Football League, and that’s an integral reason why the Bears are where they are. For some reason, there are too many head coaches—and Lovie [Smith] is not one of them—who give lip service to the kicking game but overlook it. The Bears pay attention to it and, boy, does it pay off.'"
That's good enough for me, and it should be good enough to beat the Packers on Sunday.