After upgrading the roster on both sides of the ball, the Chicago Bears hope to be in more close games in 2023, the kind in which a key play here or there on special teams can make the difference.
The Bears lost by nine or more points seven times during last year’s 3-14 season. In four of the losses by eight or fewer points, a key special teams breakdown was part of the problem.
The Bears had far bigger issues in 2022. The passing offense was abysmal, with blame to go all around, and was particularly ineffective in late-game situations. The Bears have added wide receivers DJ Moore and Tyler Scott and veteran tight end Robert Tonyan, overhauled the running back room and project to have two new starters on the offensive line.
The run defense was miserable and the pass rush nonexistent. The Bears spent big on linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards, and general manager Ryan Poles drafted three defensive tackles and two cornerbacks. Perhaps he will sign an edge rusher in the weeks ahead.
In the grand scheme, special teams coordinator Richard Hightower wasn’t dealing with anything as problematic, but with higher expectations this season and the opportunity to be more competitive, the Bears can’t afford to allow game-breaking plays in the third phase and need to create a few of their own.
Just as the schemes were new on offense and defense, Hightower was in his first season replacing Chris Tabor, who left for Carolina and guided the Panthers to a fourth-place finish in Rick Gosselin’s special teams ranking. The Bears were 24th according to Gosselin. Football Outsiders ranked the Panthers eighth and the Bears 16th.
Returner Velus Jones muffed two punts in three weeks, with both miscues coming late in losses to the New York Giants (20-12) and Washington Commanders (12-7). The turnover against Washington was particularly harmful as it set up the Commanders near the goal line for the winning score when the Bears defense had dominated most of the game.
Running back Khalil Herbert missed an assignment resulting in a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown in a 35-32 loss to the Miami Dolphins, and the Atlanta Falcons’ Cordarrelle Patterson had a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in a 27-24 Bears loss.
Then there were kicker Cairo Santos’ issues on extra points, missing 5 of 32 attempts for an 84.4% success rate. Hightower quickly pointed out that Santos fixed the problem by moving the spot to the middle of the field. Santos made 91.3% of his field goals.
Massive roster turnover in the first year of the new regime put Hightower in a spot where he was forced to play a lot of young players, not uncommon on special teams. Rookies accounted for 38.6% of the specials teams snaps, and at times the Bears had seven or eight rookies on the field.
Seven of the top 12 special teams players in terms of snaps were rookies: cornerbacks Josh Blackwell and Jaylon Jones, linebackers Sterling Weatherford and Jack Sanborn, safety Elijah Hicks, running back Trestan Ebner and punter Trenton Gill. Of the five veterans with the most snaps, fullback Khari Blasingame is the only one returning in 2023.
“We had a lot of young cats last year,” Hightower said. “We had a couple veterans. We added some more. Those (young players) are a year removed. So now, I wouldn’t call them wily veterans, and we’ve got a lot of young guys again.
“That’s the beauty of what we do — coach (Carlos) Polk and I — is getting young players and developing them and getting them to a level where they have the confidence where they can contribute for us. And then they go and contribute on offense and defense and become really good players in this league.”
Blackwell led the Bears with 11 special teams tackles, two more than unsigned free agent DeAndre Houston-Carson, and the next three top tacklers were rookies: Hicks, Jaylon Jones and Sanborn. Add Weatherford and Ebner, who were near the top of the points production chart Hightower keeps, and the hope is a year of experience will make this group steadier.
The signing of linebacker Dylan Cole in free agency flew under the radar in comparison with Edmunds and Edwards, but he’s a proven performer and was Pro Football Focus’ top-rated linebacker on special teams over the last two seasons. Running back Travis Homer is also considered a core special teams player, giving Hightower some new veterans to lean on.
The question of who will return punts will loom into the preseason. One reason the Bears drafted Velus Jones in the third round last year was they believed he could be a dangerous return threat. He averaged 27.6 yards per kickoff return but didn’t get a chance to return punts over the final 11 games as Hightower opted for the more sure-handed but less explosive Dante Pettis.
It’s worth wondering if the Bears regret not putting Velus Jones back out there near the end of the 10-game losing streak to end the season. They had little to lose in December.
“No, I don’t,” Hightower said. “Everything that happens to you, you learn from it. I see a kid that is even more eager now because he knows, ‘I want to be out there.’ He comes back with a totally different mindset. He looks different.”
The Bears have two kickers and two punters on the 90-man roster to give returners more looks during the offseason program, if not push incumbents Santos and Gill a little.
As Poles continues to reshape the roster, the Bears are without proven veterans Houston-Carson and linebackers Matt Adams and Joe Thomas.
“It does show faith in the younger kids,” Hightower said. “You believe in the process and we just think the process will take care of itself. Are there going to be some times where we’re learning? Yeah.”