With an offense that appears to have gone into hibernation mode a bit early and an inconsistent defense, the Bears may have to rely on special teams to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Danieal Manning had 179 yards on five kickoff returns in the 27-24 victory over the Saints on Thursday night, which is eight yards more than the Bears had passing. His 83-yard touchdown return of the opening kickoff jump-started the Bears, who have needed a boost in recent weeks. The offense has managed more than 300 yards of total offense only once in the past six games and averaged just 260 yards. The league average is 325.
For the defense, holding the Saints to 345 yards was an accomplishment, considering they came in as the NFL's No. 1 offense. And limiting Drew Brees and Co. to 24 points was commendable, considering turnovers by the Bears' offense gift-wrapped 21 points of the New Orleans points.
But Manning followed his game-opener with a 52-yard return to set up the Bears' second score, which required a mere 41-yard drive.
"Throughout the game, all of our special teams – the return game, the coverage units – all did a good job of keeping us in the football game," Bears head coach Lovie Smith said. "Special teams did a great job all day."
Manning leads the NFL with a 29.5-yard kickoff-return average and rightfully caught the spotlight Thursday night, as did kicker Robbie Gould with the game-tying and game-winning field goals. Gould is the fourth-most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history with an 85.6 percent success rate, and he trails the Chargers' Nate Kaeding and the Bengals' Shayne Graham, who are tied for second, by just one-tenth of a percentage point.
"Any time he's kicking the ball, we're pretty sure it's going to go in," Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "No matter what the situation or how far it is, he's made big kicks his whole career."
The Bears' coverage units, which don't get as much publicity, have also been playing extremely well lately, especially while working in tandem with punter Brad Maynard.
Over the past three games, Maynard has punted 20 times and opponents have a grand total of two return yards. And Maynard has placed 11 of those 20 kicks inside the opponents' 20-yard line, giving him a league-leading total of 34.
The coverage units have been without their leading special-teams tackler, running back Garrett Wolfe, since he was injured on the opening kickoff of the Jaguars game, Dec. 7. Wolfe was placed on injured reserve Friday.
But backup running back Adrian Peterson stepped up in that game with four tackles, tying the team best for the season, and rookie wide receiver Earl Bennett had three special teams tackles. Thursday night, Peterson had two more special teams hits in addition to briefly taking over as the featured ball carrier when Matt Forte was injured. Forgotten running back Kevin Jones, who had been inactive for the previous four games, volunteered for coverage duty and tied Peterson for game honors with two special teams tackles.
"Kevin has requested to do anything to help the team since Day 1," Smith said. "He's been the ultimate team player for us like all of our running backs. How often do you see a team with three running backs that play on special teams? I don't think you can tell me another team where that's the case. They're all unselfish and just want to do whatever they can to help the team."
Part of that has to do with the importance assigned to the third phase by Smith and special teams coordinator Dave Toub. Special teams have always been a priority for Smith's teams, which is why many key offensive and defensive players also contribute on at least one of the specials teams – whether it's covering kicks or returning them.
"Dave Toub and (assistant) Chris Tabor both do a great job," Smith said. "We have players that really buy into special teams being a big part of our success and how we're going to win football games. We talk about it a lot. We put time into it. I think all of those things contribute to us being successful most games with our special teams."
By using starters and other offensive and defensive contributors to help out on special teams, the Bears do more than pay lip service to their importance.
"If you say that that's a big part of the game and it's important, you should have your best players on it," Smith said of special teams. "We've always done it that way. And even though our starters don't play on every special team, even the guys in the backup roles are excellent special teams players. That's why they're on the football team."
NOTES & QUOTES
"I talked to him about mentally staying in there and staying positive, which is what he did," said Tiller, who attended Thursday night's game. "I thought he handled it very well in his second year. Last year he was frustrated. He didn't express it publicly. Sometimes they say things to me they don't say to other people. I could tell it in the tone of his voice."
Tiller said Orton had a completely different mindset when he came to training camp last summer.
"He was very confident coming into this season," Tiller said. "I spent time with him [last] summer and will spend time with him this summer because he will come to our place in Wyoming. He was confident he could get the starting job and hang on to it."
Tiller also coached Brees at Purdue, and he says there are similarities between him and Orton.
"They are similar in their mental makeup," Tiller said. "They are both fiercely competitive. They are extremely bright guys. They are articulate. They have great poise under pressure. They have different physical skills, but their mental skills match up." …
"I just think our tight ends are some of our best players," Orton said. "You always try to get your best players the ball. We feel like we have good matchups week in and week out with the tight ends, and if they're open we certainly try to throw it to them."
Olsen caught a career-best eight passes Thursday night for 45 yards, and Clark had three catches for 11 yards. …
The Bears dropped four very catchable Orton passes last Sunday, including one each by Davis and Hester. As a group, the Bears' wideouts haven't been very productive for several weeks, so the recent drops were especially noticeable.
"We try not to press," said Davis, who before Thursday night had just six catches in the past five games and at least three drops. "I have probably been pressing the most out of anybody, so it's disappointing. All you can do is try to push through it and come out of it. Eventually, everybody comes out of it.
"I just have to get back to having fun like I always do, smiling and stuff."
Davis did not catch a pass versus the Saints, and Brandon Lloyd caught just two for 21 yards. Hester had four catches for 46 yards but drew pass-interference penalties of 38 and 39 yards by getting behind the Saints secondary.
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