Lovie Smith has devoted time and talent to special teams since he arrived in Chicago in 2004.
Monday night's playoff-dream-saving victory over the Packers served as Exhibit A in the argument for prioritizing "the third phase," which is the No. 1 reason the 9-6 Bears still have postseason hopes as they head to Houston for a must-win noon game against the 7-8 Texans.
The Bears also need help from other teams to make the playoffs, the kind they've gotten from their own special teams all season.
"We have gotten a lot of plays from our special teams, but we're set up that way," Smith said. "We practice that way. We rely on our special teams. The third phase wins football games for you. It's as simple as that. We have good players there. We have a good scheme. But still, a lot of teams say that. It's still good to be able to get that type of production from it."
A lot of teams do pay lip service to special teams, but against the Packers it was evident the Bears and special-teams coordinator Dave Toub do much more than talk the talk when it comes to that often-overlooked phase of the game. The Bears were dominated on both sides of the ball for most of the game, getting out-gained 325-210, getting out-converted on third downs 47-25 percent, losing the time of possession battle 35:42-27:50 and getting out-sacked 3-0.
But big plays by special teams more than overcame the Bears' shortcomings on offense and defense.
Devin Hester's 24-yard punt return, just one yard short of his season best, positioned the offense for the game-tying TD drive late in the fourth quarter. The second blocked field goal of defensive end Alex Brown's seven-year NFL career, on a 38-yard attempt, preserved the 17-17 tie with 18 seconds remaining when defeat appeared imminent.
"Alex Brown came through like he's come through many times in the five years I've been here," Smith said. "That's what the team needed."
Brad Maynard's net punting average of 41.3 yards gave the Bears a 13.5-yard advantage over the Packers, and Maynard dropped two of his six attempts inside the 20, tying his personal best of 36 in one season. He should have had another downed at the 1-yard line, but Kevin Jones unwittingly carried the ball into the end zone thinking it was a muff. The Bears and Maynard allowed just seven return yards on six punts.
The Bears' first scoring "drive," which ended on a 31-yard Gould field goal, covered 16 yards in five plays. But that's all the offense had to do after Danieal Manning's 70-yard kickoff return, on which he carried two and sometimes three Packers defenders the final 25 yards.
Since taking over from Hester as the Bears' kickoff returner, the freakishly strong, 5-11, 200-pound Manning has displayed a more powerful running style than most return specialists. He also leads the NFL with a 29.4-yard average.
"I joked with my family and especially my little boy about me being the Incredible Hulk," Manning said. "I felt like that on that [return], but it was great blocking, too. Those guys did a great job all night. It's really an incredible feeling to be out there running the ball like that."
NOTES & QUOTES
That would be putting it mildly.
The Bears have sunk to No. 26 in total yards and No. 25 in both average gain per run and pass.
"As you look at what we are as an offense, it's about ball control, running the football," Smith said. "You should be able to do that, and then protecting the ball. We can't have the amount of turnovers we've had lately."
Rookie running back Matt Forte has rushed for 1,188 yards as the focal point of the offense, but his 3.9-yard average per carry is just mediocre and he's only averaged 3.2 yards per attempt in the past three games. And quarterback Kyle Orton, who threw just four interceptions in the first 11 games this season, has been picked eight times in the past four games. …
Trailing 14-3 at halftime and having been out-gained 221-48 while possessing the ball for just 9 minutes and 53 seconds, the Bears didn't look like a team that even belonged in a discussion about the playoffs, and postseason elimination seemed imminent.
"In the first half we played terrible, especially at home," Forte said. "Coach Smith challenged us not to go out like that. It was just time to take care of business."
The Bears' head coach said he was disappointed with the lack of production on both sides of the ball but that he didn't have to elaborate on the poor performance.
"I didn't expect it in a game with so much on the line, in a rivalry game against a team that had beaten us so bad the first time around," Smith said. "Luckily, you have a halftime to get a chance to start it over again, and for all of us to get a chance to look at ourselves and think about all we've gone through this year to get ourselves in position. I guess you can take a loss if you do everything you possibly can and play your best game. We knew that wasn't the case. Guys knew exactly how we played." …
The offense has had its two worst outputs in the past two games, managing just 226 total yards against the Saints and 210 against the Packers, even though both games went into overtime and were against mediocre defenses.
"The offense didn't do a lot for most of the [Packers] game," Smith admitted. "But just like the week before, when we needed them to score a touchdown and then follow it up with a field goal in overtime, they came through."
Offensively, the Bears' drought has gone on much longer than the past two weeks, though. Their five least productive games have all come in the past seven weeks, and in all five games the offense failed to accumulate 250 total yards. The NFL average is 325.
Fortunately for the Bears' offense, the Texans, Sunday's opponent, rank 23rd in the league in yards allowed and 27th in points allowed.
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