Bears special teams will continue to be just that

Despite yearly turnover, expect Toub's units to be as good as ever

If the Bears can inflict as much punishment on opponents as they seem to on the psyche of their fans, it could be one memorable year. The soundtrack thus far has deteriorated from fast-fingered Spanish guitar to a slow and painful Merle Haggard song.

Brian Urlacher's knee, left tackle, injuries at safety and even some shaky special teams seem to have set off a collective "Flight of the Bumblebee" in everyone's head. Tune it out. The special teams, anyway, are going to be OK.

Exhibitions like the final one Thursday night in Cleveland are little more than a nuisance for a team like the Bears. It would be nice to protect secrets and hide plays, but the priority for every exhibition for the most part is simply to stay healthy.

The priority on special teams is to find players. Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub likes to mix and match and stretch the comfort zone of some players.

Toub said earlier this week "there are some decisions that still need to be made," when talking about his unit. It's unlikely those are roster decisions. Anybody paying attention could pretty much cut this team by now, although it's always important to keep an eye on the waiver wire in case upgrades become available.

But the theory that anything barring an injury in Cleveland will have a bearing on the final roster is pretty silly. Toub got it right when he talked about the game as a chance for players to reinforce what they already have shown in training camp.

Toub has an impossible job, albeit one he does remarkably well. Special teams is an all-encompassing term referring to a series of units with significantly different responsibilities. There are the specialists that every team keeps — kicker, punter, long snapper — who do just one job. Then there are the return specialists who perform double duty as skill position or defensive players, often in backup roles. And then come the coverage guys, who rarely have much experience in that role from college.

The coverage units are made up of guys who tend to fill out the roster, so the turnover at those positions is great. Toub, whose units have remained in the top 10 if not the top five most years — including two straight as tops in the entire NFL — is in a yearly rebuilding mode with coverage teams.

The Bears rank first in the NFL since 2007 in punt coverage, allowing just 6.5 yards per return. This preseason, thanks to a 91-yard punt return, they have allowed 128 yards on nine returns in three exhibitions.

There is usually one great coverage guy on Toub's unit, but coverage ability alone won't secure a roster spot.

Brendon Ayanbadejo was selected to consecutive Pro Bowls as a coverage ace in 2006 and '07 with the Bears but was allowed to bolt to the Ravens on a four-year, $4.9 million deal that included a $1.9 million signing bonus in 2008. He made another Pro Bowl in Baltimore. Tim Shaw set a franchise record with 30 special-teams tackles in 2009, but inexplicably was waived the following season.

Corey Graham made a Pro Bowl last year with 22 special-teams tackles, including 15 solos, but was allowed to join Ayanbadejo with the Ravens on a two-year, $3.7 million deal that included $1.2 million guaranteed. Knowing Graham wasn't coming back, the Bears moved fast to add linebacker Blake Costanzo, 28, a special teams Pro Bowl alternate last year with the 49ers.

Costanzo came into the NFL undrafted out of non-scholarship Lafayette and was cut three times before locking in with the Browns, where he was a favorite of Brad Seeley, who brought him with him to the 49ers. Costanzo had 17 special-teams tackles last year. Bears fans are going to love him.

He will lead a rebuilding coverage unit that has seen seven of the 20 players who made a tackle last year leave the team accounting for a loss of 71 of the 130 total tackles. Reserve linebacker Dom DeCicco, top returning special teams tackler with 17, has been out with a groin injury but likely still will make the roster because the Bears prioritize keeping players who contribute on special teams. Jabara Williams, Patrick Trahan and Tyler Clutts might not be so lucky.

Like every team this time of year, the Bears have concerns. But it says here that Toub will be leading a familiar refrain on special teams.

Special contributor Mike Mulligan co-hosts "The Mully and Hanley Show" weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on WSCR-AM 670.
Advertisement