None other than Dave Wannstedt once ID’d the yards in the kicking game as the “hidden yards,” a swing of as many as 100 yards of field position via punts, your own returns and stopping your opponents’. A 100-yard rusher or receiver was a story; winning the special-teams area by that margin might go unnoticed.
As long as the Bears had Devin Hester returning punts and kickoffs, and a succession of special-teams standouts (Brendan Ayanbadejo, Tim Shaw, Blake Costanzo, others), they could reasonably expect to hold an edge in hidden yards.
But Hester is in Atlanta and every return is a tryout. Eric Weems failed his (with help from mistakes as a receiver); Domenik Hixon lost his chance with a torn ACL in a minicamp.
The result is that in the third preseason game when starters typically play the most and longest, the Bears don’t know who the “starter” is in their return game – which makes every kick return in Seattle a job interview for:
Santonio Holmes can help his chances at a roster spot by supplementing his receiver talents with some impact in the return game. How much if any opportunity he gets this week, however, is problematic given his short time in camp.
Micheal Spurlock is getting a chance to extend a solid career as a returner who has produced five return touchdowns, a 24.2-yard KOR average and nearly 10 yards on 81 punt returns. Spurlock has 46 career pass receptions, and an edge is there for a returner who also can pose a receiving threat, particularly with the Bears needing to stock their receiver corps until Marquess Wilson returns from a broken collarbone.
Spurlock has returned five punts for a total of nine yards, and one kickoff for 19. He cannot afford another no-impact return game.
Chris Williams, with perhaps an edge because of some impact plays as a receiver, has not played since straining a hamstring running a route in the Philadelphia game. He practiced this week and was a standout returner in the CFL but the Bears are placing a premium on ball security, not just speed and broken-field running.
“You gotta catch the ball in a real live game and catch punts in a real live situation,” said special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis. “So we’ll see those things going forward.”
Darius Reynaud led the NFL in return yards in 2012 (1,240), which is nice but perhaps not a top-shelf achievement when playing for a Tennessee team that went 6-10 and led the NFL in points allowed, meaning that Reynaud was returning a lot of kickoffs.
What to watch for:
The Bears are looking less for spectacular than dependable. Ball security is paramount – DeCamillis stresses the simple first step of “catch the ball” – and the ability to get upfield efficiently will go a long way toward separating the applicants.