Special teams often fly under the radar in NFL discussions, but any football enthusiast knows the integral role they play in determining the outcome of games. As we approach the 2023 NFL season, let’s dive into the Chicago Bears‘ special teams unit, a group that has the potential to be a game-changer.
The Bears‘ special teams are led by a coordinator, Richard Hightower, known for his creative schemes and player development. His units are consistently well-drilled, disciplined, and make a significant impact in all phases of the game. The coming season promises to be no different, as he has a mix of seasoned veterans and emerging talent at his disposal.
In the kicking game, the Bears have had the stability and reliability they were searching for since they released Chicago Bears’ legendary kicker Ryan Gould in 2015. Their placekicker, Cairo Santos, has been one of the league’s most consistent performers, showcasing a strong leg and nerves of steel in pressure situations. The Bears and their fans hope Santos is able to continue to convert crucial field goals and extra points in the upcoming season.
There have been some questions brought up concerning Santos. As consistent as he’s been kicking, he missed a few crucial extra points in the past couple of seasons. In fact, last season he missed five extra-point attempts. Additionally, there was a game last season in which he passed on a field goal attempt, showing a lack of confidence.
Santos’ field goal percentage was still pretty good. He ranked fifth in the league in field goal percentage (91.3 percent) and the Bears ranked fifth (92.6 percent when adding in Michael Badgley’s attempts filling in when Santos had a personal day).
The Bears are still confident that Santos is the guy. Hightower dismisses the criticism volleyed at Santos.
"So I mean if you call that struggling, fifth in the NFL in field goals, our field goal team was fifth in the NFL. I understand the extra-point question and he fixed that towards the end (last year). But, I mean, a lot of people would kill to have a top-five kicker, so I think that we got to make our extra points and I think that he fixed that towards the end of the year. But I wouldn’t say that a top-five kicker struggled. That’s my personal opinion."
The Chicago Bears are still covering their bases by bringing in Andre Szmyt to push him. There likely is no concern that Santos will falter, but giving him a little push during training camp and preseason games can help assure that he doesn’t.
The punter, Trenton Gill, a strategic weapon in the field position battle, also returns. His rookie season was not an elite one. He ranked 23rd in both total and net yards. Coming out of college, though, the Bears thought he had the accuracy to pin opponents deep inside their territory.
Chicago needs him to show that ability in 2023. The defense has more talent so if their opponents are back deep in their own territory the Bears’ defense can try to put pressure and either score a safety or have those opponents punt from their own end zone. That will, in turn, give the offense better field position. Also having an improved offense would mean more scoring.
The primary kick returner in 2023 will likely be Velus Jones, He is known for his electrifying speed and elusiveness, can flip the field in a blink, and is always a threat to take it to the house. Despite having his troubles in the offense, he did a good job in the return game. He averaged 27.6 yards per return, ranking third.
It will be interesting how the new rules regarding kickoff returns affect Jones. Players can now signal a fair catch and have the ball placed on the 25. Many feel that this will curtail the number of returns. However, head coach Matt Eberflus feels it could increase them. He noted how the rules have been in effect in college yet there wasn’t a precipitous fall in kickoff returns. In fact, Jones did not have a problem on kickoff returns in college and actually thrived.
Last season, Jones also returned punts. He did not do as well there, though. He had two muffed punts that either cost a victory or prevented a chance at victory. The coaches had to take him out and use Dante Pettis. Pettis averaged 9.1 yards per return to Jones’ 7 yards.
We will see if Jones is over his punt troubles and is able to regain his position returning punts. Pettis is in danger of not making the team so the Bears hope Jones is ready to again that job. If not, another speedy player, Tyler Scott, can try to take that spot.
There will be a number of players looking to make the team. For most of them, the coverage team on either punts or kickoff might be their one and only chance to make it. They will be critical in stopping the returner from making a big return or possibly scoring a touchdown. They need to be disciplined in staying in their lane and not leaving open space for the returner.
Last season, the Bears incorporated a lot of young, inexperienced players on special teams. That was a big reason why they ranked 24th in coverage. This season, they will have Scott, Roschon Johnson, and Dylan Cole. In addition to their responsibilities on either offense or defense, they will be on special teams coverage.
Johnson, playing behind Bijan Robinson, was a leader in kick coverage. He will try to continue that in Chicago. Scott, despite not being a big player, was a tenacious gunner at college. Cole has 43 career special teams tackles. The three add a lot to special teams so the Bears’ ranking should improve.
Rounding out the special teams unit are the long snapper and holder, unsung heroes of the kicking game. Patrick Scales returns for his ninth season and eighth with the Chicago Bears. He’s not known to many fans, which is a great thing. The only time you hear his name is when he makes a mistake so not hearing about him is great.
Gill will again be the holder. As long as he doesn’t use his towel to wipe the field he will be fine doing that job.
The Chicago Bears’ special teams unit is set up for success in 2023. Their combination of skillful kicking, explosive returning, and tenacious coverage can provide the Bears with a decisive edge in many games. We saw last season that Chicago was involved in eight games decided by one score.
In close games, little things can be the difference in wins or losses. We saw Jones’ muffed punts cost wins. A missed field goal, a penalty that moves the team out of field goal range, or a touchdown allowed on special teams can make all the difference.
As we gear up for the new season, fans should keep an eye on this group. They may not grab the headlines like the offense or defense, but their performance will be crucial to the Chicago Bears’ fortunes in 2023.