By Adam Hoge-
CHICAGO — After two preseason games, this much is clear: the Bears miss Devin Hester.
That’s not to say the team should have re-signed Hester this offseason — the $3 million per year he got in Atlanta was better suited upgrading the defense — but it’s hard to envision the Bears’ current group of returners impacting the game like he did — even the 2013 version of Hester.
And let’s focus only on last year’s version, because it would be impossible to expect any returner to come close to doing what Devin Hester did in the prime of his career. But even last season, Hester was a threat, giving Marc Trestman’s offense favorable field position. At times, he did even more, like when he racked up 249 return yards against the Vikings in Week 2 — a game the Bears would have lost without him.
At this point, field position isn’t even the worst of the Bears’ concerns in the return game. Catching the ball is the first concern. Keeping it secure after catching is the next. Getting yards is a distant third.
Thursday night against the Jaguars, Eric Weems took the reps as the team’s No. 1 kick returner and fumbled his second opportunity. Again, forget field position. Just get the offense the ball. The fumble led to the Jaguars’ third straight scoring drive, at which point the Bears’ offense had run just three total plays.
“We haven’t seen anything in the return game,” Bears head coach Marc Trestman admitted. “It’s been pretty much a catch and a stop.”
Weems finished the game with four returns for 95 yards, a 23.8-yard average that was inflated somewhat by the 26-yarder that culminated in the fumble.
Things we’re much better behind him. Michael Ford dropped the ball as he caught it in the end zone, costing him crucial yardage. Later, Michael Spurlock muffed his second punt in as many weeks.
So how else could the Bears have addressed the returner situation this offseason? It’s way too early to make conclusions on this year’s draft, but it is worth pointing out that stud Oregon kick returner De’Anthony Thomas was selected by the Chiefs seven picks after the Bears took Ka’Deem Carey in fourth round. Carey better fits the mold as a running back in the NFL, but it’s looking more and more like kick/punt returner is a bigger position of need than backup running back, especially because Shaun Draughn looks promising behind Matt Forte.
Of course, the Bears may have felt like they already had a returner in Chris Williams — and they still might. Williams looked like the team’s most promising returner entering training camp and he remains in that position given the performances through two preseason games. The problem is, he doesn’t have a single preseason return after he injured his hamstring on a 73-yard touchdown catch against the Eagles last week. The Bears may still view Williams as a legitimate candidate, but his injury puts the coaching staff and personnel department in a tough spot given that he has zero NFL experience.
“He’s day-to-day, but we’re encouraged,” Trestman said about Williams after the game. “I think we’ll see that when we get back to work next week, that hopefully he’ll be able to be ready, but it’s still day-to-day.”
Bears general manager Phil Emery made a sneaky move to grab Williams off the Saints practice squad in Week 17 last season. It was a move geared toward 2014 and it may still pay off this year.
Given what the Bears have seen from their kick return unit so far, they need to get Williams healthy as soon as possible.
Linebackers Move Forward
Jon Bostic and Shea McClellin didn’t have great preseason debuts last week, but both players took a step in the right direction Thursday night against the Jaguars.
Bostic really flashed his potential in the first quarter when he read a run play perfectly and blew up left tackle Luke Joeckel to drop Toby Gerhart for a four-yard loss. Plays like that — running over a former No. 2 overall pick — are why the Bears still believe Bostic has a bright future in this league.
McClellin, meanwhile, also took advantage of Joeckel, putting a quick move on the left tackle and penetrating the B-gap to stop Jordan Todman in the backfield for a three-yard loss. McClellin didn’t have a perfect game, but that play was a glimpse into how the Bears hope to use the defensive end-turned-linebacker effectively this season.
Clausen Battles Headset Issues
Jimmy Clausen took the majority of the quarterback reps Thursday night and still appears to have a good chance of winning the backup job. His overall numbers weren’t spectacular (11-of-15 for 94 yards, one interception and no touchdowns), but Clausen showed off an above-average arm and didn’t look overwhelmed. Head coach Marc Trestman also said the team had headset issues Thursday night and Clausen didn’t get the play call on three to five snaps, including the interception.
“It was a very difficult night because the headsets went down, so there were three to five plays where it just became confusion and he really didn’t get us in the best plays,” Trestman said. “He was trying to make something good of a bad situation and there wasn’t anyway I could help him.”
Meanwhile, Jordan Palmer did his part to stay in the race by completing 6-of-9 passes for 73 yards, 58 of which came on a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter. Most of those passes were short throws, but Palmer did well to manage the drive and get the ball in the hands of his playmakers, including running back Senorise Perry, who caught two of the passes for 30 yards and scored the winning touchdown on a five-yard run with 50 seconds left.
- First-round pick Kyle Fuller hurt his ankle on the opening kickoff and did not play the rest of the night. He said x-rays were negative, however.
- Tight end Zach Miller left the game on a cart with a foot injury and Trestman said he would have more information Friday. Miller has battled a number of serious injuries in his career and has been having a great preseason.
- Wide receiver Marquess Wilson (collarbone), safety Craig Steltz (groin), cornerback Isaiah Frey (hamstring), safety Chris Conte (shoulder), offensive lineman Eben Britton (hamstring), center Brian de la Puente (sprained MCL), right tackle Jordan Mills (sore foot), wide receiver Chris Williams (hamstring), tight end Dante Rosario (calf) and defensive end Willie Young (knee bruise) did not play. After the game, Trestman called Young’s injury “a non-issue”.
If safety Chris Conte is going to get legitimate preseason reps, it has to come against the Seahawks in Seattle next Friday. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him with the first-team defense this coming week. After missing the first two preseason games, he needs the work and waiting until the fourth preseason game against the Browns would leave him playing against mostly backups and third-teamers. The Bears maintain that Conte is very much in the mix to start at safety this season. If that’s the case, this coming week is big for him.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for 87.7 The Game and TheGameChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.