Misfortune, penalties adding up for Bears’ special-teams units

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Marcus Cooper (31) heads toward the end zone after recovering teammate Sherrick McManis’ blocked punt against the Steelers in Week 3. Unfortunately, Cooper misjudged the goal line, was hit and fumbled. The Bears settled for a field goal. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

Bears special-teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers made it perfectly clear.

“We certainly don’t go into meetings and say, ‘Let’s have as many blocks in the back and holding [penalties] as we can possibly have,’ ” Rodgers said.


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His frustration was understandable. Seemingly every week, Rodgers is asked about some costly special-teams gaffe, almost always after a loss. This time it was a holding penalty on DeAndre Houston-Carson — one of the team’s best special-teams players — that nullified Tarik Cohen’s 90-yard kickoff return after the Lions had taken a 13-0 lead in the second quarter.

“That was a misdirection play, and his job was to anticipate the guy crossing his face and kind of take him that way,” Rodgers explained. “He had his hands inside. He was in really good position. I thought he could have done more to continue that player on his path as opposed to waiting for him to make that second maneuver.”

It’s difficult to put that in layman’s terms, but suffice it to say, the penalty was avoidable but not egregious. It has been that kind of season for Rodgers and the Bears’ special-teams units. Kind of a wacky season, actually — with the three longest returns marred by some sort of ignominy.

Two weeks before Cohen’s 90-yard kickoff return being nullified, Cohen had a 67-yard punt return nullified by an illegal block. And Marcus Cooper’s 73-yard return of Sherrick McManis’ blocked field goal against the Steelers was a sure touchdown that became a field goal when Cooper inexplicably stopped at the 1-yard line, was hit and fumbled.

It has been one of those years in which the special-teams ace — often overlooked if not invisible — was immediately conspicuous by his absence. After McManis suffered a hamstring injury against the Ravens, the Bears allowed punt and kickoff returns for touchdowns to blow a 14-point lead before winning in overtime. Two weeks later in New Orleans, Kyle Fuller — playing McManis’ position on field-goal defense — lined up offside, a penalty that gave the Saints a first down. They scored a touchdown on the next play.

The Bears have made big special-teams plays that counted. They executed a fake punt to perfection, with Pat O’Donnell throwing a 38-yard touchdown pass to Benny Cunningham. And Cohen returned a punt 61 yards for a touchdown against the 49ers — but only after he unwisely retreated 19 yards and nearly was tackled for a 20-yard loss.

The Bears have used three kickers — Connor Barth, Cairo Santos and Mike Nugent — then saw former Bear Robbie Gould, now with the 49ers, kick five field goals, including one at the buzzer, to beat them 15-14 at Soldier Field.

Sometimes it seems like the harder they try, the worse they get. Around the bye week, Rodgers mentioned to his players that they were doing a good job of avoiding penalties.

“We’ve had multiple games since then where we have two penalties,” Rodgers said.

“It’s something we’ve got to clean up as a coaching staff, as a group of players, so that that stuff doesn’t show up, and those positive plays can stand.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkPotash.

Email: mpotash@suntimes.com

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