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Bears thrilled to have slot machine Earl Bennett back from injury

Earl Bennett of the Chicago Bears runs for a touchdown after a reception in the second half of the NFC Championship at Soldier Field, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

PHILADELPHIA – Earl Bennett isn’t the Bears’ biggest receiver. He isn’t the Bears’ shiftiest receiver. And he certainly isn’t the Bears’ fastest receiver.

But he’s arguably the team’s most reliable receiver.

That’s why coaches and quarterback Jay Cutler are genuinely excited that Bennett is returning to the lineup after missing the last five-and-a-half games because of what the club described as a chest injury.

Undrafted rookie Dane Sanzenbacher did an admirable job in his place working the slot, and the Bears pass offense is ranked 17th in the league. But the fact that running back Matt Forte leads the team in receptions (38) and receiving yards (419) by a comfortable margin reinforces how much the Bears have missed Bennett.

The question is, what does this mean for the unit now?

It could mean fewer snaps for Devin Hester.

Earl Bennett doesn’t register to the average NFL fan. His name doesn’t register like Hester, Roy Williams or Johnny Knox. But Bennett finished last season third in catches (46) and second in receiving yards (561), despite playing fewer snaps than both Knox and Hester.

“He does everything very well,” Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz said. “What Earl has that people don’t realize until they play him is that he has real speed. He made so many key plays in key situations for us last year.”

Perhaps more importantly, Bennett was the Bears’ leading receiver on third downs, catching 19 passes for 199 yards with one touchdown. In fact, Bennett was tied for 14th in the NFC in third-down catches.

One of the most glaring issues with the Bears’ offense is on third downs. They have converted 29.9 percent, which is 29th in the NFL. For all that Sanzenbacher has done well, he’s among the league leaders in drops with five, which is tied for 7th in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.

“I call [Bennett] Mr. Third-down, and it’s almost a foregone conclusion that the ball’s going to be a completion,” Martz said. “It’s good to have him back.”

Splitting up snaps has already been a delicate issue, with Knox and Williams battling for the starting spot, and Sam Hurd sometimes playing more because of his blocking skills.

Collectively, though, the unit hasn’t done enough.

So with Bennett sure to get his snaps, others will probably see the field less.

One of those players could be Hester.

The Bears are mindful of keeping him fresh, particularly given his dominance as a returner this season. But through seven games, Hester has played 348 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, more than any other receiver.

If he plays less, though, Hester will still have a prominent role on the offense because he remains one of the team’s best weapons. Despite some failed screen passes, Hester still averages a healthy 14.7 yards per catch.

Much has been made that the Bears didn’t acquire a legitimate No. 1 receiver. But this group will have to prove themselves Monday against one of the league’s most talented and experienced trio of cornerbacks. Asante Samuel and Nnamdi Asomugha have combined for seven Pro Bowl appearances, and third corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has 13 interceptions in 44 career NFL starts.

Asomugha, however, certainly hasn’t lived up to the hype of the five-year, $60 million contract he signed during the offseason that included $25 million in guarantees.

If the Bears are going to beat the Eagles, the receivers will have to play a key role and Bennett wants to do his part.

“Just come out and help us any ways; first, second, third down, whatever,” he said. “My only thing is to just come back strong and help this offense.”