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With Mariani, special teams showing signs of progress after tough 2014

Marc Mariani, who knows daylight when he sees it, has high hopes for the Bears’ special teams this season.

“I think coach [Jeff] Rodgers is doing a heck of a job,” the former Pro Bowl kick returner said. “I really am optimistic and excited about our [special] teams this year. I think the return game is going to be explosive.”

Explosive? Bears fans will settle for competent after a disastrous season on special teams that would have been even more glaring had it not been in the shadow of the defense’s historic implosion last year.

General manager Phil Emery hamstrung coordinator Joe DeCamillis by cutting three of the top four tacklers on special teams in 2013 — Blake Costanzo, Craig Steltz and Eric Weems. The intent was to use special teams to develop younger, athletic prospects — not a bad theory —  but the lack of special teams aces and the weekly turnover that ensued instead left DeCamillis with inexperienced players who couldn’t avoid costly mistakes.

The Bears’ special teams ranked 26th in the annual composite rankings by the Dallas Morning News. They led the NFL in special-teams penalties with 28. Their longest punt return was 22 yards — the first time the Bears did not return a punt 25 yards or longer since 1997. They allowed a punt return for a touchdown  — a 79-yarder by Carolina’s Philly Brown — for the first time since 2010. (The Bears allowed two punt-return touchdowns in nine years under Dave Toub). The lone bright spot was anti-climactic — Chris Williams’ 101-yard kickoff return against the Packers came after the Bears were down 55-7. Meanwhile, Devin Hester made the Pro Bowl with the Falcons.

As it turned out, Williams suffered a hamstring injury the following week and the Bears signed Mariani, which provided a rare semblance of stability on special teams. In six games, Mariani had six of the Bears’ eight kickoff returns of 30 yards or longer, including a 67-yard return against the Vikings in the season-finale.

Special teams remains a work-in-progress under new coordinator Jeff Rodgers. But there are signs of improvement. Mariani had punt returns of 29 and 22 yards against the Colts last week. Rookie wide receiver Iffy Umodu, taking advantage of a blown assignment, blocked a punt and returned it eight yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of a 23-10 loss to the Bengals on Saturday night.

Mariani also had a 28-yard punt return against the Colts nullified by a penalty. Rookie Jeremy Langford’s face mask penalty on a Bears punt gave the Bengals 32 additional yards in field position Saturday night. With five penalties against the Bengals, the Bears’ special teams have nine penalties in three preseason games — a work-in-progress indeed.

The Bears are unlikely to return to the days of Hester, who returned 19 kicks for touchdowns in eight seasons with the Bears. But when Mariani says “explosive” he’s not just hoping against hope.

“There are some things you can do schematically and technique-wise that will help you on Sundays,” he said, “and when you’ve got a group of guys in the special teams room that’s motivated and excited about doing it, you’ll have good results.

“Hester’s one of the best of all time. I’m not going to say anything [about] filling those shoes. But all I’m saying is we’re going to be sound and we’re going to have a lot of guys doing exactly what they’re coached to do in their job and when you do that and you execute, big plays come — whether it’s in coverage or return game. If you’ve got 10 guys that are winning, we’re going to have big plays.”

Sherrick McManis, the second-leading special-teams tackler last year behind Senorise Perry, is cautiously optimistic this will be a better year on special teams.

“I’m not comparing to last year,” McManis said. “Last year is last year. This year is a whole new year — new coaches, new teammates, new players. And everybody right now has been working hard, busting their butt in practice. And it’s actually translating onto the playing field. That’s key. Hard work is always great. But execution is really good.”