Carolina's plan to eliminate the threat of Hester on kickoff returns revolved around using a combination of squib kicks that never had a chance to reach the Pro Bowl return man, a strategy that led to six different Bears players returning kickoffs in the 23-22 victory: Armando Allen, Earl Bennett, Kyle Adams, Craig Steltz, Eric Weems, Corey Wootton.
"The kick return game as far as last week with the squibs and stuff, I was happy with the way we were able to handle the ball," Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub said. "We had six different guys handle the football in that game and they handled it well. We had Wootton put the ball on the ground but he fell on it, so we didn't have any turnovers. What we did was set up our offense with great field position. Really, that's what we do. It's all about field position. If we can set up our offense and defense we feel like we did our job."
What surprised the Bears was the fact Carolina stuck to their squib kick plan. In the first half, the Bears left their standard kickoff return team in the game to field the shorter kicks, because Toub assumed the Panthers would eventually get tired of handing the Bears good field position and kick the ball deep. But when it became obvious that Carolina wasn't going to change its strategy, Toub sent in a special personnel grouping to better deal with the issue, or as Toub called them, the "squibbler" team.
"In the first half we kept our guys in there thinking they would eventually kick it deep because we didn't think they could keep giving us that kind of field position, but in the second half we came out with a group we call the 'squibbler' team," Toub said. "It's all guys that are able to handle the ball ... returners, running backs, etc. We felt a lot more comfortable when they were kicking squibs with those guys back there."
Carolina clearly went to the extreme on its squib kicks. But Toub doesn't discount the idea that future opponents might try and mix in squib kicks when Hester is in the game to return kickoffs. Perhaps Tennessee tries its own unique strategy to deal with Hester since the Titans have had their share of problems on kickoffs. They have have surrendered an average of 29.3 yards per kickoff return and an 89-yard touchdown to Buffalo's Brad Smith two weeks ago.
"The fact they (Carolina) kept kicking squibs was good for us but if they decided to kick it deeper, we're taking blockers out, good blockers to put in good returners," Toub said. "If they had kicked it deep it would have been harder to get a good return from Devin without the blockers out in front of him.
"I think (teams) will mix it up. If you keep doing the same thing over and over again then a team could adjust like we did and just leave those guys in there. But if you're mixing it up and we're trying to guess when they are trying to kick it deep or when they going to squib it then we have to leave our big guys on the field."