Bobby April knows that every special teams play can change the course of a game in the NFL. That is a fact of life in this league, and it is a point that April will emphasize this week to his young Eagles group as it prepares to play a solid, and many times spectacular, Bears special teams unit.
We'll talk all week about how the Eagles match up against Chicago's great defense, and about how the Philadelphia defense must get to Jay Cutler to take away Chicago's passing game, whether it goes to versatile running back Matt Forte or an assortment of better-than-their-reps wide receivers. But this game could very well come down to special teams at windy Soldier Field, and so for April's litmus-test assignment his special teams have to step up to the task.
This hasn't been a season of unquestioned success for the special teams, or for April, who came to the Eagles in the off-season with the hope of vaulting the special teams to the top of the NFL's ladder. It has taken time for April to find the right combinations, to get his young players to perform with discipline and consistency and, at times, with confidence.
The improvement has been tangible. Kick coverage has improved greatly. Sav Rocca has been outstanding, averaging 45.4 yards per boot. He has dumped 15 kicks inside the 20-yard line, has only two touchbacks and is guilty of just two touchbacks while compiling a net average of 38.6 yards per kick.
David Akers has made all 30 of his PATs, has nailed 20 of his 25 field goals, and is among the league's best in kickoffs. The coverage units, after a slow and uneven start, have clamped down. The Eagles are winning the battle of field position, the coveted "hidden yardage" category.
But there are also concerns. Where is the return game? DeSean Jackson returned two punts for touchdowns last year, averaged 15-plus yards per return and was as feared as any return man since, well, since Chicago's Devin Hester. This year? Jackson is averaging just 8.8 yards per return. He hasn't had much room to use his blinding speed. The slivers of light have been closed, and Jackson's biggest returns have been ones that have taken him out of bounds after 12- and 15-yard gains.
The Eagles are averaging just 20.6 yards per kickoff return and have lost Ellis Hobbs for the season with a neck injury. They may turn back to Jorrick Calvin, who showed spark and promise early in the season before encountering some tough moments of late. He was ineffective and had trouble holding on to the ball at Washington, and then was inactive on Sunday night against the Giants.
The Bears, meanwhile, are electric. Hester has enjoyed a resurgence this season with two punt returns for touchdowns. He averages a whopping 15 yards per punt return. The kickoff return game is a boost, too, as Danieal Manning and Johnny Knox have each averaged right around 25 yards per return. Robbie Gould is one of the game's best placekickers, while punter Brad Maynard excels with his directional kicking and hang time. It is difficult to get a big return against Maynard. Chicago has allowed all of 134 yards on 24 punt returns against Maynard and the Bears coverage team.
So the stakes are raised, very clearly, for this game. The Eagles can expect that any mistakes they make will be exposed by the Bears. They can expect the Bears to play a technically-sound, perhaps perfect, 60 minutes. Dave Toub is in his seventh season with the Bears. In his previous six years, Toub has guided the Bears to top-6 finishes in the rankings assimilated by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News each year, including first-place finishes in 2006 and 2007.
Chicago presents a formidable challenge, then, the best the Eagles have faced all season. How much growth has April guided? How ready is this Green gang for Chicago's special teams? Is this the game in which Jackson breaks loose? Who handles kickoffs in such an important contest?
The focus is generally on the offense and the defense, but consider how critical the special teams will be here. The weather isn't going to be a huge concern -- the temperatures at kickoff will be in the low 40s, and wind could be somewhat of an issue -- so it is going to come down to coaching, players and execution.
A win could very well be riding on the winner of special teams.