There is no room for a lack of discipline, or a lapse in judgment, or even a missed blocking assignment. The Eagles' special teams have their most serious challenge waiting on Sunday night when they go against the gold standard in the NFL, the Bears. Chicago changes games with its special teams, and it could be argued that the special teams provided the most momentum in the team's Super Bowl of 2006.
Want the evidence? Here are some gaudy numbers: The Bears have been ranked No. 1 in the league-wide rankings in back-to-back seasons based on a comprehensive analysis provided by The Dallas Morning News. Last year alone, Chicago's special teams scored six touchdowns and blocked eight kicks (four field goals, three punts and one extra point). Chicago led the NFL in average starting field position after kickoffs (33.7-yard line). Chicago also ranked first in the league in kickoff coverage and third in punt coverage last year.
"You always want to measure yourself against a team like that," said long snapper Jon Dorenbos. "The Bears have been dominating. They win games on special teams, so we know we have to be at our best on Sunday night."
Chicago is capable of just about anything on special teams under coordinator Dave Toub, who coached with the Eagles from 2001-2003. The Bears have never been an overly explosive offense, but with the help of a short field, the Bears won the NFC two seasons ago and are still considered a contending team this season.
The Eagles have Rory Segrest in his second season as special teams coordinator. The group struggled early last year and then steadily improved as the season continued, and the goal in 2008 is to dominate every week.
So far, the special teams have been up and down. Mostly up, but down in the Week 2 loss at Dallas when the kickoff coverage unit allowed Felix Jones to scoot through a four-man wedge and into the clear untouched for a 98-yard touchdown return.
The Eagles were dominant against St. Louis, and were again outstanding on special teams last week in the win over Pittsburgh. Sav Rocca leads the league in net punting and David Akers has been excellent on kickoffs and has been perfect on field goals. Quintin Demps has been a good kickoff return man. DeSean Jackson is a game-breaker on punts, but as is the nature of the job, he has had some famine among the feast.
The coverage units are on the spot on Sunday night, of course. With Devin Hester on the field -- maybe, possibly; he is questionable with a rib injury -- the Eagles have to be sure that they don't slip up for an instant or he will make them pay with a field position-altering return. More than that, though, the Eagles have to be prepared for Chicago's tricks. Toub has never been afraid to dial up an all-out rush to block a kick, or to take a chance on a gadget play to change the complexion of a game. The Bears are excellent at identifying weaknesses and exploiting them.
"They are very good and they take a lot of pride in special teams," said linebacker Akeem Jordan, a leader on these special teams. "We do, too. I think it's going to be a great battle on special teams."
Will the Eagles kick to Hester if he plays? They didn't last year in the loss at Lincoln Financial Field, and the strategy allowed the Eagles to avoid returns going the other way. Three of Rocca's four punts went out of bounds and the other one was a touchback. The Eagles did not allow Hester to touch the ball on kickoff returns.
But the telling part of the story is where the Bears started their drives after Eagles kicks. In the punt game, the Bears started drives at the 41-yard line, the 20-yard line, the 50-yard line and, after a brilliant Rocca punt sailed out of bounds, at the 3-yard line -- a possession that turned into a 97-yard game-winning touchdown drive for Chicago. After Eagles kickoffs, the Bears started at their 27-yard line, their 26, their 40 and again at the 40-yard line.
Pick the poison, then. Kick to Hester -- if he plays -- and take your chances with perhaps the most dangerous kick return man in the history of the game -- or kick the ball out of bounds and lose field position. If Hester doesn't play, Daniel Manning is still a very good return man. He is not in Hester's class, but the Bears are still scary in the return game.
Segrest's crew also has to worry about the push from Chicago's pressure simply to get the kicks off.
"We have to be ready for everything," said Jordan. "Every play means something. That is what special teams is all about."
Special teams may not have the glamour of the offense or the defense, but we all know how important they are. In this game, maybe, the special teams are just a little bit more important. The Eagles need to make the big plays and win the battle of field position. Segrest is building something here that he thinks could be special, pun intended. Sunday night is the measuring stick.