Bears' Talented Return Tandem Will Provide Test

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Bears rookie WR Johnny Knox leads the NFL in kickoff returns with a 29.4-yard average.

Chicago features one of the better 1-2 combinations in the league in kickoff returners Johnny Knox and Danieal Manning, so preventing either one of them from having a momentum-changing return on Sunday at Soldier Field will be critical.

The rookie Knox enters Sunday's contest as the top kickoff returner in the league with a 29.4-yard average on 29 returns, including a 102-yard touchdown, and Manning ranks No. 14 in the NFL with a 24.7 average on 20 returns. Manning led the NFL last season with a 29.7-yard average.

The two players, who happen to both be alums of Abilene Christian University in Texas, have helped the Bears to the No. 2 ranking (tied with New Orleans) in kickoff returns with a 25.6-yard average, as well as an average starting field position after kickoffs of 31.6, which also ranks second in the league. The Bears lead the NFL with six returns of 40-plus yards, with four of those coming from Knox and two from Manning.

"I think Knox has really shown that he's really fast and he's explosive and hits the hole," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. "Then Danieal Manning, he runs the ball about as violently as a returner as I have seen. I think they are both excellent players and it's a real challenge to go stop those guys."

The 6-foot, 185-pound Knox and the 5-11, 202-pound Manning will offer a unique challenge because of those different styles.

"Knox has got that vertical speed, so that's a threat, and Manning is just a tough runner," said linebacker Desmond Bishop, who leads the Packers with a career-high 17 special teams tackles. "It's kind of like on offense when you've got change-of-pace running backs. You've got a power guy and a speed back.

"I think they are good, but I feel like if we do our job, if all 11 men go down and be sound in their assignment, I don't really think it matters who is back there. It is about us really."

The Packers' coverage units did their job in the season opener against the Bears at Lambeau Field, limiting Manning to a 26.7-yard average on three returns with a long of only 27. Knox was not returning kickoffs at that point in the season, with Devin Hester (one return for 26 yards) and Earl Bennett (one return for 18 yards) handling the other two kickoffs that Sunday night.

But Green Bay only needs to look back to the last meeting at Soldier Field on Dec. 22, 2008, to see the impact that Manning can have. Chicago's offense was able to muster just one first down on its first three possessions, but after the Packers took a 7-0 lead midway through the second quarter on an Aaron Rodgers touchdown pass to wide receiver Greg Jennings, Manning took the ensuing kickoff back 70 yards to the Green Bay 29. The Bears only picked up one first down and were forced to settle for a 31-yard field goal from Robbie Gould, but they clearly received a spark from the big return.

Taking out Manning's 70-yarder, the Packers limited him to just a 15.7-yard average on his other three returns. But that has been a common theme for Green Bay throughout this season in kickoff coverage: containing teams for much of the game but allowing one explosive return that swings the momentum.

Green Bay enters Sunday's contest tied for 25th in the league in kickoff coverage with opponents averaging 24.5 yards per return, and the Packers rank 30th in the league with opponents starting their drives after kickoffs at the 29.9-yard line.

But of the Packers' 57 kickoffs this season, 47 of them (82.5 percent), have been returned for less than 30 yards. The number that stands out is seven returns of 40-plus yards, the most in the league, including ones of 77, 83, 76 and 68 yards.

Remove the four longest returns and Green Bay is holding its opponents to a 20.6-yard return average on the other 53 returns. Those four make up nearly 22 percent of opponents' kickoff return yardage, but just 7.0 percent of the returns.

"One of the things that we have done throughout this year, we've got quite a few tackles inside the 20 (12, No. 6 in the league)," Slocum said. "The problem has been allowing the one explosive return. That's something that we're addressing. It's something that I personally have gone back and looked at and tried to ask the question why?

"I think what we have to do as a unit is for everybody to play as fast as they can to the ball with their job in mind. Each guy just fundamentally has to do his job as hard and as fast as he can. I think what has happened is some guys have said, 'I don't want to be wrong. I'm going to go down here and slow down and make sure that I can go over here and make the play.' Well, you're not covering as one. You're covering as one of 11, and that's the thing that we've got to get done as we move forward."

Not that a team ever wants to give up a long return, but the timing of the explosive plays has only magnified them with three of the four coming in the fourth quarter with the Packers trying to hold onto the lead. The first, a 77-yarder from Vikings wide receiver Percy Harvin in Week 8, came after the Packers had taken an early 3-0 lead in the first quarter, and set up an Adrian Peterson touchdown run.

The second came the very next week in Tampa Bay after Green Bay had extended its lead to 28-17 early in the fourth quarter. Running back Clifton Smith took the ensuing kickoff 83 yards to the Green Bay 17, and the Bucs scored on a Josh Freeman pass to tight end Kellen Winslow just one minute and 20 seconds later in a game the Packers went on to lose 38-28.

{sportsad300}Two weeks later, Green Bay held a 30-10 lead over San Francisco when wide receiver Josh Morgan returned a kickoff 76 yards that set up a TD catch from tight end Vernon Davis three plays later.

The final one, which came this past Monday night against Baltimore, came when cornerback Lardarius Webb took a kickoff down the middle of the field for 68 yards after Green Bay had just taken a 24-14 lead with over 10 minutes remaining. That return was the only one of the four that the opponent did not score a touchdown off of as cornerback Tramon Williams picked a Joe Flacco pass in the end zone four plays later.

"They have been plays that have affected our momentum in ballgames," Slocum said. "You look at Tampa Bay, you look at Minnesota, you look at the one last Monday night, those things hurt you from an overall team aspect. That's where we've got to, when it's crunch time, we've got to go get that done. I expect us to do that as we move forward.

"One good thing about Monday night's game is that we won the battle of special-teams field position, even giving up a 68-yard return. There are a lot of good things that we can be confident with and that we move forward with. That's the good part of it, but I want to come out of one of these ballgames with a lopsided special-teams battle, and that's our objective."

Facing a Bears team on Sunday that is ranked No. 24 in total offense and No. 22 in scoring, preventing its kickoff-return units from providing the offense a short field will be a key, as it will be down the stretch with three of the final four games likely to be played in winter conditions.

"Field position is always important, but in the cold games sometimes you can't really throw or certain things on your offense or defense are hindered," said Bishop. "I think winning the field-position battle is pivotal. We all know that and we're going to keep it in our minds and execute.

"It has been frustrating to be sound most of the time, and then we really need a stop, they get a long one on us. It's in the past though, so you've just got to learn from it. We kind of have been saying that all season, but we've got a lot of young guys. They are learning as we all learn how to play together. These next four games and hopefully throughout the playoffs, I think we're going to jell."

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