LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Even before three-time Pro Bowl return man Devin Hester left last Sunday's game in the first half due to a concussion, the Chicago Bears already had decided to go in a different direction on kickoff return.
When the club returned to the practice field last week following their 32-7 loss in San Francisco, the Bears made the decision to replace Hester on kickoff return in favor Eric Weems, who served as the primary return man for the Atlanta Falcons from 2009-11 and got voted to the Pro Bowl in 2010 when he finished third in the league in kickoff return average (27.5).
Weems returned three kickoffs for 65 yards in the Bears' 28-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings.
Although Hester's long kickoff return this season is only 38 yards (Week 2 vs. Green Bay), he is averaging 25.5 yards per return which is nearly 2 yards higher than his career average. Plus, Hester's mere presence alone on kickoff returns helped the Bears in terms of field position with the most notable example coming on Oct. 28 when the Carolina Panthers squib kicked away from Hester the entire game.
Hester's real issues have been on punt return where his decision-making has been called into question on several occasions. But the Bears wanted to see if Weems' straightforward, up-the-field return style could provide a spark on kickoffs.
"It was good to get him some touches and get him lined up in practice," Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub said. "He was our guy, he was our No. 1 kick returner, so he's excited. He was a little rusty, but hopefully he gets better this week.
"He's a little bit more north and south, kind of like (Seattle's) Leon (Washington) a little bit. He's a lot more north and south. He's got good vision, he's a strong up-the-field player. Where Devin is going to try to make you miss and run around you and a lot of times get to the edge."
The Bears aggressively pursued Weems in free agency because they viewed him as a multi-purpose threat on special teams. Besides being a Pro Bowl-caliber return man, Weems is second on the Bears with 10 special teams tackles, just one stop behind team leader Blake Costanzo.
"He's been great," Toub said. "He's been a leader for us. He'll go back and forth with Blake. They're very competitive both of them, and they are always competing (over) who made the tackle, who didn't make the tackle, who is getting doubled ... it's a lot of fun as far as the coverage goes. It's good to get Weems in the return game and get him a little more active."
The 5-foot-9 Weems has also chipped in at wide receiver, but his main value to the team is on special teams, where he's established a reputation of being a physical and talkative player on the field.
"He's tough," Toub said. "He's real quiet at practice, but when it's game time, he 's a lot more vocal. When he blocks you, he lets you know about it. He kind of ticks some people off sometimes, and they push him back because they can't believe that this guy is just beating them. He's just a fun guy to be around, and he's been a pleasure to have."