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Bears and Hawks: Value of field position

1/13/2011

We know the Chicago Bears' defense created the third-most turnovers in the NFL (35) and held opponents to the sixth-lowest third-down conversion percentage (35) this season.

We've heard plenty about Devin Hester's three touchdowns as a punt returner.

Yes, the Bears' defense and special teams were largely responsible for their NFC North title this season. But those components contributed to a third part of their winning formula: field position.

According to STATS Inc., the Bears' offense benefited from the best average drive start of any team this season. Those takeaways, combined with returns from Hester and primary kickoff man Danieal Manning, on average put the Bears' offense at the 33.7-yard line before they ran a play.

The NFL average was the 29.9-yard line in the regular season. Nearly 4 yards might not sound like much, but consider that over the course of their 198 possessions, the Bears' offense got almost an 800-yard head start over the average team. That's largely how an offense that ranked No. 30 in the NFL (based on total yards) still scored nearly 21 points per game.

The takeaways have played an incremental role, but the Bears' field position is mostly a product of Hester, Manning and the blocking schemes under coordinator Dave Toub. Consider:

  • Hester averaged an NFL-record 17.1 yards on 33 punt returns this season, prompting some teams to take extensive measures to keep the ball out of his hands. Punts directed out of bounds, as well as squib kickoffs, almost always guarantee exceptional field position -- even if they prevent a potential touchdown return.

  • The Bears also had 10 kickoff returns this season of at least 40 yards, including five from Hester, four from Manning and one from Johnny Knox. That figure led the NFL.

We should note that the Seattle Seahawks' return game has not been far behind the Bears' this season; their kickoff returners combined for seven returns of at least 40 yards. The Seahawks ranked No. 11 in the NFL in average drive start this season (30.8), a testament to the fact that field position is a product of multiple factors.

As we noted Wednesday, the Bears' quickest path to getting upset Sunday would be a meltdown by quarterback Jay Cutler. Don't underestimate the value of good field position in minimizing Cutler's opportunities for mistakes.