When Devin Hester was at his best as the most dangerous kick returner in NFL history, every special-teams player made an extra effort to avoid penalties, knowing how dearly it might cost the team.
But they’re losing their touch. Craig Steltz’s holding penalty that nullified Hester’s 62-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Rams was the Bears’ fifth penalty this season on a Hester punt return and 13th in the last two seasons. (The Bears committed 16 penalties on Hester punt returns in his first six seasons.) The Bears have committed penalties on 13 kickoff returns by Hester in his career, including Khaseem Greene’s holding penalty Sunday.
Steltz took the blame for his penalty, when he took down linebacker Daren Bates at the line of scrimmage.
‘‘You’ve got to let him go to the ground. You can’t go to the ground with him,’’ Steltz said.
He said he knew it was a penalty when it happened: ‘‘You just get caught up in it. Feet get tangled up and guys go down. [But] I usually don’t go to the ground with them.’’
That was the fourth time in Hester’s eight-year career that he has had a touchdown return nullified by penalty. The Bears won the first three, including a playoff game against the Seahawks.
Hester also has had 64-yard punt return (2007 vs. the Raiders) and a 48-yard kickoff return (2008 vs. the Packers) that did not result in scores nullified by penalty.
The Bears have committed 15 penalties on special teams this season.
This is no time for second-guessing. But ...
It’s hard to ignore the impact Bruce Arians — the runner-up to Marc Trestman in the Bears’ coaching search in January — is having with the Arizona Cardinals.
After a convincing 40-11 rout of the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, the Cardinals are 7-4 with four consecutive victories. It probably didn’t hurt that Arians was the offensive coordinator and head coach of the Colts last season. It’s just the Bears’ luck that they don’t play the Montreal Alouettes this year.
After a slow start, Arians has given the Cardinals’ offense an expected boost as the team has scored at least 27 points in its last four games.
Larry Fitzgerald (50 receptions, 606 yards, eight touchdowns) and second-year wide receiver Michael Floyd (49-761, three touchdowns) are giving the Cardinals a 1-2 punch that rivals the Bears’ tandem of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. In his last two games, Floyd has had six catches for 193 yards against the Jaguars and seven for 104 against the Colts. Fitzgerald’s eight touchdowns are double his 2012 production.
After a slow start, 34-year-old Carson Palmer is on a roll. His ratings during the streak (eight touchdowns, two interceptions) were 116.0, 93.4, 119.0 and 114.0.
But it’s on defense where Arians has what Marc Trestman does not. The Cardinals are not only getting Pro Bowl-worthy seasons from defensive end Calais Campbell, linebacker Karlos Dansby and cornerback Patrick Peterson, but they’ve also upgraded their lineup since Week 1 — adding linebackers John Abraham and Matt Shaughnessy, rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu, while linebacker Daryl Washington returned from a four-game suspension.
Under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, the Cardinals are eighth in the NFL in total defense, second in rushing defense and tied for fourth with 23 takeaways. They’ve allowed fewer rushing yards in their last four games (215 on 66 carries) than the Bears allowed against the Rams on Sunday (258).
There’s still a long way to go. All Arians’ success means right now is that Bears general manager Phil Emery had the right guys at the top of his list.