Devin Hester says he’s just ‘‘one guy away.’’
Dave Toub says, ‘‘At the end of the year, we’re going to be right where we need to be.’’
Either way, the Bears’ vaunted special-teams units know they have some catching up to do. Not only has the Jay Cutler-to-Brandon Marshall connection raised the Bears’ offense to a new realm, but linebacker Lance Briggs, cornerback Charles Tillman and safety Major Wright have combined for an astonishing five interception returns for touchdowns to spark the Bears’ 4-1 start.
‘‘It’s been kind of hard to join the fun with the way those guys are going,’’ Hester said. ‘‘We’re playing catch-up now. We’ve got to make sure we lead the team in [touchdown] returns.’’
With Hester leading the way, the Bears’ kick-return teams under coordinator Toub arguably have been the most high-profile special-teams units in the NFL in recent years. It’s hard to find many moments or streaks of significant success in the Lovie Smith era that haven’t involved a Hester return.
But in the Bears’ best stretch since the 2006 Super Bowl season — they not only lead the NFL in scoring defense (14.2 points per game), they’re second in points per game (29.8) — Hester and the kick-return units have been virtually shut out.
Hester, who at 29 has an NFL-record 12 punt-return touchdowns and is sixth all-time in punt-return average (12.6 yards), is averaging 7.8 yards on 11 punt returns this season with a long return of 23 yards. He had seven longer than that in 2011, including touchdowns of 82 and 69 yards.
On 10 kickoff returns, Hester is averaging 26.9 yards with a long return of 38 yards. The new kickoff rules have had an obvious impact, but the Bears’ best field position after a Hester kickoff return is their 37-yard line. They’ve started beyond the 30 only twice.
‘‘We’ve been closer every week,’’ Hester said. ‘‘When we watch film, we see that I’m always one guy away from breaking one. We just have to stay patient and keep pushing and don’t lose faith in what we’re doing. It’s going to come, and when it does, we’ll all be celebrating.’’
Toub said, as is usually the case, little things are preventing the Bears from a big kick return.
“Right now, the defense is getting all the returns; we aren’t,’’ Toub said. ‘‘It’s just the way the ball bounces sometimes — guys coming off a block, holding call, a block in the back, different things. We just haven’t taken care of the opportunities we’ve had.’’
The Bears have had at least one kick return for a touchdown in the last nine seasons, pre-dating the Hester era. It’s still only five games into the season, which for most teams isn’t even close to a dry spell. For the Bears, it is.
‘‘It’s happened before,’’ Toub said. ‘‘We went two years without Devin getting a touchdown. Other guys got touchdowns instead. We’re not hitting the panic button by any means. But the guys know that when we get the ball in our hand, we need to make ’em pay.’’
The timing could be right for a breakthrough Monday against the Detroit Lions, who have allowed four kick-return touchdowns this season. The Lions rank 30th in the NFL in kickoff-return coverage (30.3 yards) and last in punt-return coverage (19.6). Hester’s last kick-return touchdown was against the Lions, an 82-yard punt return in a 37-13 Bears victory last season at Soldier Field.
The Bears had significant turnover in their special-teams units. But Toub has replaced players before in similar situations and said there has not been a drop off in personnel. Though the Bears have struggled in kick returns, the coverage units have been outstanding as usual.
‘‘I like our group,’’ Toub said. ‘‘We’ve got a real good group of guys. We’re going to keep plugging away. At the end of the year, we’re going to be right where we need to be.’’
While they are not panicking, the return teams know they have a reputation to uphold, and that creates a little added pressure, especially with the defense scoring two touchdowns a game.
‘‘There’s always a competition in each individual room,’’ Hester said. ‘‘But we’re all a team. The points go to everybody. At the end of the day, I’m happy for those guys, for the returns they have this year. We have to make sure we pick up our part.’’