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Bears' gunners savor dirty work

Caption
Bears cornerback Sherrick McManis is one of the team's gunners on punt coverage. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

LAKE FOREST – Eric Weems has seen it all as a member of the Bears’ punt coverage team.

More specifically, Weems has felt it all.

“You get horse-collared,” Weems said after practice Friday at Halas Hall. “You get hit while the ball is in the air. They can grab you, they can hold you, they can throw you on the ground, pick you back up and throw you back on the ground. Pretty much anything goes.

“Everything is legal, and you can’t get away from it.”

Welcome to life as a gunner in the NFL.

When the Bears visit the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, it’s a safe bet that the punt team will be called on at least a few times after the offense stalls. It’s also a safe bet that Weems and fellow gunner Sherrick McManis will absorb a beating for the benefit of the team.

Both players will line up on the far edges of the field. Both players likely will be double-teamed. And both players will be expected to break those double teams and make a play.

Will they draw penalty flags for their abuse? No.

Will they get sympathy? Of course not.

But they love their job anyway. McManis, who is listed as a cornerback but has played exclusively on special teams in his first season with the Bears, quickly embraced the role.

“As soon as I realized what it took to be a gunner,” said McManis, a Northwestern alum who spent his first two seasons with the Houston Texans. “It’s just hard work and effort, and you’ve got to have some talent and you’ve got to have some speed, and I had all of those things. Really, it’s just heart and the will to go do it.”

Weems agreed. He has lived a double life as a punt returner and a gunner in five-plus NFL seasons, which included a trip to the Pro Bowl in 2010 as a member of the Atlanta Falcons.

A determined work ethic helped Weems to make the Falcons’ roster as an undrafted free agent in 2007. The same never-give-up mindset has helped him to excel as a gunner.

“You’ve got to have the want-to attitude,” Weems said. “You’ve got to want to do it. You can’t go out there and be lackadaisical and try to just say, ‘OK, well, I’m just going to take this play off.’ You take that play off, they’ll embarrass you on live TV.”

The Bears rarely have been embarrassed on special teams.

Entering today’s game against the Jaguars, the Bears have allowed eight yards per punt return, which is No. 12 in the NFL. Punter Adam Podlesh has downed five of 18 kicks inside the 20-yard line while averaging 43 yards per punt.

Podlesh described his relationship with his gunners as similar to that between a quarterback and his wide receivers. Everyone involved needed each other to succeed.

“To be able to have two effective gunners, it’s a punter’s best friend,” said Podlesh, who is in his sixth season in the NFL. “Those gunners are quick, they’re fast, they’re motivated, and they bust their butts out there to be able to make plays for the team.

“It’s one of those things where I set them up and they knock them down, and when it comes together, it’s pretty cool.”

Those moments rarely earn airtime on highlight reels. They don’t show up in box scores.

That’s fine with Weems. He is content with a smile to go along with those scratches.

“It feels great, especially knowing that you beat two guys and they’re going to hear it from their coaches,” Weems said. “Their coach is like, ‘How do we have two guys and we get beat by one guy?’ That’s the greatest feeling ever right there.”

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