CHICAGO — Teams playing in Chicago face two threats that they are typically unfamiliar with strong winds and Devin Hester.
The Carolina Panthers had to scheme for the combination of weather and the most dangerous returner in NFL history on Sunday, changing their special teams philosophy dramatically for the first time all season.
The result was Justin Medlock kicking short dribblers on kickoffs that rarely got near Hester, and punter Brad Nortman attempting to angle his three punts out of bounds and away from the man who has 12 career punt returns for touchdowns including one last year against the Panthers.
Sunday was anomalous to what Carolinas special teams had done in the first six games of the season. Medlock, who entered the game with two field-goal attempts, a league-low for a starting kicker, made all five of his attempts Sunday.
And at the end of the first half, with the Panthers in Medlocks range, the coaching staff opted for a Hail Mary rather than a field-goal attempt that could have given them a nine-point lead.
Medlock said he thought he would be called on for what would have been about a 50-yard attempt, but coach Ron Rivera decided that crosswinds were too much of a factor.
We thought our best bet was to throw it into the end zone and see what happens, Rivera said. In hindsight, you can say that maybe we should have gone ahead and try it. Its easy to second guess at this point.
Medlock, 29, had played in only one NFL game before the season. He hasnt had many field-goal opportunities because the 1-6 Panthers, when in field-goal range, have needed touchdowns to win. His final field goal was a testy 45-yarder that could have been the game-winner. The kick snuck through after clipping the right upright.
I was telling the special teams coach before the game anything from 45-50 yards on that left hash would be one of the toughest kicks on the whole field because you have to ride the wind, Medlock said. You have to hold it off and not get it to turn over. I knew right away. I said, Oh no, its going to turn. Luckily I was good for an inch.
Medlock was asked to squib the kickoffs to keep the ball away from Hester, who last year returned a kickoff 73 yards and a punt 69 yards for a score. He was successful in doing so, but the Bears average starting field position was their own 32 on kickoffs because of it.
Conversely, Chicago kicker Robbie Gould booted all four of his kickoffs out of the end zone. And punter Adam Podlesh controlled his punts in a way that returner Captain Munnerlyn couldnt field a single one.
The ball was everywhere with the wind, Munnerlyn said. I didnt get a chance. ... The punter was letting the ball hang and go everywhere.
Nortman, a rookie, was also asked to keep the ball away from Hester on his three punts. All week he worked on directional punting, but a key punt in the fourth quarter went off the side of his foot and out of bounds for a net of 6 yards.
The Bears would take over at the Carolina 38, and seven plays later they were in the end zone to make it a five-point game.
Obviously it was hit out of bounds so there was no return, but obviously I want a better punt than that, Nortman said. Thats just the danger of directional punting, especially under these conditions; that was the windiest game Ive faced in a long time.
But theres no excuse, I just need to hit the ball better.
Rivera wasnt going to let Hester beat his team again, and Carolina avoided Hester all day while nearly doubling Chicago in total offense.
But the Bears found a way.
They thrive on their opportunities, Rivera said. They are going to make you try to drive the lines of the field, and they know somewhere along the line, youll make a mistake or they will make a play.
They played right to who they are.
Jones: 704-358-5223; Twitter: @jjones9