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Bears receivers coach confident his guys will deliver vs. Packers

Johnny Knox heads upfield after second-quarter receptiBears' game against AtlantSoldier Field Chicago Sunday Sept. 11 2011. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media

Johnny Knox heads upfield after a second-quarter reception in the Bears' game against Atlanta at Soldier Field in Chicago Sunday Sept. 11, 2011. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 30, 2011 12:19AM

Just steps away from the practice field at Halas Hall, Bears receivers coach Darryl Drake grabbed me by the shoulders and shifted me behind him, slightly to his right.

“Separation is from me to you,” he said looking back, his hands held in front of him, as if he were preparing to catch a ball. “That’s separation in the National Football League.

“That’s what it is.”

How close were we?

Drake — albeit with my permission — violated my personal space, making me flash back to my rush-hour subway rides in Tokyo, where the transit authority actually employs “pushers” to shove ­passengers into the trains.

An NFL field might be 100 yards long and 160 feet wide, but space between a pass catcher and defender usually is measured in inches, which is why players at those two positions are among the league’s highest paid.

But as companies such as STATS, Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus provide a breadth of statistical analysis, there’s no way to really measure “separation,” the ability of a receiver to create space between himself and a defender.

It depends on the eye test, the knack of a receiver to consistently gain an advantage and, ultimately, a catch.

The great ones leave defensive backs walking away, after a play, shaking their heads as if to say, “I did all I could.”

But players such as Larry Fitzgerald, Greg Jennings, Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne and Wes Welker consistently go over, under and around defenders to make catches.

Calvin Johnson, if he hasn’t already, is asserting himself among the elite, often beating double coverage with his ridiculous combination of size, speed and strength.

When I covered the Green Bay Packers, Antonio Freeman wasn’t the biggest and certainly not the fastest receiver. But a sliver of space is all he needed to get his hands around a football.

When I covered the Minnesota Vikings, Cris Carter dazzled with his ability for drawing a defensive pass interference yet still hauling in a pass, with a corner plastered to his person.

And then there was Randy Moss.

Sure, he was faster than most cornerbacks. But Moss, like a magician, knowing that desperate defensive backs were looking for him to give a tell, would wait until the very last second to lift his arms to pluck a pass — usually a very long one — out of the air.

The inability of Bears receivers to create separation is a familiar critique, one that perturbs Drake.

“I hear that all the time,” Drake said. “People don’t watch the same film I watch.

“Or I guess I’m blind.”

Drake insisted that wasn’t an issue in the NFC title game against the Green Bay Packers, when the team’s receivers made just five catches, although Johnny Knox and Earl Bennett did combine for 101 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown.

“We had some opportunities,” Drake said. “If you watched that championship game, there were some opportunities. It just didn’t happen. There was some ­separation.

“It wasn’t because they didn’t beat the corner, or there wasn’t separation.”

To be fair, the last six Bears vs. Packers games have been close, within a touchdown each time.

The most points scored in any single contest was 35 points, which happened twice, including last January.

The Packers boast an aggressive, attacking defense, one that has some of its most vicious players in the secondary. The Packers sorely will miss Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins, but they still boast ball-hawking cornerback Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson, who has tormented these Bears.

Not only can he cover, Woodson is a Swiss Army type of player. In the must-win season finale against the Bears, Woodson blitzed Jay Cutler 15 times. Then, in the NFC Championship, Woodson dropped into coverage while other cornerbacks went after Cutler.

Asked about Woodson on Wednesday, Cutler said, “We can’t really worry about certain ­personnel.

“We’re going to run our offense, and whoever’s open, that’s who I’m going to go to.”

Bears receiver Devin Hester has been especially quiet against the Packers.

He was shut out in the title game, and he had just two catches for 32 yards in the other two games. His last big outing against them was the 2009 regular season opener, when he caught four passes for 90 yards, including a 36-yard touchdown.

Hester has proven time and again how dangerous he is with the football in his hands, and Knox was just 40 yards shy of 1,000 last season. Bennett won’t play Sunday because of a chest injury, and Roy Williams is coming off a groin injury. And it’s hard to know what to expect from undrafted rookie Dane ­Sanzenbacher.

So what happens if the Bears ­offense struggles again Sunday or the remainder of the season?

The offensive line could be dogged for not providing adequate protection. Cutler could be dogged for holding the ball too long. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz could be dogged for his play-calling. And the receivers could be dogged for not getting enough separation.

But all of that is for the immediacy of water-cooler banter, not the legacy of championship banners.

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