In Green Bay’s 20-17 loss at Soldier Field in Week 3, a pair of punt returns by Hester led to both of Chicago’s touchdowns. The first came with the Packers leading 10-0 late in the first half when Hester returned punter Tim Masthay’s 35-yard line-drive punt 28 yards to the Green Bay 44 before Masthay tripped him up. Quarterback Jay Cutler quickly led the Bears the rest of the way, capping the drive off with a 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen with 26 seconds left in the half, Chicago’s only offensive touchdown of the evening.
With the Packers still holding on to that 10-7 lead early in the fourth quarter, Masthay boomed a 57-yard kick out of his own end zone, but it was down the middle of the field with not enough hang time, and Hester took it across the field and down the right sideline for a 62-yard touchdown, his first score on a punt return since Dec. 30, 2007.
“(The returns) hurt us big-time in the game,” Masthay said. “We had a lot of stuff go wrong in that game, but we lost by three points at the end. So you eliminate one of those big plays and we win the game.
“(Hester) presents an interesting and difficult challenge that is kind of really unique to him. There are a lot of great returners, but he is probably the best that has ever played.”
After bursting onto the scene as a rookie in 2006 with five return touchdowns, three on punts and two on kickoffs, Hester started to see time at wide receiver in his second year. He was still very productive that season as a returner, recording six touchdowns with four of them coming on punt returns. But as his role in the offense expanded over the next two seasons with 20 starts at receiver from 2008-09, Hester’s return numbers dipped significantly as he failed to post a touchdown in either season.
While he has continued to start at wide receiver this season, Hester has had his most prolific season to date as a punt returner, leading the league with a 17.1-yard return average and three touchdowns on 31 returns. If that average holds, he will register the highest punt return average in a season in NFL history (minimum 30 returns).
“After a period of time you do adjust, and he got the receiver part down,” said Bears head coach Lovie Smith in a conference call with Wisconsin reporters on Wednesday. “Then he was able to concentrate more on being a returner again too.
“We’re just glad to see the old Devin back. He is back to form where I feel like he can go the distance any time he touches the ball.”
Hester leads the NFL with nine punt returns of 20-plus yards and has recorded at least one in eight games this season, with the Bears going 7-1 in those contests. After giving up the two long returns to Hester in Week 3 and a 30-yarder to Washington wide receiver Brandon Banks in Week 5, the Packers have made notable strides in punt coverage. In the past 10 games, opposing returners have averaged just 7.2 yards per return, which ranks No. 6 in the NFL. Green Bay is one of only five teams in the league to not allow a 20-yard return over that span.
Some of that has to be attributed to Masthay, who has been one of the more effective punters in the league over the past two months. Starting with the Week 8 contest at the N.Y. Jets, a performance that earned him NFC Special Teams Player of the Week, Masthay ranks No. 2 in the NFL with a 40.6-yard net average and is tied for No. 7 in the league with 16 punts inside the 20. Of his 37 punts over that span, only 16 have been returned by the opposition. Masthay’s net average of 37.8 on the season puts him in position for the best mark by a Packer punter since 1976.
“We need to finish strong,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “He has done a great job. I think the last portion of the season he has really continued to improve. We have limited the number of returns that our opponents have had, and he has kicked the ball in position when they have had returns we have been in position to cover them.”
Masthay, who was with the Colts during 2009 training camp but had never kicked in a preseason or regular-season game prior to this year, admitted that his emotions were too “up and down” earlier in the season, with his confidence fluctuating kick by kick.
“I think I have learned how to become a productive punter much more than I understood early on, and then plus I have more experience and I am more comfortable and confident,” Masthay said. “Coach Slocum has helped me a great deal in really changing my mindset into turning punting into a competition with the returner and trying to eliminate that returner as much as possible.
“Aside from just working fundamentals and getting experience and gaining confidence by hitting good punts in big games, us meeting a lot and him sort of changing my mindset has help me become more productive for the team.”
What approach the Packers will take on Sunday with Hester is unknown, but opposing teams have tried varying ones this season. In Week 15 at Minnesota, Hester didn’t have one return on Chris Kluwe’s four punts in the first half, with three of them going out of bounds. On the first punt of the second half Hester got a chance as he fielded a low kick by Kluwe, and 64 yards later he was in the end zone for his league-record 14th return touchdown (10 punts, four kickoffs).
If Hester’s ability to wreak havoc on punt returns wasn’t enough cause for concern, he has also been a threat returning kickoffs in the second half of the season. His first kickoff return of the season didn’t come until Week 10 vs. Minnesota, but since then has posted a 35.6-yard average on 12 returns, with three of them going for 60-plus yards.
Last week in Chicago’s 38-34 win over the Jets, New York only kicked to Hester once on seven kickoffs, choosing to utilize shorter kicks to avoid the explosive Hester. He made the most of his one opportunity, posting a 40-yard return to the Jets’ 49 to set up a Chicago touchdown, and on the other six kickoffs, the Bears’ average starting field position was the 34.7-yard line. The Bears lead the NFL this season with an average starting position after kickoffs of 31.5, with their primary returner, safety Danieal Manning, checking in at No. 8 in the league with a 25.3-yard average. Wide receiver Johnny Knox has also returned eight kickoffs (22.8 avg.).
Green Bay’s kickoff coverage units have been solid this season, with opponents averaging 22.0 yards per return (No. 12 in the NFL). Part of that has been the Packers’ ability to prevent explosive gains as they have allowed just one 50-yard return compared to four in 2009, but they know that Sunday’s test will be the toughest one they have faced.
“They are dangerous,” running back John Kuhn said. “Their return game is probably the best in the game right now. Devin Hester is the best punt returner I have ever seen and Danieal Manning is a hard-hitting, downhill runner. They can make plays on special teams. They consider that their first play of offense.
“We’re excited. We love going into games against the best at their position. It’s always fun going against Devin Hester, trying to shut him down and being one of the teams to do that.”
Additional coverage - Dec. 30