That would mean Masthay’s role would be limited to that of a holder for field goals and extra points since the Packers didn’t punt once against the Falcons, a franchise first in the postseason. Duplicating that showing is probably unrealistic, but Masthay and the rest of the coverage unit would settle for another effort like the one the Packers had against Hester in the season finale at Lambeau Field.
In the Packers’ 10-3 win over the Bears that clinched a playoff berth, Hester averaged 17.5 yards on his two returns, but the key number was only two opportunities for him on eight Green Bay punts. Masthay placed four of his kicks inside the 20-yard line, and the Bears’ best starting field position after a punt was their own 27. Hester fair-caught one punt, three of Masthay’s kicks were downed and one went out of bounds.
“I thought we played smart, and when I say smart I mean little things like at the end of the first half in that game we were on the 50-yard line,” Masthay said. “Normally you really want to try to get the ball inside the 20. Instead we just go out there and kick a touchback because we know that eliminates that return possibility.
“I think I was hitting the ball pretty well and we placed the ball well and then our guys covered great. So it’s really a combination of ball placement and our coverage unit.”
For Masthay and the Packers’ punt-coverage unit, it was a tale of two halves this season. After seven games, Green Bay ranked No. 30 in the league with its opponents averaging 15.8 yards per punt return. Masthay posted his finest effort to date at the N.Y. Jets in Green Bay’s 9-0 win in Week 8 as he tied a franchise record with five punts inside the 20 in a performance that earned him NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors.
Starting with that game in New York, the Packers limited their opponents to just a 7.6-yard average on punt returns in the final nine contests, good for No. 8 in the NFL over that span, and Masthay recorded a 39.9-yard net average during that period (No. 3 in the league). Green Bay was one of only five teams in the league to not allow a punt return of 20-plus yards in that time frame.
“(Masthay) has gotten so much more comfortable nailing the ball outside the numbers, putting it on the sidelines so guys like Devin Hester can’t get to it,” said defensive back Jarrett Bush, one of the Packers’ core special-teams performers. “It’s a help-me, help-you relationship. You bang the ball, let me and the others run underneath it and back their offense up.
“We’ve come a long way. All the pistons are running in the engine, but we’ve got to keep being consistent. Hopefully we can be consistent in this game and keep advancing.”
As much of a positive impact as the punt-coverage unit had in the season finale against Hester, it had an effect in the other direction in the Packers’ 20-17 loss at Soldier Field in Week 3 when a pair of his returns led to both Chicago touchdowns.
With Green Bay leading 10-0 late in the first half, Hester returned 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. Hester took it across the field and down the right sideline for a 62-yard touchdown.
It was the first of three punt-return touchdowns for Hester on the year as he finished the season with a 17.1-yard average, the best in NFL history for a player with 30 or more returns.
“Devin is slippery,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “A lot of guys fall off tackles when they attempt to bring him down at times. But I think one thing that really makes him unique, other than the fact that he sees the holes and he sets up blocks well, is his change of speed, the ability to control his speed into a particular area and then burst. When he does that, he makes pursuit angles bad.”
Bush said Hester’s acceleration isn’t the only thing that makes him unique, pointing to his ability to get defenders out of their coverage lanes.
“What Hester likes to do when he catches the ball is he likes to work sideways to get everybody moving to the side and see if there are any seams,” Bush said. “Once he does that, he hits it. That’s what makes him so great is when he hits it, man, you better watch out. You’ve got to slow him down somehow. You’ve got to have some guys knife at his legs, hit something.”
Just dealing with Hester would be enough of a challenge, but Masthay also is readying for less-than-ideal kicking conditions on Sunday with temperatures expected to be around 20 degrees with a chance of flurries. After playing at Kentucky in the warmer climate of the Southeastern Conference in college, Masthay has gained some experience down the stretch with the game-time temperature 32 degrees or less in five of the past seven games.
“I am almost kind of embracing it, liking it a little bit,” Masthay said. “It makes the game that much more interesting. We’ve been doing in for a while now in the cold and wind so I have kind of grown accustomed. You change little things like my drop height and little stuff like that.
“Once we get to Friday we’ll have a decent idea of what it is going to be like Sunday. So yeah, I definitely monitor that. When it comes to the weather, really the biggest thing is pre-game, the first couple of hours before the game, getting in the stadium and seeing how the wind is bouncing around and getting a feel for things.”
With the two games between the division rivals decided by a total of 10 points this season, the fewest in the series since 1998, Masthay and the rest of the coverage unit are well aware that one big return from a dynamic player like Hester could prove to be the difference in the final outcome.
“I get kind of mentally geared up a little differently because I know how important sort of precision becomes,” Masthay said. “On top of it you are playing at Chicago in January, which is tough.
“You get geared up because you know he is arguably the best punt returner that has ever played the game. So it is a huge challenge and I am looking forward to it.”
Additional coverage - Jan. 20