If you are a football coach, unless time is about to expire and you are behind, when the other team punts you the ball and there is a change of possession, your primary thoughts are likely one of two things.
- Catch it, Catch it! Don’t muff the punt and don’t fumble it on the return. Fair catch it if you have to, just don’t give the ball back!
- Get away! Get away! Don’t let the ball touch you! Either let the ball go into the endzone or we’ll just take it from there. Let’s just get the offense out there.
But that’s not how it works if you are Lovie Smith, the head coach of the Chicago Bears, because he has Devin Hester.
After going two seasons without a return for a touchdown, Hester has scored on three punt returns this year to break the NFL career record for most kicks returned for a TD with 14. Not surprisingly, the Bears are No. 1 in the league this year in punt return average.
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Devin Hester had 33 punt returns in 2010 regular season and 10 fair catches meaning that 23.26% of the time he signaled for a fair catch and played it safe. Of his 33 returns 9 (27.27%) have gone for over 20 + yards; 5 returns (15.15%) have gone for over 40 yards; and 3 returns (9.09%) have gone for TD’s. In those 33 returns Hester has amassed 564 yards averaging a league leading 17.1 yards every time they kick him the ball.
In the first matchup between these two bitter rivals in Week 3, the Bears won 20-17. Brian Urlacher forced a key James Jones fumble in the final minutes leading to a 19-yard field goal by Robbie Gould with 4 seconds left. In that game and the Chicago Bears took advantage of a team record 18 penalties by the Green Bay Packers. Just as important and less talked about however was the special teams play. While the Bears only forced the Packers to punt 3 times, the ball traveled an average of 50 yards on those punts yet the punts only netted an average of 19 yards (not exactly what you are looking for in terms of a change in field position). Hester returned all 3 punts for a total of 93 yards including a game breaking 62 yard TD return to open the 4th quarter and give the Bears the lead.
In the second matchup in Week 17, while the Bears forced 8 punts. The 43.5 yard average that the ball traveled resulted in an average net gain of 36.6 yards for the Packers as they were able to hold Hester in check, holding him to two returns for 35 yards and the Packers won 10-3.
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Did anyone else notice in the NFC Divisional Game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Chicago Bears, that whenever Devin Hester signaled for a fair catch on a punt, the home town crowd booed. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen that before.
These two teams know each other well and usually play close games. Although the Packers beat the Bears out for the Division Title, the Packers are favored by 3.5 in this one. If the Bears are going to win, in addition to forcing turnovers they are going to need a big game from Devin Hester.
People often wonder why teams don’t just kick the ball out of bounds. Well the defense has something to do with that as they can force you to kick the ball to the returner. You might recall that in the Philadelphia Eagles stunning comeback for the ages against the New York Giants this year, although Giants punter Matt Dodge was instructed to kick the ball away from Desean Jackson, the snap was less than perfect and he miss-kicked the ball because he was concerned that if he turned to his right or left to kick the ball, that the ball would be blocked. If a team doesn’t want you to kick the ball out of bound, they stack the edges with the rush and force you to kick it straight away. While that does limit what you can do as far as return blocking, it's one of the main reasons it's not done on every punt. The other reason is that you risk the ball being hiked to the up man and having the ball run up the middle. This is precisely what the Patriots Patrick Chung was trying to do in the New York Jets vs. New England Patriots Divisional Playoff Game this past Sunday).
Because of higher risk of a punt block, punters rarely attempt to kick the ball out of bounds when they are backed up on their own side of the field (you’ll notice that in the Hester TD return against the Packers above) so the best chance of Devin Hester getting the opportunity for a big return will be if the Bears defense can generate a few stops deep in Packers territory.
Whether or not you are a Bears fan, watching Hester return kicks is one of the more exciting things in the game today. Perhaps we’ll be treated to a few return opportunities on Sunday. If that happens, the Bears have a legitimate shot to win this game. Hester doesn’t necessarily have to score on these returns to change the complexion of the game, but he has the ability to flip the field position in an instant altering play calling for both teams putting the Packers in a situation where they have very small margins of error to work with. - Mike Cardano
Mike is the founder of Around the Horn Baseball and Xtra Point Football.
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