GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) – The Green Bay Packers have devised and tested the ideal solution to stopping dangerous punt returners such as the Chicago Bears’ Devin Hester.
Just don’t punt.
It worked perfectly in their playoff rout of Atlanta.
Thanks to a dominant performance by the Packers offense, punter Tim Masthay wasn’t called into action against the Falcons in the divisional playoffs. That doesn’t seem likely to happen again in Sunday’s NFC championship game in Chicago, especially against a tough Bears defense.
That means the Packers’ special teams will once again have their hands full with Hester, the NFL’s career leader in combined punt and kick returns for touchdowns with 14.
From one punt returner to another, Green Bay’s Tramon Williams is impressed.
“Natural ability,” he said. “From watching film, everything he does is great. He has the vision and the ability, everything. … Coach said he’s the best ever, so I feel the same way.”
Indeed, Packers coach Mike McCarthy called Hester the “best player on their football team” before playing the Bears in the regular season finale — a significant statement, given the fact that defensive end Julius Peppers and linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs anchor the Bears’ defense.
The Packers allowed Hester to break free for a 62-yard touchdown on a punt return during the teams’ first meeting, a 20-17 Bears victory in Chicago on Sept. 27.
But the Packers did a much better job bottling Hester up in the teams’ second meeting of the season, allowing Hester only two punt returns for 35 yards in a 10-3 Packers victory at Lambeau Field that allowed the Packers to clinch a playoff spot.
McCarthy said the Packers’ improved effort was a combination of good ball placement by Masthay — who has improved after a shaky start — and good coverage by the special teams.
“Our special teams played extremely well in that football game,” McCarthy said. “And that will be a big part of going into Soldier Field and being successful.”
But one blown assignment or sloppy arm tackle on Sunday, and Hester could make a momentum-changing return.
“He’s right at the top of the list, I would say,” Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “For sure. He can do everything. Once he gets the ball in his hands, he’s tough to stop.”
Hawk says Hester is at his most dangerous when he’s not dancing around.
“When he gets the ball, he might make a few moves, make the first guy miss,” Hawk said. “He gets vertical quick. When a guy does that — as you’ve seen against us, he got one earlier this year on us — they can crease you pretty quick and he can get in the end zone fast.”
And the Packers have some coverage concerns on special teams after allowing a 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Atlanta’s Eric Weems.
“Frankly, the kickoff return was a combination of ball placement and coverage,” McCarthy said. “And that’s the reason why you practice those things and you have different types of calls. And so that’s something I’m sure Chicago will be taking a close look at. We’ve been playing very well on special teams but can’t let it happen this week.”
The Bears have one of the best special teams units in football, coached by Dave Toub.
In addition to Hester’s ability to return punts, Hester and Danieal Manning are dangerous on kickoff returns, while punter Brad Maynard showed Sunday that he can control field position — playing perfectly into the hands of a Bears defense that tries to make opposing offenses drive the length of the field, hoping to force them into a negative play or turnover along the way.
“Their specialists are obviously very talented,” McCarthy said. “The returners are very talented. So they factor in the field position in the game. There’s going to be some type of wind, there always is down there. (It’s) projected only about nine to 10 miles an hour, but we’ll see what happens on Sunday. Special teams is clearly one of the strengths of their football team.”
Hester, meanwhile, is so good that he even can get a laugh out of typically buttoned-down Bears coach Lovie Smith, who was asked recently to imagine trying to prepare for him instead of preparing with him.
“I definitely like being on the team with a guy like Devin Hester,” Smith said, laughing. “I can see how opposing coaches would feel trying to figure out what to do with him, whether to kick it to him. Eventually, you have to kick it to him. I just don’t see how you can go an entire game without it.”
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