Key Matchup: Hester vs. Colts Returns Teams

On paper, it looks like a horrific mismatch. Speedy and slick returns specialist Devin Hester will take on a Colts coverage group that ranked near the bottom against both kickoffs and punts. Will it play out that way? Greg Talmage takes a look at this key matchup.

During the regular season, Chicago Bears rookie Devin Hester was the top return man in the NFL. Because of that, teams have been kicking away from the rookie speedster this postseason and the result has been a 15.3-yard average on kickoffs (last among returners in the playoffs) and 5.8 yards on punts (sixth among playoff returners). That is a huge dropoff from Hester's regular season averages of 26.4 yards per kick return and 12.8 yards per punt return.

Hester is uncommonly fast and explosive. He sees the field very well, is extremely elusive. He can change direction on a dime and is capable of changing a game in one play every time he touches the ball. At the University of Miami, Hester averaged 17.7 yards per touch for his entire collegiate career.

Last week with the media, Dungy spoke about what kind of challenge Devin Hester presents to his team. "A big challenge. We faced it a couple of weeks ago with Dante Hall, where every time you kick to him you feel like that can be a momentum changer in the game," he said. "You have to be on it every single time, whether you kick off three times or six times, whether you punt once or 10 times. Every time you have to be ready. Hester has been the difference maker in several of their games this year, so our guys know what the challenge is and what's in front of us."

LB Rob Morris runs to cover a punt by Hunter Smith
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
The play of the Indianapolis coverage units has been a problem for the Colts most of the regular season. The averge kickoff return against them was 26.0 yards, ranking them 30th in the NFL in that category. And the news isn't any better when you looked at their punt returns coverage. The average punt was returned 13.1 yards against Indy, earning them a 31st ranking in that category. In 13 of 16 games played this year, Indianapolis allowed a kickoff return of 31 yards or more and allowed kick returns of 41 yards or more in nine of their 16 games, including longs of 88, 93 and 103 yards.

Head Coach Tony Dungy sought to rectify this situation by putting several defensive starters back on special teams. So this postseason, the Colts changed things up and put (defensive end) Robert Mathis, (cornerback/safety) Marlin Jackson, and (outside linebacker) Rob Morris on the coverage units. And the overall performance of the units has improved slghtly.

During their three postseason games, the Colts have allowed an average kickoff return of 24.3 yards and punt return of 12.8 yards. Those numbers would have been even better if they hadn't experienced the same old problem -- allowing the occasional truly big return that provides a swing in the battle for field position.

Things looked markedly improved in the first two games of the playoffs, especially on kickoff coverage. The Chiefs and the Ravens averaged just 19.3 and 20.7 yards per kickoff return respectively. Last week, however, the struggles reared their ugly head again as Indianapolis allowed two big returns to the Patriots' Ellis Hobbs in the AFC championship game and finished with a 28.9-yard average. On punt returns, they were much improved when facing Kansas City's Dante Hall (8.0 average return) but the past two weeks they've allowed roughly 14 yards per punt return.

Discipline and inconsistency were the two things that haunted the Colts coverage units this season and again last week. Although their team is full of good athletes and plenty of raw speed, as a coverage unit they tend to lose their lane integrity too often and will overrun the play. That can prove to be devastating against a cutback returner like Devin Hester. So the Colts must be disciplined in their gaps on the first level this Sunday and use their speed to get to Hester quickly, because if Hester gets by the first wave and is able to attack at the second level, it's not going to be pretty.

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