Hester, Masthay, Geometry Lesson

Mike McCarthy called Devin Hester the best player on the Bears and says Hester has impacted pretty much every game they have won. Who would argue? Certainly not the Packers, who were victimized by the great returner in a Sept. 27 loss at Soldier Field.

Green Bay Packers punter Tim Masthay has grown to love the competition between he and opposing return specialists, and this Sunday he will have the ultimate cat-and-mouse challenge going up against the NFL's newly crowned king of returns.

The Chicago Bears' Devin Hester, no stranger to the Packers, became the all-time leader in combined kickoff and punt return touchdowns on Dec. 20, when he took a punt back against the Vikings for his 14th career score. That has him as a big topic in the locker room this week as the Packers prepare for their regular-season finale with the Bears.

"It's really hard to contain him," said Masthay. "We have a game plan going into this week on how to try to do that best, but it starts with me trying to limit returns as much as I can."

Masthay has proven himself to be a student of the game and it has shown in his improvement this season. On Wednesday, he turned into a teacher, explaining the challenges of kicking the ball out of bounds through geometry.

"It's very difficult," Masthay said just before drawing a linear diagram of a punt sailing down the middle of the field versus one toward the sideline to indicate the angles involved. "To hit it, say, 40 yards out of bounds, you've got to hit like a 47-yard punt. Now on top of that, it's very hard to hit it exactly the way you want to hit it. It's very easy to hit the ball right here (pointing halfway short of the where the 47-yard punt would go out of bounds). And then sometimes you don't hit it the way you want it and then you leave it in the middle of the field."

No more was Masthay's point evident than a little more than a week ago, when Giants punter Matt Dodge failed to kick the ball out of bounds, allowing the Eagles' DeSean Jackson to score a game-winning touchdown return on the game's final play. Shortly after, Giants coach Tom Coughlin could be seen mouthing to a despondent Dodge that he should have kicked the ball out of bounds. And while the rookie punter would confuse no one for being the game's best, his inability to pull off the assignment brought to light the complexity of what seems like a simple task.

"That's why you just don't see guys game plan like that very often," said Masthay. "It's a tough deal, but it can be a weapon. If there was ever a guy that could just step up and just hit little line drives 40 to 45 yards out of bounds and couldn't do anything else, that guy could play in the league forever. It would be a huge weapon."

Masthay saved one touchdown but not another against Hester in Week 3.
Charles Rex Arbogast Images
So, to think the Packers would just kick the ball out of bounds to avoid Hester may not be as easy as it sounds. Last Sunday, the Jets tried the same plan and found it more difficult than just kicking it away from him.

"I think you have to be careful that the threat of Devin sometimes can force you into poor field position," Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said on Monday. "We've got to be wise in how we handle field position. Obviously, the guy can score. He may be their best offensive player. I look at the return game as it being their first offensive play. And so we've got to do a good job defending him. If that means kicking the ball out of bounds, we'll kick the ball out of bounds. I don't know if we're going to do that every time on kickoffs, because you give them the ball at the 40. As you saw the other day, his one kickoff return opportunity, he got the ball out to the 45 or 50, close to it. So, you've got to be wise with how you handle him."

Hester has returned only 12 kickoffs this season (for a 35.6-yard average), most of the time giving way to Danieal Manning (31 returns), who is also a force. Hester has two career punt returns for touchdowns against the Packers, including one in the 2006 season opener, his rookie debut. Earlier this season, he swung the momentum of a tight game against the Packers at Soldier Field with a 62-yard touchdown return for a touchdown. It gave the Bears their first lead of the game early in the fourth quarter on the way to a 20-17 win.

Packers special teams ace Jarrett Bush, like other teammates, needs no reminder of that play. He said there was not much to learn from it. It was just a matter of a great player making a great play.

"You've just got to be accountable," he said. "Everybody (needs to be in) position in their field lanes and stay disciplined on how to play the ball, how to play that returner, and getting to the ball, and getting him to the ground basically."

Masthay hit a good punt but Hester backtracked to catch it in the middle of the field with room to run. The Packers appeared to have decent lane integrity, but when Hester ran to the right and then cut upfield, he darted through attempted tackles by Brett Goode and Brandon Chillar and was all but gone.

The touchdown broke a drought of no scores on returns for Hester dating to the 2007 season. In the process, it kick-started what might be Hester's best punt return season yet. Headed into this Sunday, he is averaging a career-best 17.1 yards on 31 returns with three touchdowns. He has only nine fair catches.

Masthay has done a much better job pinning returners against the sideline and limiting their opportunities over the latter part of the season. Since the Oct. 24 game against the Vikings, he has a 44 percent rate of kicks inside the 20-yard line as opposed to 16 percent before. The percentage of his kicks that have been returned has gone down by 6 percent under the same timeline.

Another factor Masthay might have to face is the weather. Sunday's forecast in Green Bay calls for a blustery day with highs only in the teens.

"I heard a great quote the other day I really like," began Masthay, "it says, ‘The weather doesn't beat you, the opponent beats you.' We're going out there trying to win football games. I'm not going out there thinking I'm going to hit 4.8 hang times and 50 yards on the sideline. That's hard to do in perfect conditions, and it's downright impossible when you're playing in cold and windy games."

Perhaps the Packers' best defense against Hester will be to move the ball consistently and avoid punting altogether. If not, the Packers will have to embrace a tough strategy, one that coach Mike McCarthy balked at revealing on Wednesday.

"Whether you do or not (let him touch the ball)," said McCarthy, "those are all game-plan discussions. How we play our guys or how we throw the ball or who we throw to, we don't talk about that. It's top-secret stuff."

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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com

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