Three-Headed Return Monster

There's nowhere to run, nowhere to hide for the Packers when the Bears trot out Devin Hester, Danieal Manning and Johnny Knox on kickoff returns. The Bears have a league-leading 10 kickoff returns of 40-plus yards and lead the league in field position.

Much of the attention on special teams this week has been on Green Bay Packers punter Tim Masthay's game of cat-and-mouse with Chicago Bears returner Devin Hester.

The Bears, however, are just as dangerous on kickoff returns.

Since Hester persuaded coach Lovie Smith to put him on kickoff returns, he's averaged a resounding 35.6 yards in six games. The regular returner, Danieal Manning, averages 25.3 yards. Fleet-footed receiver Johnny Knox averages 22.8. Since the start of the 2008 season, Knox (27.7) and Manning (27.4) rank second and third in the league. Of Hester's league-record 14 return touchdowns, four have come on kickoffs (five if you include the Super Bowl).

As a team, the Bears rank third in the league with a 25.7-yard average but it's their explosiveness that's such a big issue. The Bears haven't returned a kickoff for a touchdown but their 10 returns of 40-plus yards are three more than anyone else. Hester, with just 12 runbacks, has five of those 40-yarders.

By comparison, the Packers have four 40-yard returns in 2009 and 2010 combined.

"He goes from zero to 60 probably faster than anybody else," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said of Hester on Thursday. "And then he's slippery. He breaks tackles and has great balance."

Not surprisingly with the combination of Hester and a strong defense, the Bears' average starting field position of the 33.9-yard line leads the league by a full yard over second-ranked New England and about 4.4 yards over 18th-ranked Green Bay.

"There's really no one like him," linebacker Erik Wilhelm said of Hester. "Early in my career, playing the Kansas City Chiefs, there was Dante Hall. He was not quite the athlete but he was the same type of threat. You had to game plan around him, kick the ball away from him, change up your kicks, kick the ball out of bounds. We understand the winning percentage of the Chicago Bears when he has an impact on the football game."

Surprisingly, perhaps, in light of the coverage snafu against New England lineman Dan Connolly, the Packers have covered kickoffs efficiently for most of the season. In fact, Green Bay ranks a respectable 12th by allowing a 22.0-yard average.

"We've been covering well outside of that one (Connolly), particularly since the Washington game, when their punt returner had a pretty good return against us," Slocum said in talking about his coverage units in general. "Since that time, it's been very little return yardage against us."

What Slocum has done successfully is mix up his kickoffs. Sometimes, Mason Crosby kicks it deep. Sometimes, he kicks it on the ground. Other times, he kicks a pop-up.

The Bears, however, can counter that combination of long and short kicks unlike any team in the league.

Generally, the return team lines up with its returner around the goal line and two bigger players around the 15 to serve as blockers. To keep the ball away from the returner, the kicking team can either hit a squib or a pop-up to one of those up men. The Bears, however, occasionally counter by putting Hester deep with Manning and Knox as the up men. Thus, there's no safe spots to kick the ball.

"It's a give and take," Slocum said. "The shorter guys will have skill, so you look at it in that regard, but also they lose the effectiveness of big blockers in front of the returner. It's a chess match."

And a chess match the Packers must win to play beyond Sunday.

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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