In Week 3, Hester ran wild on punt returns – setting up a touchdown just before halftime and scoring a critical touchdown in the second half to spearhead Chicago's 20-17 victory. In Week 17, Masthay punted eight times and Hester only returned two of them, keying Green Bay's 10-3 triumph.
So, barring a repeat of last week, when the Packers' offense was so good that Masthay's only playing time was holding for field goals and extra points, Masthay's ability to contain Hester with high and well-placed punts will be critical.
"That was really good production," Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said on Thursday, noting that Masthay's two fourth-quarter punts were downed inside the 5-yard line. "If we could get that, I think it would really help us. I think the objective, when you've got a guy who can change the game the way Devin can do that, is you've got to limit, No. 1, the space that he has to operate in, and, No. 2, limit the total number of return opportunities."
That puts the onus on Masthay to limit Hester, who returned three punts for touchdowns and averaged a league-record 17.1 yards per punt return. The first-year punter has grown by leaps and bounds since the first Chicago game. Masthay finished with a sensational 25 inside-the-20 punts against five touchbacks. In the last 11 games, he's got 21 inside-the-20s and has consistently won the head-to-head net punting matchup against the opposing punter. After allowing 93 punt return yards on three runbacks by Hester in Week 3 and 47 yards on three runbacks by Washington in Week 5, Masthay and the punting team have yielded 147 in the last 11 combined.
"You know, I think it was just a process," Masthay said of his improvement. "It was getting more comfortable, getting a little more experience, knowing the timing a little better and then gaining some confidence by hitting some big punts in big games. And then it was learning to be mentally tougher in the sense of, if you hit a bad punt, OK, you hit a bad punt. Bounce back and hit a good punt the next time. I've gotten better at doing that, at leaving a poor punt behind me and moving on."
Williams to Pro Bowl
Tramon Williams, as the first alternate at cornerback on the NFC Pro Bowl team, figured to be added to the roster in place of Charles Woodson, who has bowed out the last couple of years. Williams, however, got the call early with Asante Samuel pulling out of the all-star game because of a knee injury that sidelined him for several games this year.
With six interceptions in the regular season and three more in the playoffs, no player in the NFL has more than Williams' nine interceptions.
The Packers have six Pro Bowlers — tackle Chad Clifton, safety Nick Collins, receiver Greg Jennings, linebacker Clay Matthews and Woodson. Of course, none of them hope to play in the game. For the second consecutive year, the Pro Bowl is being played a week before the Super Bowl, so the Packers' all-stars have bigger and better things on their mind.
A "new" weapon
At one point in the season, Bears tight Greg Olsen was held without a catch in back-to-back games. Heading into the season finale at Green Bay, he had been limited to one reception in four of the last five games.
But in the divisional game against Seattle, the Olsen of years past re-emerged. He caught three passes for 113 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown on Chicago's opening possession.
"It's a game of momentum, said Olsen, who caught 41 passes this season after averaging 57 over the last two seasons. "You get that confidence and that going forward definitely comes week to week. I don't expect the game plan just like it wasn't really different for the most part last week. Each week guys have different opportunities to make plays. Each week we don't go in saying, ‘Hey, we're going to try to focus on getting the ball to him or whoever.' Last week it happened to be me that got some chances to make some big plays. I would welcome those chances again, but you never know who it's going to be. Everyone on our offense is ready to be that guy, and throughout the course of the year as has been evident those guys have stepped and made those plays when their day has come. That's kind of the mentality that we all take and we'll see how it plays out."
The Packers have fared well against tight ends for the most part this season, including last week, when they held future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez to just one short reception.
Linebacker Desmond Bishop attributed that success to mixing up coverages to keep offenses off-guard. When fellow inside linebacker Brandon Chillar went down for the season with an injured shoulder, the Packers' coverage against running backs and tight ends figured to take a hit, but coach Mike McCarthy said Bishop is a better play in coverage than opposing offenses go into games thinking.
"I think a lot of my game is just based off instinct," Bishop said. "At the same time, a lot of film study and a lot of technique and just my will to compete. I don't want anybody to catch a ball on me so I'm going to compete hard.
Another trick up the Packers' defensive sleeve would be to use cornerback Charles Woodson against Olsen, which they did frequently in last year's games and some in both games this year. Doing so, however, likely would mean the Packers would be playing nickel against the Bears' base offense or Chicago would have a receiver against a safety. So, it's a give-and-take.
"I think those are games we look back and have learned from," Olsen said in looking back to 2009. "We know we probably didn't play well. I know it was a different offense and whatnot, but a lot of the same players. That was kind of their game plan. They did a little bit of it as well this year. So, we'll see. With our receivers, we feel like you can't guard everybody. It's never just, ‘All right, we've got one guy. If he's not open, we're done.' The whole scheme of the play is what makes this offense go and everybody's a live target. I think that's to our benefit."
According to Fox Sports' Adam Caplan, the Packers this week worked out former Nicholls State receiver Antonio Robinson and cornerback D.J. Clark, who spent the final three weeks of last season on the Packers' practice squad and training camp here this summer. Robinson (6-1, 195) was signed to fill the practice squad on Wednesday. He spent part of training camp with Chicago after signing with the Bears as an undrafted free agent.
Packers injury report
Did not participate: LB Frank Zombo (knee). Limited participation: DE Cullen Jenkins (calf); RB John Kuhn (shoulder); LB Clay Matthews (shin); DE Ryan Pickett (ankle); C/G Jason Spitz (calf); CB Charles Woodson (toe). Full participation: LB Diyral Briggs (ankle); T Chad Clifton (knees); CB Pat Lee (hip).
Bears injury report
-- The Packers kept all of their practice indoors, with the doors to the Hutson Center open and bringing the temperature down to 29. "They open up the doors and it really helps, particularly the skill positions handle the football," McCarthy said.
-- The decision to use B.J. Raji as a fullback was a new wrinkle installed just before the Atlanta game. "You know, how Atlanta plays their goal line defense, we just felt that particular formation and matchup and so forth was to our benefit," McCarthy said. "And B.J. did a great job. He didn't block anybody, but he did a great job at the hole, and we were able to score the touchdown. So, it was a good wrinkle for us."
-- McCarthy had no interest in discussing a decision last offseason that barred the Bears from interviewing quarterbacks coach Tom Clements to be their offensive coordinator. "I think Tom's very happy in Green Bay," McCarthy said.
-- Bears cornerback Charles Tillman called the Packers' receivers the best in the NFL.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.