On Sunday, it's the main event: the Chicago Bears' Devin Hester.
"I've heard of him," Packers rookie Ryan Taylor said with a smile on Monday. "He's a good guy and we're going to have to be on our ‘A' game."
Hester has established himself as the greatest kick returner in NFL history. With a 64-yard punt return touchdown in December against Minnesota, Hester set an NFL record with his 14th touchdown on a kickoff or punt return. It took Brian Mitchell 14 seasons to score his 13 touchdowns. Hester, a second-round pick in 2006 who took a Jon Ryan punt to the house in his NFL debut at Green Bay, is in his sixth season.
"We're headed into Game 3," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said on Monday when asked about the upcoming matchup. "Game 1, we had a couple problems, and we corrected that. One of the things we talked about last week was being consistent. We were that way (Sunday) and I expect us to be that way as we play each game."
The Packers' special teams have been consistently poor over the last few seasons. In last year's Week 3 game at Chicago, Hester was the overriding factor in the Bears' 20-17 victory. Just before halftime, Hester had a 28-yard punt return to the Packers' 44 that put Chicago in position for a touchdown that cut into Green Bay's 10-0 lead. Then, on the second play of the fourth quarter, Hester took a punt back 62 yards for a go-ahead touchdown.
Punter Tim Masthay's career appeared to be on thin ice after that game, with his net average of 19.0 yards on three punts. However, he was one of the best punters in the NFL down the stretch last season, highlighted by two brilliant performances against the Bears.
In Green Bay's 10-3 victory in Week 17 at Lambeau Field, Masthay punted eight times. While Hester returned two of those for a total of 35 yards, Masthay finished with a net average of 36.6 yards, with four of his punts inside the Bears' 20, including the 3- and 2-yard lines for their final possessions of the game.
Masthay was just as good as the Packers won the NFC Championship Game 21-14 in Chicago. Again, he punted eight times. Hester returned three of them for a total of just 16 yards as Masthay ended with a net of 34.5. Five of his punts forced the Bears to start drives inside their 20, including their 2 in the second quarter. In the fourth quarter, Masthay pinned the Bears at the 10, and three plays later, Caleb Hanie threw his game-deciding pick-six to B.J. Raji.
"We've put together some solid performances as a punt team against this unit," Masthay said. "So, sure, we draw confidence from that. At the same time, we don't take it for granted at all. It's not, ‘Oh, it's over.' Obviously. We'll be very detailed and very focused. It's going to take another great performance by all of us. It's just exhilarating. For me, I get fired up to go against him just because I know, ‘Hey, this guy's awesome.' It's fun to go against the best. I have a ton of respect for him. And, I know how important it is — especially after playing those last two games last year. We punted eight times both games, so the punt game, the punt exchange was a huge part of the game. So, you know that could happen again. You know how good they are defensively. It's an invigorating game for me. I'm always fired up."
Masthay hasn't been on top of his game to start the season, though, and he admits Sproles' 72-yard touchdown in the opener might have something to do with it. Through two games, he's averaged just 40.9 yards per punt with a net of 23.2.
"I am a little frustrated because I was hitting the ball great in preseason, and now I've struggled a little bit to start," Masthay said. "I think part of it is, I hit a solid ball on the first punt against the Saints and it got returned for a touchdown. And maybe mentally, I just haven't done as well as I need to to recover from that. But, yeah, I'm kind of going back (and thinking), ‘OK, what was I focusing on that got me to hit the ball great over and over and over again? Why have I had a few mis-hits early?' I'm just detailing the fundamentals, I always prepare like crazy. I'm satisfied with the preparation; it's just a matter of executing in the game."
Hester is the Bears' main returner on kickoffs, too, after sharing that role with Danieal Manning and others for the past couple seasons. Hester has returned four for touchdowns in his career, two off the team record held by Hall of Famer Gale Sayers, and boasts an average of 23.9 yards per runback. For the season, he's averaged 20.0 yards on five kickoff returns.
Sproles hit the Packers for a 57-yard return, but on Mason Crosby's other 13 kickoffs, the average starting point has been the 19.8-yard line. Six of his kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks and he's helped pin the opponent inside the 20 four times.
"We looked really good," Crosby said of the unit against Carolina. "Everyone's fitting their spots and doing a good job. We'll look at it this week and see what we might need to adjust."
The Packers have gotten a lift from their rookies. Sixth-round pick D.J. Smith is tied for the team lead with three special-teams tackles, seventh-round pick Taylor had two tackles in his debut against the Panthers and undrafted rookie Jamari Lattimore had the tackle on the opening kickoff last week that forced the Panthers to start at their 15-yard line. Third-year linebacker Brad Jones was in on three tackles last week, as well.
"I thought he played very well," Slocum said of Taylor. "He was very aggressive, very impactful. On that first kickoff coverage, he didn't make the tackle but he hit his man and drove him back about 8 yards into the face of the ball-carrier. Exactly what I want him to do."
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.