In a game in which scoring might be at a premium given the unsettled state of the Green Bay Packers' offensive line and the Chicago Bears' offense in general, the battle between Packers punter Tim Masthay and Bears returner Devin Hester figures to be the game within the game.
Masthay is having the best season by a punter in Packers history. Hester, with an NFL-record 12 touchdowns on punt returns, is far and away the best returner the league has ever seen. One of those came in the third game of Masthay's career back in 2010.
"I never would say I was intimidated by him," Masthay said on Thursday. "That's kind of a waste of time, waste of energy, to be intimidated by the guy. I obviously have a tremendous amount of respect for him and I know what he's done. There's a difference between having respect for your opponent and being intimidated by him. I would say respect but not intimidated. Really, I love going against the best. I'm always a little extra geared up for this week. It's a fun, exciting challenge."
The statistics notwithstanding, the Packers were up to that challenge in this year's game at Chicago on Sept. 25.
Masthay's six-punt average was a season-worst 38.2 yards. His net average was 33.2, the third-worst day of the season.
Still, the Packers won the game and Hester was mostly taken out of the equation. Hester got his hands on only one ball, the first punt of the game, which he returned 21 yards. After that, Masthay turned to an Aussie-style kick that sacrificed distance for hang time and resulted in one fair catch and three punts that were downed.
"I'm more concerned with wins or losses over net punt," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said of that strategy. "One of the formulas for Chicago to be successful is having impact returns from Devin Hester. We've got to do a good job managing that part of the game."
Masthay also won his two late-season matchups against Chicago last year, in Week 17 and the NFC Championship Game. He punted 16 times, with Hester returning five of them for 51 yards. Masthay put nine punts inside the 20 with two touchbacks. Five punts were downed, two were kicked out of bounds and there was one touchback.
"It's always about production," Masthay said. "It's always about team-first. That's our goal as a punt unit is to try and eliminate Devin as much as possible, neutralize their return game as much as possible. Obviously, I'm not going to talk about what we're planning on doing but that'll be our goal, just like it has been every time we've lined up against those guys."
After a slow start to the season — Masthay had a punt returned for a touchdown in the opener, averaged just 38.7 yards on three punts at Carolina in Week 2 and had a terrible net average of 29.1 yards against St. Louis in Week 6 — he's on pace to have the best punting season in the long history of the franchise.
On Sunday at Kansas City, Masthay's 71-yard bomb — the longest since Jon Ryan's 72-yarder against Detroit in 2007 — helped him produce a 53.4-yard average. That's the fourth-best day in Packers history, and his net average of 46.2 ranks third (since the team began tracking that statistic in 1976).
That was merely a continuation of a superb stretch for Masthay, who wasn't drafted in 2009 and was signed by the Packers shortly after the season ended. In his last eight games, Masthay has averaged at least 53.4 yards four times. That's boosted his season average to 45.8, which, when broken down to hundredths of a yard, is 0.79 yards better than Craig Hentrich's franchise record set in 1997.
Net average, of course, is what matters, because a 45-yard punt with a 15-yard return doesn't do a lot of good. Last year, Masthay's net average of 37.0 tied Ryan for the best mark in team history. With net averages of at least 40 yards in seven of the last eight games, Masthay's season net has soared to 38.0.
"I'd be thrilled if we finished the season as a punt unit setting the net and gross record," Masthay said. "Still have a lot of football to play with two games left, and obviously we've got a huge challenge this week. So, that's not really on my mind for right now but when the season's over, it would be fun and it would be a cool thing to look back and say we accomplished that."
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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.