Hester Gets Better with Age

The Bears' game-changing Devin Hester is back to his big-play ways after a relatively quiet 2012. The Packers have kept Hester out of the end zone in each of their last six meetings, but "all it takes is one."

Devin Hester will turn 31 on Monday night.

The Green Bay Packers would like to ruin that birthday party.

Hester's been on top of his game after a relatively ho-hum 2012. Last season, he averaged just 8.3 yards per punt return — about half his league-leading figures of 17.1 in 2010 and 16.2 in 2011. His 25.9-yard average on kickoff returns was impressive but his long return was just 40 yards.

This season, Hester is averaging 13.3 yards per punt return, including an 81-yard touchdown against Washington two weeks ago, and 29.3 yards per kickoff return, including an 80-yarder.

"He's an explosive returner – one of the best," said linebacker Jamari Lattimore, who might be a focal point of the Packers' special teams again with the return of Brad Jones. "You just have to go out and make a play. Hunker down and get ready to get it on."

Hester and Deion Sanders are tied for the NFL record with 19 touchdowns on returns, though Sanders scored 10 times on defense and got his 19-touchdown total in 74 more games than Hester. Counting only kick returns, Hester has a record 18 in 114 career games. Brian Mitchell is next on the list, with his 13 return touchdowns coming in 223 games.

At the 2006 Scouting Combine, Hester ran his 40-yard dash in 4.41. He might be just as fast today and has experience on his side.

"To me, he's improved in initial start on a punt return, just with all the repetition he's had," Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. "He's very good off the spot. He's got excellent quickness, suddenness. When he came in the league, his separation speed was outstanding. It still looks like he's got good enough speed to me. He's still a big-time threat any time he's got his hands on the ball."

The Packers have had some success of late. In 13 career games against Green Bay, Hester is averaging 13.8 yards per punt return with two touchdowns and 22.8 yards per kickoff return with a long of 40. The Packers have kept him out of the end zone in six consecutive meetings, including the 2010 NFC Championship Game. His last touchdown against the Packers came on "Monday Night Football" in Week 3 of 2010. That, not coincidentally, was the last time the Bears beat the Packers.

"I think our guys play well," Slocum said. "It's a great rivalry game. There's tremendous preparation that goes into this game. Devin's been a remarkable player in the return game throughout his career. He's always a challenge. He's a challenge every play. You can go into a game and play him well for most of the game and all it takes is one. It's like the 81-yarder against Washington. They managed that game really well except for the one play. He's one of those kind of guys that can score at any point."

Other than the punt-return unit, the Packers' special teams haven't performed well. The Packers are yielding 7.9 yards per punt return, which ranks 16th, but are last with a 32.3-yard average allowed on kickoff returns.

At least they're getting healthy. Jarrett Bush (hamstring) returned last week, Ryan Taylor (knee) is expected to return this week and Lattimore would further fortify the coverage units if his duties are lessened on defense. That's three of Slocum's top guns.

"The point of emphasis this week is 11-man job efficiency," Slocum said. "Eleven guys working together. It's not any one thing. You can have a good punt, poor coverage and have a bad result. You can have a bad punt, good coverage and have a bad result. I think it's everyone working together, working efficiently, and everyone doing their job. That's really the goal on every play, is that you have 11 guys doing the right thing. If you do that, you have a chance to be successful."

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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 packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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