Packers Will Not Miss Hester

But Green Bay punter Tim Masthay did well in limiting Hester because of his directional skills. With Hester returning kicks for Atlanta, there will be a new dynamic for Green Bay's special teams on Sunday. (Photo by Andrew Weber/USA TODAY)

Devin Hester’s first NFL game came on Sept. 10, 2006, at Lambeau Field. His 84-yard punt return for a touchdown helped Chicago ruin Mike McCarthy’s debut as the Green Bay Packers’ head coach.

Tim Masthay’s third game as the Packers’ punter came on Sept. 27, 2010. Hester returned a punt 28 yards just before halftime to set up one touchdown and returned another punt 62 yards for a touchdown as the Bears won 20-17.

Hester played 15 games against the Packers. His last one was in Week 17 of last season. The Packers prevailed 33-28 to win the NFC North and get into the playoffs, but Hester’s 49-yard punt return helped give Chicago a 14-13 lead in the third quarter.

Hester is playing for Atlanta – he’ll visit Lambeau Field with the Packers on Dec. 8 – so it will be a new dynamic for the Packers’ special teams on Sunday at Soldier Field.

“Devin Hester is a great returner,” McCarthy said. “Impacts a lot of football games, has impacted some of our games in the past. I’m glad he’s not in Chicago.”

Without Hester, who has an NFL-record 19 career touchdowns on punt and kickoff returns, including one for the Falcons, the Bears are using veteran receiver Santonio Holmes on punts and rookie running back Senorise Perry on kickoffs. Holmes is averaging 3.7 yards per punt return this season and has one touchdown in his nine-year career, and Perry is averaging 21.0 yards per kickoff return.

“You know, truthfully, he’s an awesome, awesome player. Great player,” Masthay said on Friday. “It was already an extra energy being Packers-Bears, a division game, but then knowing that their punt-return team had Hester, just added even more to it. To me, I was always energized by it but the game still has that, even without Hester being there. I don’t feel any sort of sense of relief because they still have playmakers. Truthfully, when I’m preparing for games, I’m not thinking a whole lot about who’s returning the ball. I have to execute what I have to execute. It doesn’t really change things much.”

For Masthay, punting to Hester became a source of pride. Facing the best returner in NFL history twice a season has lifted Masthay’s career, as well. While Hester certainly had his share of success against Green Bay’s special teams, the Packers did well in playing keepaway. Late in his rookie season, Masthay was a key component of the Packers’ Week 17 win against the Bears. Needing a win to get into the playoffs, Green Bay prevailed 10-3. Masthay punted eight times, with Hester getting only two returns. A few weeks later, in the NFC Championship rematch at Chicago, Green Bay won 21-14. Masthay punted eight times in that game, as well, with Hester returning three of them for just 16 yards. Hester only returned two of Masthay’s eight punts in the two games last season.

During his career, Masthay has become one of the league’s best directional kickers. He had the third-lowest return rate in 2012 (34.3 percent) and 2013 (31.3 percent). He owns the four-best net punting seasons in franchise history.

Asked if Hester made him a better punter, Masthay said, “I would definitely say that, very early in my career, it was a heightened awareness of Hester returning because he was having a great season and we performed very well in those two games (late in 2010) and I punted the ball well in those two games. Those were certainly confidence-boosting games because I was punting the ball very wide (to limit Hester). In that sense, early in my career, the exposure to playing against him when he was having one of his best seasons in super-critical situations where we had to punt a lot and it was cold, they were very developmental games for sure.”

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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