Key matchup: Hester or Harvin?

The Vikings and Bears often have tight games in Soldier Field, meaning every play counts – especially the punts and kickoffs when Devin Hester and Percy Harvin are field them, respectively, for their teams.

Percy Harvin vs. Devin Hester

There is something about playing at Soldier Field that makes ordinarily rational teams find ways to lose. The Bears offense generates enough points to keep them close in a game, but more times than not, when the Bears win late, it's because they got a touchdown from their defense or their special teams. As the Vikings head into Chicago to play the Bears Sunday, they do so knowing that special teams could spell the difference in a game where one big play could be the difference between winning or losing, making the comparative matchup between Percy Harvin and Devin Hester this week's key matchup.

One of the reasons the Vikings drafted Harvin was because of players like Hester and Reggie Bush of New Orleans. The Vikings had routinely been burned by big-play return men and, almost from the moment he was drafted, Harvin was discussed as a return man first and foremost. The fact he has blossomed as a wide receiver is a huge dividend, but his impact on games has been its most pronounced in the return game, at least initially.

Hester burst on the league early in his career as both a kickoff and punt-return specialist. A cornerback in college, he was moved to wide receiver in his second season in the NFL, despite not playing the position in college at Miami. The belief was that his game-changing ability was so pronounced that he needed to be used more than as just a return specialist. As his offensive numbers grew, his production as a return man declined. He has never become the top dog among the receivers on the Bears – he ranks fifth on the team with 20 receptions – and his diminishing returns as a punt-return man took away his aura as a game-changer.

This year, however, that has all changed. Hester is averaging 16 yards per punt return and has brought two back for touchdowns after a two-year drought in taking a return to the house. He is being scaled back somewhat in the offense to sharpen his return skills and it has paid off. However, he is going up against a Vikings punt return unit that is tops in the NFL, allowing just 3.5 yards per return with a long return of just nine yards.

In addition, thanks to high hang time punting, only 13 of the Vikings' 36 punts have been returned. Of the other 23 kicks, 11 have been downed by the coverage team, gone in the end zone or bounced out of bounds, and the other 12 have resulted in fair catches. That smacks in the face of what the Bears and Hester have done. There is no question that teams have taken the approach of avoiding Hester with their punts. Of 50 opponent punts, he has called for just six fair catches. Yet, he has returned just 18 of 50 punts. The other 26 have been kicked away from him to prevent him from doing any more damage.

Vikings fans have seen a similar scenario emerging with Harvin. Opponents have routinely squibbed kicks or hung them high and short so Harvin can't return them. Although his return average of 24.4 yards isn't spectacular – he is 20th in the league – it belies the deeper meaning of his presence. The Vikings have spent most of the year (they are currently second behind Seattle) in the best starting position following kickoffs. Why? Because teams so routinely bounce or pooch kicks down the field that Harvin is prevented from getting the ball with a chance to build a head of steam coming up the field.

What happens when these two dynamic performers meet up will likely go a long way to determining the outcome of the game – not just because of their talent, but because of the confidence (or hubris) of the respective coverage teams about their own abilities. Nobody has been as good as the Vikings in preventing punt returners from breaking off big returns. The Bears have always prided themselves on their special teams and have never shown a propensity for squib kicking to prevent a returner from burning them.

Both Harvin and Hester are cut from the same big-play cloth. They are each able to make the play that can win a game for his team. They are both going to face one of their toughest challenges of the season in a Bears kick coverage team that is aggressive and among the best in the league and a Vikings punt coverage unit that has been the best in the NFL this season. If one of them can break the kind of return that tilts momentum in the game, that is the team most likely to leave Soldier Field with a win.

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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