It's not just that Devin Hester has returned three kicks for touchdowns in his first nine games in the NFL, it's the nature of the returns that have already made him one of the NFL's most exciting players.
The average distance of Hester's three scores is 92 yards.
"He's a special player when he gets his hands on the football, and we got another chance to see that (Sunday)," Bears coach Lovie Smith said of Hester's 108-yard return of a missed field goal. "We practice it exactly that way. We have him catch the football, wait about three seconds and then take off from there, and it seems to work every day at practice just like that."
Smith was kidding. The Bears do practice returning missed field goals, but Hester's heroics don't require a great deal of choreography. Sometimes it's best just to let him do what comes naturally — find a crease in the coverage, make some defenders miss and outrun the rest.
Hester scored on an 84-yard punt return against the Packers in the season opener and went 83 yards with a punt for the winning points against the Cardinals on a Monday night. But he has made several errors in judgment this season, fielding balls that he shouldn't because they're too close to his own end zone. He's muffed four punts, although the Bears recovered three of them. On his two punt-return opportunities Sunday night, Hester netted zero yards with a plus-3 on one and a minus-3 on the other, when he tried to take it to the house rather than accepting the 10-12 yards that seemed to be a given.
"We've talked about good things he's done and bad things he's done a few different weeks," Smith said. "But that (108-yard return) was a great run, and he did set the guys up (for blocks). Whenever Devin Hester has his hands on the ball with a little bit of space in between, I feel pretty good about our chances."
The reason Hester was back standing in the end zone in the first place was because the Bears half-expected a pooch punt out of field-goal formation and didn't want to be caught by surprise. If Hester had taken a knee when he caught the ball eight yards deep in the end zone, the Bears would have taken over with excellent field position at the 42-yard line, the spot of the field-goal attempt. But Hester wanted it all, even though the Bears would have settled for less.
"I was trying to tell him to stay in where he caught it, but he saw the wall was wide open so he took it," special teams coordinator Dave Toub said. "He kind of hesitated, and I guess he saw the big seam out there and he decided to go. He listens to me, but obviously he didn't see (or hear) me because if he would have seen me, he'd have stayed in. He saw (Brian) Urlacher and all those guys urging him on because they had a wall set up."
Smith credited Charles Tillman, Hunter Hillenmeyer and Alfonso Boone with key blocks that helped spring Hester.
Although it appeared that Hester's hesitation in the end zone was orchestrated, Toub said it wasn't planned. But it worked out OK.
"As soon as he started coming out," Toub said, "I said, ‘Go all the way now.'"
With seven games remaining, Hester needs one more score to tie the NFL record of four combined punt-kick-return touchdowns in a season, shared by nine players, including the Bears' Gale Sayers (1967) and Cecil Turner (1970).
"We just play them as they're laid out," cornerback Nate Vasher said. "We don't schedule them or anything. I mean, we can't do anything but play them. That's something we don't control."
The second half appears more difficult but hardly daunting, as the Bears face opponents that had a 31-33 combined record before Sunday's action. The 6-3 Seahawks are the only team with a winning record the Bears played in the first half. The Bears face the 6-3 Patriots two weeks after the 6-2 Giants but then don't play another team that has a winning record. They face, in order, the 4-5 Vikings and Rams, the 2-6 Bucs, 2-7 Lions and the 4-5 Packers.
"I try to deal in reality as much as anything," Bears coach Lovie Smith said before his team whipped the Giants 38-20 to improve to 8-1. "We like our record."
"They're a lot alike," Miller said. "Both have speed and are shifty guys and run really hard and are tough to bring down. It's just up to us to open up some holes for them and let them do the rest once they get into the secondary."
Miller, who played his first four years for the Rams and the next five for the Titans, said sometimes adjustments have to be made if running backs have drastically different styles.
"No one's going to run the ball like (former Ram teammate) Marshall Faulk, so you're going to have to change up a little bit for the other guys."
Monday, it was Roy Williams.
But the words could have easily come from Lem Barney in the 1960s, Charlie Sanders in the 1970s, Billy Sims in the 1980s or Barry Sanders in the 1990s.
"It was another bad day for Detroit Lions football."
Williams was referring to Sunday's embarrassing 19-13 loss to the 49ers, a team that had lost 17 of its previous 19 road games and which ranked last in the NFL in scoring defense.
"We can't do this," said Williams, who had his three-game scoring streak snapped. "There are only 1,696 guys who get to play at this level, and we've got to want it if we want to be one of them."
The Lions were coming off their best effort of the season — a 30-14 romp over Michael Vick and the Falcons — and had won two in a row at Ford Field.
Sunday, though, they came out flat on both sides of the ball. Frank Gore rushed for 148 yards in the first half, including a 61-yard score on the opening drive, and San Francisco had scored three times before the Lions crossed midfield.
"After playing as well as we did last week, we wanted to come out and put something together," Dre Bly said. "It was tough to come in here (Sunday) and play the way we did."
Lions coach Rod Marinelli has stressed consistency all season, and Sunday certainly didn't give him any reason to change his tune.
"That's what it takes to win championships in this league," he said. "You get a winning streak together by performing each and every week at that consistent level. That's what I am hunting for — we've just got to go back to practice and keep cleaning things up."
As a defensive guru, Marinelli seemed particularly disappointed in his team's inability to stop San Francisco's running attack. Things got better after Gore left the game with a second-half concussion, but the 49ers still finished with 198 yards on the ground.
In the Lions' past three games, they have allowed nearly 600 rushing yards.
"Tackling is certainly an issue, and containment is an issue," Marinelli said. "That's what we will work on this week."
The rookie coach bristled when asked if his players should be able to tackle by the time they reach the NFL.
"I don't even buy that," he said. "Do I have to teach tackling? Yes. It's football, and I don't care what you say — no way. It's fundamentals, and we've got to be able to teach it. If it's not getting done, we've got to re-teach it."
"This hurts our playoff chances," Williams said to a surprised group of writers. "At 10-6, we would have gotten in for sure. Now it is going to be tougher to get in at 9-7."
"They aren't going to listen to me — not this late in the season," Pollard said. "The only thing I can do now is show them by example, by the way I play every Sunday."
"There's almost always four or five plays that decide a game, and they don't always come in the last five minutes," he said. "Sometimes, it is something in the first half."
Kitna pointed to the first play of the second half as an example. Just as he was about to deliver a long pass to a wide-open Roy Williams, he was blindsided by 49ers CB Shawntae Spencer, who came untouched on a blitz. Kitna fumbled, and the 49ers kicked a field goal to increase their lead to 16-3.
"That's probably six points right there — if I throw a good ball, Roy scores on the play," Kitna said. "But we don't pick up the blitz, I never see the guy, and they get the ball."
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Head coach Mike McCarthy didn't mince words Monday in saying that the 4-5 Packers have "an excellent chance" to make a run for a spot in the NFC playoffs, especially if they can knock off New England at home Sunday.
McCarthy, though, backpedaled on comments that were aired on a national report Sunday night regarding the future of quarterback Brett Favre. It was reported at halftime of the Chicago-New York Giants game on NBC that McCarthy said he wanted the 37-year-old Favre to return for next season and felt that the league's only three-time MVP could play at least a couple more years.
A day later, McCarthy tried to put the issue to rest.
"If I opened that door for that type of scenario, I need to close it," he said. "As far as the way he's playing this year, we're excited about the way he's playing. I referred to (that) I think he has plenty of gas in his tank, he could play a number, a couple of years if he wants to. But, those are post-season topics. I know he doesn't want the distraction; our football team doesn't need it; and if I opened a door, I need to close it. There's no need to go there anymore."
Speculation that Favre will again put off retirement for another year is percolating with him in the midst of a season that's a 180-degree turnaround from last year, when he led the league with 29 interceptions in a 4-12 season.
Favre has only seven interceptions in nine games this season with 13 touchdowns. He threw for a season-high 347 yards with two touchdowns in a mistake-free 23-17 win at Minnesota on Sunday.
Favre hasn't thrown an interception in four of the last five games.
"His decision making has been solid," McCarthy said. "(If) we get in the playoffs, I'll take him against anybody."
Meanwhile, Dan Marino's league record of 420 touchdown passes is well within Favre's reach by the end of this season. Favre has 409.
"I might really be the only one that really does not care," Favre said Sunday. "If I get it great, but I would much rather win."
With three wins in the last four games to offset a 1-4 start, a considerably young team apparently has won over its older quarterback and could be convincing him to return for 2007 and beyond.
"Each week it's like, ‘OK, maybe this is just a flash in the pan.' And, then the following week, more plays are made, and the following week more plays are made. Each one has a hand in (it)," Favre said. "I think everyone on this team contributes. I can't think of too many times in my career where that's happened where I can say every player contributes."
Tauscher sustained a pulled groin late in the third quarter of Green Bay's 23-17 win at Minnesota on Sunday. McCarthy indicated that Tauscher will be put down as doubtful on the injury report later this week.
"It's a pretty good groin injury," McCarthy said. "We'll see if a couple days of rest will be good for him."
Tony Moll is penciled in to be the replacement starter against the Patriots, which would mean three rookies on the offensive line. Moll, a fifth-round draft pick, started the first four games at right guard but lost the job to fellow rookie Jason Spitz.
McCarthy said Moll did a solid job in taking over for Tauscher on Sunday.
"We threw the ball a bunch down the stretch there, and that's never easy just to jump right into that," McCarthy said.
In both instances, cornerback Al Harris let the receiver run past him, thinking he had safety help over the top. The Bills' Lee Evans and the Vikings' Billy McMullen were never picked up in time.
There was confusion in the loss to Buffalo as to whether the called coverage was Cover 2 or quarters. McCarthy insisted Monday that the coverage on McMullen's 40-yard play was Cover 2, meaning safety Nick Collins was to blame.
McCarthy said it comes down to better technique and better route recognition by the safeties.
"It's a play we need to make. It's a coverage that everybody knows what to do," McCarthy said. "We need to clean that up.
"It's not like we're getting tricked. Cover 2 is a good coverage to be in versus that play. It's part of the game. That's why you play the game. It's not played on computer and not played on drawings or things like that. (But) we need to play that coverage better at that point."