When you hear coaches talk about the three phases of the game, the one that typically gets overlooked is special teams. If there are problems on offense or defense, they are recurring problems that happen throughout the season. Problems on special teams are one-time occurrences that are often the difference between winning and losing.
The Vikings face a scheming problem like no other this week when they play the Chicago Bears. Second-year man Devin Hester is a player like no other. While Dante Hall was the scourge of special teams coaches a few years ago, even he didn't have the game-breaking ability that Hester brought as a rookie. He scored six touchdowns on returns of punts and kickoffs in the regular season and returned the opening kickoff of the Super Bowl for another touchdown.
For a someone who only is on the field for 10-20 plays a game, he is the type of player that can turn the momentum of a game around on a single play.
"He's a game-changer," kicker Ryan Longwell said. "As good of athletes as there are in the NFL – and there are phenomenal ones on every team – there are very few game-changers that just getting the ball in their hands can change the momentum of the game. He's certainly one of those guys. You have to be very careful how you get the ball into his hands and when you don't."
So what do you do to stop him – or least contain him? Vikings head coach Brad Childress was keeping his ideas pretty close to the vest this week, but he acknowledges that he is a player that bears watching and preparation every time he steps on the field.
"I am not going to give you our game plan of course but suffice it to say that he is extraordinary and history will tell whether he is the best of all time," Childress said. "He kind of defies description. When you think that the guy is pinned in, he is going to wiggle his way out. So you have to be careful when you are kicking the ball to him or at him or how you are covering him or exactly what you are doing with that guy. You have to account for him."
Childress also cautioned that you can't simply worry about him in the return game. The Vikings learned late in their 34-31 win over Chicago earlier this year when Hester beat Dwight Smith deep for an 81-yard touchdown that he is a threat on offense as well as special teams.
"You also have to account for him on offense," Childress said. "He is more and more and more a part of their game plan. We saw him run by us at the end of the game, very painfully down there when we thought that we were in a good spot. He is electrifying. He was behind the Giants. I know he had one in the back pad that he dropped, but if it weren't for that, maybe that is a different game. They use him in a variety of ways, reverses, quick passes where he has the ability to make you miss. He can accelerate in a hurry and they are also running him down the field on deep routes. He has the ability to run by you, so I think they are tapping into about all he has to give them and you better know where he is at and have a plan for him."
Punter Chris Kluwe said that he's going to be responsible for making sure he doesn't bring any punts back for touchdowns. How? He isn't sure, but he's going to do whatever the coaches tell him they want on any given punt.
"I'm just going to do what the coaches tell me to," Kluwe said. "If they want me to angle punts to one side of the field or kick out of bounds, I'll do that. If they want to try to kick the ball high so our guys can get down around it before he has a chance to do anything with it, I'll do that. If they want to punt it as far as I can and let the coverage team do the rest, I'll do that. I'm just going to have wait and do what they tell me given the situation in the game."
The same will be true in the kicking. Ryan Longwell was asked that question in a long-form version. What do you do with him? Kick the ball out of bounds or to the sideline? Kick it to one side of the field or the other? Bounce the kick down the field short and make one of the up men get it? Pooch kick to about the 30-yard line so he doesn't have time to get a head of steam?
"I'd say you do all the above," Longwell said. "You come up with every idea you can and keep him guessing – whether you're going to kick it to him or not, kick it right or left, kick it long or short or kick it high or low. You keep him guessing and keep the advantage on your side of the ball. If one guy misses him, he can go the distance, so you need to be very careful and not give him the opportunities to make big plays."
If the Vikings do opt to kick to Hester and take their chances, it will be up to the coverage teams to make sure that he doesn't make the big play that could swing the fate of the game into Chicago's hands. The idea is minimize what he can do and make the most of the field position battle. While Hester may be the smallest guy on the field, he scares an awful lot of opposing players.
"He's a special player and it's definitely going to require a special effort to stop him," special teams ace Vinny Ciurciu said. "Directional kicking is something teams do, but the ball doesn't always go that way. We need to make sure we take care of our lanes because you can't give him a chance to get going because he's like Dante Hall has been – one guy misses and he can go all the way."
The Bears may have reason for some optimism given that the Vikings allowed San Francisco return man Maurice Hicks to return a pair of kickoffs 55 yards. It didn't have an impact on the result of the game because the Vikings already had a healthy lead, but it served notice on the Vikings coverage team that if Hicks can have big returns, a guy like Hester would have brought those returns back for touchdowns.
"It was definitely a reality check for us," Ciurciu said. "We've been playing well pretty much the whole year, but we gave up a couple of long returns. It forced us to get back to the basics and do the hard work to make sure we're all doing our assignments right. You can't over-think it, because when you do that, you try to make a big play and get out of your lane and bad things can happen. We have to focus, do our job and we'll be fine."
So, as the Vikings attempt to extend their winning streak to five games and solidify their playoff positioning, the one player who will likely get the most attention in the game plan isn't a quarterback, a running back, a defensive pass-rush specialist or a hard-hitting, big-play linebacker. It will be a return man with devastating skills that can change a game in the blink of an eye.
They hope they have their gameplan locked down tight because, if it comes down to Longwell making a touchdown-saving tackle on Hester, even he isn't that confident he can get that job done.
"I get paid to kick, not make tackles," Longwell said. "You don't want me back there trying to stop him."
Hester ‘Electrifying,' ‘Defies Description
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