Statistics, strategies and Hester

The Vikings' punt coverage statistics tell an extremely daunting story of how bad they've been – brutal, really. And now Chris Kluwe and company get to face Chicago's Devin Hester. See what Kluwe, special teams coordinator Paul Ferraro and more had to say about the task.

In every season, there is a telling statistic or two that can be used to explain why a team is at the top, in the middle or at the bottom of the NFL in certain categories. In a sport that gives a lot of credence to statistics, anything the sets you apart – good or bad – is noticeable.

Through six weeks of the NFL season, the Vikings have stood out head and shoulders from the rest of the league – and it's not something they're proud of. That facet of the game is punt coverage.

Through Week 6 of the NFL season, roughly 40 percent of NFL teams haven't allowed 100 yards total in punt returns. The Atlanta Falcons are the Big Daddy of special teams punt coverage in 2007. Through six games, Michael Koenen has punted 25 times. Of those, 10 have resulted in a fair catch, four have gone out of bounds, three have gone in the end zone and seven have been returned – for a grand total of 19 yards (2.7 yards per return). Matt Ryan, Roddy White and Michael Turner are big reasons they head into the bye at 4-2, but the punt coverage team has done nothing to hurt their cause.

Only three teams have allowed more than 200 punt return yards. Cincinnati has allowed 212 return yards, which could help explain why they're 0-6. Miami has allowed 237 yards on punt returns, which could help explain why they're 2-3. But one team surpasses them all. The Vikings have allowed 414 yards in punt returns – a mind-boggling 75 percent more than the second-worst total and roughly four times the league average. For the entire 2007 season, the Vikings allowed opponents to gain 440 yards on punt returns on 43 return opportunities, which was below league average. The all-time franchise record for punt return yardage in a season is 577 in 1996. The 2008 team is on pace to break that mark in Week 9.

Through six weeks of the NFL season, 87 games have been played. In those games, only six punt returns have been brought back for touchdowns. Three have come against the Vikings. The other 31 teams have accounted for the other three – scored by DeSean Jackson of the Eagles, Reggie Bush of the Saints and Roscoe Parrish of the Bills.

The Vikings have been epically brutal in covering punts and the prospect of facing Devin Hester, Chicago's dynamic gamebreaker who doubles as a wide receiver and return specialist, is daunting. After what has already happened to the Vikings this season, special attention is being paid during special teams meetings and practices concerning what to do in relation to kicking the ball anywhere near Hester.

Punter Chris Kluwe, who was publicly thrown under the bus by head coach Brad Childress following the New Orleans game and subsequently saw the Vikings bring in four other punters for tryouts, is once again going to be in the center of the return game firestorm. While all 11 men share the blame for the Vikings woes in punt coverage, Kluwe is the focus because he's the one who controls where the ball ends up and, against Hester, it will be safe to say the ball won't end up in the same place twice – unless that place is out of bounds.

"We're just going to work the game plan to determine what we can do to make sure he doesn't get a big return on us," Kluwe said. "How you go after a team in the punting game depends a lot upon what spot you are on the field. If we're at midfield, we might try to just angle one for the sideline as deep as we can get it. If we're in our end zone, it will be different. But you can bet we'll have some things in the game plan to just keep his hands off the ball."

To date, Hester hasn't been his explosive self this season. In his first two seasons, he scored nine return touchdowns – five as a rookie in 2006 (three punts, two kickoffs) and six in 2007 (four punts, two kickoffs). He has played the Vikings at Soldier Field twice and returned a punt for a touchdown in both games. But 2008 hasn't seen the same sort of success. He has returned 11 punts for just 59 yards (a 5.4-yard average) and has returned 14 kickoffs for 317 yards (a 22.6-yard average). In both instances, the Bears have another player with a better average – Nathan Vasher with a 7.7-yard punt return average and Danieal Manning with a kick return average of 26.3 yards.

Vikings special teams coordinator Paul Ferraro thinks Hester is as dangerous as ever.

"Sure he is. Has he been as productive? No, but that has nothing to do with how good he is," he said. "He is playing more on offense. Do I think that has anything to do with it? I don't know; you would have to ask Devin Hester. But I know this – what he has done in this league is as good as anybody has done in this league. I have the upmost respect for him. … We have the upmost respect of him and I don't look at statistics and say, "This player has changed." He hasn't changed. He is a great player that we have to do a good job of defending."

Hester has yet to display the blazing speed in the open field that has made him the most feared return man since the heyday of Dante Hall. He is a special teams touchdown waiting to happen and the Vikings aren't taking any comfort from his pedestrian return numbers this year.

"I don't why his numbers are down," special teamer Vinny Ciurciu said. "He's as explosive a return guy as I've ever seen and we've had a chance to see him twice a year and know what he can do. He may not have one yet, but with a guy like him, you know it's only a matter of time. We just have to make sure it doesn't happen this Sunday."

So what will the Vikings do? At their current pace, they will allow more than 1,100 free field-position yards and will lose more games as a result. While the plan is to change things around and reduce the disparity in this category from the other 31 teams in the league, that may have to be put on the back burner this week.

"I'm not 100 percent what the game plan is going to be," Kluwe said with a chuckle. "But I think it's safe to say we're not just going to kick to Devin Hester and hope for the best."

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