It came as something of a surprise when the Chicago Bears announced last week that Devin Hester was going to be taken off of the Bears kickoff and punt-return teams. Granted, they were playing the Rams – a team they likely could have beaten with nobody back to return kicks or punts.
But, there's a funny feeling going around Winter Park. Nobody believes Lovie Smith. It's not that he's a natural-born liar, but, with first place in the NFC North at stake, nobody on the Vikings' kick and punt-return teams seems to be buying into the fact that, when Minnesota is forced to kick, No. 23 for the Bears isn't going to be back there looking to break one long.
Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell said he was shocked when he heard that the Bears were taking their most explosive player out of his natural element. But, like so many others, he gave the caveat that it was against St. Louis and not the Vikings.
"He's such a weapon in the return game that I was really surprised when I heard they took him off the return team last week," Longwell said. "You never know. You always prepare for their best and, in my mind, that's Devin Hester. So we're preparing like he's going to be back there."
Maybe Longwell believes that because of Hester's history against Minnesota. In his first two seasons, he scored two touchdowns on returns – reason enough to think that he will be back. But, it soon became apparent that Longwell was far from alone in that line of thinking. Special teams ace Vinny Ciurciu was asked point blank, "Do you think Hester will be returning kicks and punts against you Sunday?" His answer was just as straightforward.
"Absolutely," Ciurciu said. "When you have the best punt returner and best kick returner in the league, you always have to prepare like they will have him out there in the big games. We're definitely going to be expecting him to be there and be in good shape."
Hester has been banged up and, according to some Chicago observers, has been somewhat tentative on returns recently – a far cry from the reckless abandon that made him a Pro Bowler in the return game. Yes, he had his return duties stripped last week, ostensibly to focus more on his offensive duties, but with the magnitude of Sunday night's game, the Vikings remain convinced that Hester is going to be given the opportunity to do what he does that so few other players are capable of doing.
"You always expect to see him back there, especially with so much on the line," linebacker Dontarrious Thomas said. "Hester's a special guy. He's a dangerous guy. We have to take him serious, even if it turns out they don't have him back there, they have very good special teams year in and year out."
In their first meeting this year, the Vikings went overboard in trying to avoid Hester. They pooch kicked on kickoffs – a strategy that failed miserably since the Bears were able to return the short kicks on three occasions for better field position than they would have had the Vikings just kicked the ball out of bounds. That strategy is likely to change, but if they see Hester waiting by himself 50 or 60 yards away looking to get the ball in his hands, they're going to have a plan in place for what they expect to see.
"You always hope for the best, but you plan for the worst," punter Chris Kluwe said. "Obviously, the worst would be that Hester is back there returning kicks. He's such a dynamic guy and every time he touches it, he's a threat to go all the way. Whether they say he'll be returning kicks or not, we're coming in with the idea that he will be."
The Vikings have had the worst special teams coverage in the league all season, but their collapse against Chicago was more on them than it was anything the Bears did to beat them. Kluwe dropped the snap on a punt, tried to re-kick it with the ball on the ground and had it blocked and returned for a score. Later in the game, Charles Gordon tried to block a gunner in hopes a Chicago punt would go into the end zone – only to have the ball hit him in the leg and give the Bears the ball on the Minnesota 5-yard line.
While the team has been working on its coverages, the kinds of plays that happened against the Bears are similar to having lightning strike twice in the same place – they may happen once in a blue moon, but how often do you see twin disasters in the same game?
"Every week we're trying to improve on things, but what happened in Chicago wasn't the kind of thing you spend a lot of time working on," Ciurciu said. "Chris dropping the ball was a fluke thing and the ball hitting Chuck's leg while he was throwing a block was fluke thing too. We just need to stay on course and hope those sort of fluke plays don't happen again."
Whether Lovie Smith keeps true to his word and Hester isn't returning kicks or punts or if he's playing the "competitive advantage" card and will have No. 23 back there, the Vikings are convinced they have the answer to it. Most fans hope that plan involves kicking every punt of out bounds. Whether or not the Vikings agree with that assessment will become evident Sunday night.
"We have a good plan in place and we'll work that plan," Longwell said. "We'll make sure everyone knows what they're supposed to do, because we all have a role in it. It's everybody from the kickers to the coverage guys to everyone in between."
Vikings aren't buying Hester's demotion
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