PERCY HARVIN vs. DEVIN HESTER
For the last three seasons, any game between the Vikings and the Chicago Bears has resulted in extra time being spent in special teams practices trying to find ways to limit the game-changing ability of Devin Hester. However, as the Vikings and Bears prepare for Sunday's first meeting of the 2009 season, it may be Chicago burning the midnight oil on special teams because of the newest return phenom – the Vikings' Percy Harvin.
Hester gave the Vikings a first-hand look during the early stages of the Brad Childress era just how much of a difference an explosive return man can make to a team's success. A second-round pick in 2006, Hester made an immediate impact. In his first two seasons, when he was used primarily as a return specialist and part-time cornerback, Hester ripped up opposing coverage teams. As a rookie, he had six returns for touchdowns – four punts, two kickoffs and a 108-yard return of a missed field goal. Not to be outdone, in his second year, he scored seven touchdowns – four on punts and three on kickoffs. His 13 touchdowns came in 11 games and the Bears posted a record of 8-3 in those games. With the style of ball the Bears have been known for playing, a defensive or special teams touchdown was often the difference between winning and losing and Hester gave the Bears that little something extra that most teams – like the Vikings – didn't possess.
Wanting to expand Hester's role with the team, he was moved to wide receiver and the results have taken a toll on his return ability. He didn't have a return for a touchdown in 2008 and has yet to notch a touchdown this season. He is still the source of much concern for opposing special teams coaches, but it would appear the torch has been passed from Hester to Harvin as to who is the most dominating and feared return man in the league.
Harvin has given the Vikings the same sort of dynamic component in the return game as the league's pre-eminent kickoff return man. Through 10 games, he leads the league by averaging nearly 30 yards per return, has scored a pair of touchdowns and broke off a couple of critical returns that didn't go for scores – like the return at Lambeau Field Nov. 1 that stopped the bleeding and thwarted a second-half comeback bid by the Packers. After years of neglecting the position, the Vikings made an investment in providing a dynamic return specialist in the vein of Hester to give them another weapon to put points on the board. Their confidence has been more than rewarded and, just as Hester struck fear into opponents, Harvin has taken over that role with the Vikings.
While Hester's big-play returns have been fewer and farther between than his first two seasons, his ability to take any return to the house has made the difference between winning and losing for Chicago too often to be ignored. The same applies to Harvin. With divisional games known for being tightly-contested games that can turn on one big play, the ability of both Hester and Harvin to change the outcome in an instant will be something that will have special teams coaches holding their breath with every punt and kickoff.
Key matchup: Harvin vs. Hester
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