Bears believe Seahawks won’t back down to Devin Hester
BY NEIL HAYES | Staff Reporter January 14, 2011 11:40PM
Devin Hester returned this punt for an 89-yard TD against the Seahawks in Week 6, but indications are the Seahawks won't shy away from kicking to him. | Tom Cruze/Sun-Times Media
Even though Devin Hester returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown in a 23-20 loss to the Seahawks on Oct. 17, Seattle coach Pete Carroll has expressed confidence in his punt coverage teams this week, which leads Bears coach Lovie Smith to believe that Hester will have an opportunity to return punts in Sunday’s divisional playoff game at Soldier Field.
There is more to a successful punt return than the opposing coach deciding to punt the ball to Hester, however. Talk to those who have paved the way for the Bears returner to break the all-time NFL record of 13 kicks returned for touchdowns and discover that Hester celebrating a successful return is a byproduct of a detailed process.
“You have to look at what kind of punts you’re getting,” Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub said when asked to describe step one. “Is he a drive-it punter or a directional guy? That’s the first thing. You set up your returns according to that. Are they going to be sideline returns? Middle returns? Right returns?”
Toub first studies the opposition’s punt coverage team to determine if it’s a zone or a man-to-man scheme. Some teams put more emphasis on covering wide, which means they may be vulnerable up the gut. Others may be susceptible to Bears blockers pinning them inside so Hester can out-flank them.
“Special teams is about matchups, getting your best guys on their best guys so you don’t have a size difference or one guy isn’t more athletic than another,” Toub said. “Those things you all take into account when you game plan.”
Once the game starts, Toub’s plan must be elastic.
“You have unbelievable plans for a game and all of a sudden weather changes everything,” he said. “You have to have two plans. You have to have backup rush plans and return plans. With Devin, you’ve got guys punting out of bounds so you have to be able to rush every time that happens. You have to flexible.”
Once the ball is snapped, Toub tells his players to hold up opponents at the line of scrimmage as long as possible.
The 10-yard rule means anyone within that distance of Hester starts heading back upfield while looking for a block in what becomes a carefully choreographed demolition derby.
“The biggest key is finishing blocks,” said backup safety Craig Steltz. “It’s a long play from the line of scrimmage to the punt returner catching the ball and making his plays. It’s always the finishing blocks that you notice, especially when somebody scores. A lot of times one guy gets off the block and makes the tackle.
“The other thing to remember is it’s a long play. You might do a great job at the line but if he gets off your block he might make that touchdown-saving tackle. The biggest thing is effort and finishing blocks. You might be away from the play one second and he makes a cut and you end up with the key block. Never quit on the play because that finishing block is the difference. It’s what pushes a play to score.”