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Special teams, Hester’s opportunities again are the X-factor

“I don’t know whGreen Bay will do” Bears punt returner DevHester (23) said when asked about Packers’ strategy for Sunday.

“I don’t know what Green Bay will do,” Bears punt returner Devin Hester (23) said when asked about the Packers’ strategy for Sunday. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 5, 2011 3:58PM

The Green Bay Packers are as determined to keep Devin Hester from beating them as Hester is to pull off the trick. Hester has the ability to take over Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field, but sadly, Green Bay will have a say in whether he gets the chance. Odds are they won’t give him an opportunity.

‘‘[Seattle coach] Pete Carroll said they were going to kick to me, but unfortunately they didn’t,’’ Hester said with a weak smile. ‘‘It’s been happening for a while, so I don’t know what [Green Bay] will do.’’

Most likely, the same thing they did in the season finale when Packers punter Tim Masthay allowed just two returns in eight punts with Hester limited to a total of 35 yards, while Packers returner Truman Williams topped Hester’s total on one of his returns, a 41-yarder that set up a field goal in a Packers’ 10-3 win. Hester did return a punt for a 62-yard touchdown in the Week 3 meeting between the teams, a 20-17 Bears victory.

Sky punts make sense

It’s fun, at least for a team like the Bears, to imagine an NFL in which teams were forced to punt inbounds. It’s one of the most exciting plays in football, especially for a team with a player like Hester. Teams give up field position if they kick off out of bounds, but working the sidelines in the punting game is not only allowed, it’s encouraged.

And that has been one of the strategies used against Hester all year. Last week, Seattle changed up a bit and concentrated on sky punts, trying to force Hester into a fair catch. Hester is better as a natural return man than a decision maker, and the idea is to make him field the ball on a fair catch. On one such play against Seattle, he collapsed to the ground after catching the ball. His only good return came when the Seahawks tried to pin him on the sideline. They would have preferred to kick out of bounds, but that’s not always the easiest thing to do at windy Soldier Field.

That’s why sky punts make sense, especially when coupled with a rugby-style kick that features the nose of the ball down on contact to create an end-over-end effect that is harder to read and field.

‘‘Seattle’s idea was to get as much hang-time as possible,’’ special teams coordinator Dave Toub said. ‘‘[Green Bay] might try the same thing because Seattle had success, no doubt about it.’’

Green Bay special teams coach Shawn Slocum said it takes a village to stop Hester, including an excellent day by the punter.

‘‘We had two — actually four — punts inside the 20, I guess, and two of them were inside the 5,’’ Slocum said. ‘‘That was really good production. The objective, when you’ve got a guy who can change the game the way Devin can do that, is you’ve got to limit, No. 1, the space that he has to operate in and, No. 2, limit the total number of return opportunities.’’

The Bears have been great on special teams all year and have used that unit as a crucial part of every game plan. They are the best special-teams unit left in the playoffs, with just the New York Jets joining them among the best in the NFL.

The Packers are mediocre at best on special teams — yet they managed to play the Bears to a standstill, if not carry the day in the finale.

‘‘We had a hard time the last time we played them, so that is big motivation for us,’’ Toub said.

Anxious as he may be for victory and eager to exact some revenge, Toub nonetheless has a healthy respect for how the Packers have improved on special teams this year. Green Bay has been devastated by injuries, putting a league-high 14 players on injured reserve and losing an NFL-most 91 games by starters because of injury. According to research from the Dallas Morning News, there are only three teams to lose that many starter games to injury since 2000 — the 2004 Tennessee Titans, the 2005 San Francisco 49ers and the 2009 Buffalo Bills — and none of those teams won more than six games, let alone made the playoffs.

Let’s not talk about it

There are three units to any football team — offense, defense and special teams. Each is essential. Just ask the San Diego Chargers, who finished No. 1 in both offense and defense this year but didn’t make the playoffs because they lost four early games to the kicking game.

Injured teams usually stink on special teams because when backups have to move up into the starting lineup, scrubs move into key special-teams roles, and coaches are left scrambling to teach them what they need to know.

‘‘It’s part of what we do,’’ Toub said, ‘‘but it has to be impossible for them, pretty much. You could see a bunch of different guys when we played them at the end of the year from the group we played in Week 3.’’

When asked about the fact the Bears hadn’t committed a turnover on special teams this year, Toub made a sour face and told a reporter mentioning such a thing was like talking about a no-hitter.

Better to talk about the fact the Bears haven’t forced a turnover on special teams, either. Maybe talking about that can break a curse and win a championship.

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