There’s little doubt that the Bears don’t have the offense to keep pace with the Eagles if today’s game turns into a track meet. That’s why Chicago will try to slow down the pace and utilize sloppy field conditions to its advantage. It’s also why Devin Hester’s return game is so important to the Bears, who struggle to generate much offense on their own.
Hester has regained his form this season after two down years in the return game. Combining punts and kicks, Hester returned five for touchdowns in 2006 and six in 2007. He was held off the board in 2008 and 2009, in part due to his reputation and in part because of his increased role on offense. This year Hester’s numbers as a wide receiver are down, but his returners have popped back up – he’s taken two punts to the house this season and has two kick returns for 68 yards and 32 yards.
“At some point he’s going to have the record, in a very short period of time, for the most [return] touchdowns ever,” said Eagles special teams coordinator Bobby April. “In that short and that brief of a career, you’d have to be considered the greatest return man ever.”
Hester currently has nine punt return touchdowns in five seasons, while Eric Metcalf holds the record with 10 in 13 years. Hester has a total of 13 return touchdowns when you combine kicks and punts, which is tied for the record with Brian Mitchell.
“I think he’s different from the standpoint of he really knows where to go with the ball,” April said. “He finds that thing [quickly]. He’s running over here, he sees something over there. He’s like Minnesota Fats. He’s playing a couple shots ahead. He’s a couple shots ahead of these other guys that return. You almost can see the evolution of the coverage. It’s kind of hard to explain, but that’s what it looks like.”
April also commended the return units in front of Hester, saying that they make a lot of key blocks. After combining their blocking skills with Hester’s reading skills, the return man uses his natural skills to do the rest.
“He has that burner speed, and he’s got running back-type strength,” April said. “He breaks some tackles, too.”
Still, the Eagles’ goals remain the same this week on special teams.
“Our goal every week is to limit the returner to a seven-yard average; he’s no different,” April said. “He’s a really big challenge, but we have the same goal for him as everybody.”
Given the skills of Hester, the Birds may not even want to kick to him. Regardless, keeping him from generating offense can put the pressure back on Jay Cutler and the Bears offense, and they haven’t handled pressure of any sort too well this year.
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