Packers Must Limit Hester's Running Room

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Head Coach Mike McCarthy's initial response to the question of slowing down Chicago return specialist Devin Hester was blunt and to-the-point.

"Well, don't kick the ball down the middle of the field is probably a good starting point," he said.

That's not a cure-all approach, but as McCarthy said it's at least a place to begin, and there's certainly some value in trying it.

Hester, the Bears' rookie second-round draft choice out of Miami, has a whopping six return touchdowns this season. He burst onto the scene with an 84-yard punt return for a score at Lambeau Field in the season opener and has only become more dangerous since.

He returned a punt 83 yards for the winning touchdown against Arizona and another 45 yards for the go-ahead score against Minnesota. His NFL record 108-yard return of a missed field goal against the New York Giants put that game out of reach, and his 94- and 96-yard kickoff returns to paydirt against St. Louis answered potential rallies by the Rams.

As McCarthy surely knows, the common denominator in virtually all of Hester's big returns this season is that he fielded the kicks in the middle of the field. It's becoming special-teams suicide to give a returner with Hester's breakaway speed that much space to work with.

"He's a north-south guy, and when you've got speed like that and can get through that first wave ...," said veteran long snapper Rob Davis, who didn't need to finish the thought. "We just have to try to keep him off-balance as to where we're going to put the ball."

That puts a lot of pressure on punter Jon Ryan and kicker Dave Rayner to have their directional skills honed. But there's a risk in either instance.

A punter concentrating on placement may not be able to maximize on hang time to allow his coverage mates to get downfield. A kicker is always aware that a kickoff out of bounds automatically puts the ball on the 40-yard line for the opposing offense.

All those factors are what make a return man like Hester such a dangerous weapon, and a difference-maker in games.

"He's a very fast guy who's aggressive, and he's better than when we played him that first week," special teams coach Mike Stock said. "He knows more about the schemes, he knows more about where they expect him to be.

"You can tell he's more comfortable and more daring than he has been, than he was that first week we played him. He was feeling his way around a little. Now he's at that point where anytime, anyplace, any way, he's got a chance."

Another interesting note on Hester's special season - four of his six touchdown returns have come in prime-time games, and the league's flex scheduling has put Sunday's kickoff at 7:15 p.m.

{sportsad300}Hester is the top punt returner in the league with a 13.3-yard average. He began returning kickoffs recently and has done it only 16 times, but his 28.1-yard average would rank second in the NFL if he had enough attempts to qualify for the league's statistical leaders.

About the only thing that says "rookie" about Hester thus far is he has fumbled seven times, though the Bears have lost only two of those fumbles.

It's difficult to know how much Hester will play when Bears likely will rest some of their key performers at least some of the time. Hester was pulled off punt returns midway through last Sunday's game at Detroit, so he may not take every opportunity this week either.

If that happens, the Packers may find out whether they were burned in Week 1 by Hester or by the Bears' return scheme, though they're pretty sure they know the answer.

"I think Hester is special," McCarthy said. "You could see that in college. I think it speaks a lot when he's drafted in the second round. I think he's everything they thought he was. I think he's a unique returner in our game right now."

Which brings the challenge back to keeping him out of the middle of the field when the ball is sent his way, if all the elements cooperate.

"You certainly want to do that, but we're not kicking a round ball out there," Davis said. "You want the ball to go a certain place sometimes, and it doesn't, so it's our job to go down there and cover it."

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