The Green Bay Packers' punt and kickoff coverage units had to plug some leaks after Week 1. They did so in Week 2. Now, Devin Hester is on deck to test the tightness of that ship in Week 3.
Hester, the lightning-quick receiver and return specialist for the Chicago Bears, has resumed full-time duty returning both punts and kickoffs after a couple of years of limiting himself to punts while he played more receiver.
His resume is well-known. He has an NFL-record 14 return touchdowns in his career, with a remarkable 11 coming in his first two seasons in the league (2006-07). He added a 15th in Super Bowl XLI. One of his three punt-return TDs last year came against Green Bay in Week 3.
Hester hasn't returned a kickoff for a score since '07, but back on duty there he's a threat to do just what Randall Cobb did for the Packers two weeks ago – take one from eight yards deep in the end zone and go the distance.
"You have to be on top of your game when you play him because he's got the kind of ability to expose you if you're not," Packers Special Teams Coordinator Shawn Slocum said.
In the first two weeks of this season, the Packers have already made coverage improvements.
Against the Saints in the opener, Darren Sproles got loose twice, for a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown and a 57-yard kickoff return across midfield. Then last week against Carolina, the Packers shored things up, particularly on kickoffs.
On the five returns Panthers running back Mike Goodson brought out of the end zone (there were two touchbacks), he was tackled inside the 20-yard line three times. His other two returns reached only the 21 and 23.
"There were no holes," kicker Mason Crosby said. "I'm getting down there trying to look for a place I can fit in case there's a hole. That's usually what I'm doing at that safety position, but I was just following guys because they were doing a good job of lane control and keeping the returner at bay."
The coverage was similarly successful on punts. Packers punter Tim Masthay wasn't booming them like he was during the preseason, but Carolina return man Armanti Edwards had to fair-catch one and posted returns of just seven and four yards on the others.
Both Slocum and Crosby credited the contributions of the rookie class on the coverage units. Third-year linebacker Brad Jones was the bell-cow against Carolina, with three coverage tackles, but rookies combined for four more stops – tight end Ryan Taylor had two while linebackers Jamari Lattimore and D.J. Smith added one apiece. Smith has three coverage tackles in two games.
Taylor, who sat out the opener against New Orleans with a hip injury, said he stayed in his playbook and remained diligent about studying to get ready. He made an impact in his debut, according to Slocum.
"On the first kickoff coverage, he didn't make the tackle, but he hit his man and drove him back about eight yards into the face of the ball-carrier, which is exactly what I want him to do," Slocum said.
The rookies now are going to get their first taste of Hester, who forces coverage teams to walk a fine line, according to Crosby. He says defending Hester requires players to be aggressive without overcommitting, aware without being tentative.
The Packers will find out if their young coverage players can strike the right balance. Another player will also have to fill the void left on kickoff coverage by veteran Nick Collins, who is out for the season.
"With an explosive returner like that, if you're not aggressive with him, he'll take advantage of you then, too," Crosby said. "If you're holding back and letting him come to you, they're very good also in their blocking and that whole aspect of their return game.
"We need to have guys taking shots and playing with their hair on fire and playing fast."
The perfect defense for Hester, of course, is to eliminate his opportunities. Kicking off from the 35-yard line will help Crosby, who has six touchbacks on 14 kickoffs thus far.
As for Masthay, last year in the two January meetings with the Bears he did a masterful job of pinning Hester near the sidelines and near the goal line with well-placed punts. Masthay shouldered some blame for Sproles' punt-return TD in the opener for kicking the ball down the middle of the field, which is what he did in the first meeting with Hester last September.
"The first two games are probably not where Tim would like them to be, as far as placing the ball," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. "But Tim is a weapon for us, and his ball placement will be big in the outcome of this game."
So will Hester, who like last year provides a stern early test.
"We're headed into Game 3," Slocum said. "Game 1 we had a couple of problems and we corrected that. One of the things we talked about last week was being consistent. We were that way (in Carolina), and I expect us to be that way as we play each game." Additional coverage - Sept. 22