ALAMEDA (AP) — The last time the Oakland Raiders faced Devin Hester and the Chicago Bears, former coach Lane Kiffin memorably promised to challenge the NFL’s most dangerous returner and did not pay the price for doing so.
There are not the same bold proclamations coming out of Oakland this week as the Bears prepare to play their first game with backup quarterback Caleb Hanie at the helm in place of injured starter Jay Cutler.
“With the situation they’re in right now, I am going to try not to let him touch it,” All-Pro punter Shane Lechler said. “Because they got a new quarterback this week, losing Jay, they’re looking for a spark somewhere. And I don’t want that spark to be against our punt team. I think the best thing to do is go neutral on this deal, and let’s play defense, and get through it like that.”
Coach Hue Jackson said Hester can change a game in the snap of the fingers and he wished he could have 20 players on his coverage units to contain him.
Jackson said he hasn’t decided yet whether he will kick to Hester but acknowledged that sometimes there is no choice because of the situation in the game, so the team must prepare for it.
“We’re not going to run from a challenge from anybody, and that’s the way it is,” he said. “But we’ll be smart about the challenge. We’ll be smart about the fights we pick.”
The Raiders gave Hester eight chances to return the ball in their 17-6 loss in 2007. He returned one kickoff from 8 yards deep in the end zone and only managed to make it out to the 11. He also twice lost 4 yards on punt returns. Hester’s one big play, a 64-yard punt return, was wiped out by a holding call. He finished the day with 14 yards on six punt returns and 34 yards on two kickoff returns.
That was the only time since Hester’s rookie year that he had six punt returns in a game, as most teams choose either to kick the ball out of bounds, or high and short, to prevent him from getting a chance at another highlight. In his two six-return games as a rookie in 2006, he averaged 17.9 yards per punt return with an 83-yard touchdown against Arizona.
That’s why Lechler called Hester a “scary” guy to punt to and ranked him alongside Dante Hall as the most dangerous returners he has faced in 12 years in the NFL.
“He’s got top-notch vision,” Lechler said. “He sees cuts way down the field. He sets up blocks very well, probably one of the better guys that sets up blocks across the league. He’s just a guy that we want to try to neutralize and not let him hit the home run against us.”
Hester has more home run returns than any player in NFL history, with 17 in less than six full seasons. His 13.1-yard average on punt returns is the highest in NFL history.
Raiders safety Mike Mitchell called Hester the second-best return man in football, behind teammate Jacoby Ford, who has four kick returns for touchdowns in less than two seasons as a pro.
But Mitchell also said Hester should be as worried about Lechler’s big leg and the Raiders’ coverage unit.
“We have a guy who can punt a ball 60 yards in the air. We’re going to take every advantage of that,” Mitchell said. “We have the biggest, fastest guys in the league covering our punts. We just have to get down field and outrun their protection team and make tackles. After he gets machine-gunned a couple of times, he’s not going to be too quick to return punts.”
The Raiders have allowed a pair of punt return scores this season, both to Denver. Oakland has allowed 14.5 yards per return, fifth worst in the league.
But the players on the coverage units welcome the challenge of facing Hester and see no need for the Raiders to kick the ball out of bounds.
“He’s going to be there no matter what,” linebacker Quentin Groves said. “You can kick it left, you can kick it right, you can kick it down the middle. He’s going to still be there. Everybody’s tried it. You see guys have tried to kick it away from him. They’ve tried to do everything, pooch kick, and it still doesn’t work. You just have to man up and be a man about it and just play.”
Bears coach Lovie Smith has seen all sorts of strategies when it comes to teams scheming for Hester and is not surprised teams still give him chances despite his record-setting success.
“I think it’s hard to go into meetings and tell your punt team that, ‘Hey guys, we don’t think you’re good enough so we’re going to have to kick it out of bounds because we don’t think you can tackle one guy down on the other end,'” Smith said. “I just don’t think you can go in and do that very often. So, I assume a lot of teams have kicked it to him and I think they’ll continue to do that, because he’s just an NFL player, like everybody else.”
And what does Smith think about that strategy: “Believe me, we love it every time that they do decide to do that.”
(Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.)