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CHICAGO – As Jon Ryan launches a punt skyward at Soldier Field, Devin Hester is tracking the trajectory but also plotting his best possible path to the end zone.
The best-case scenario is that the punt will be so high and the coverage so good that Hester will be forced to fair-catch the ball. The worst-case condition is that Hester won’t be stopped, and won’t stop until he has scored. The in-between options are as wide-ranging as the best/worst situations – not as favorable as the one; not as frustrating as the other.
This from-Ryan’s-foot-to-Hester’s-hands duel will be just one of the games within the game when the Seahawks play the Bears here on Sunday.
Hester already has returned two punts for touchdowns this season, running his NFL-record total to 12 – and one of those, an 89-yarder, came against the Seahawks last season.
Every time you watch Hester dance, dart and dash his way through a sea of would-be tacklers, the same thought comes to mind: Why does anyone still punt to this guy?
“It’s harder to kick out of bounds than people think it is. If it was easy to punt the ball out of bounds, Hester would have no returns,” Ryan explained. “Especially being in Chicago, it sets up really well for them because not only is it difficult to punt a ball out of bounds, but punt a ball out of bounds in Chicago weather is really difficult to do because there are so many elements.
“So for them, it’s like a perfect storm.”
So how do the Seahawks weather the storm front that is Hester returning punts, and kickoffs for that matter? What will be going through their minds as the ball is in the air?
Ryan: “You don’t want to put the ball in hands in the middle of the field on a line-drive kick. That’s not something you want with anyone, but especially when you’re kicking to the greatest returner of all time. So we’re going to try and control him to the best of our ability.”
Byron Maxwell, one of the gunners on the punt coverage team this week: “Get downfield. Force fair catches. That’s the key thing. I’ve watched him growing up. He’s definitely elusive, and he’s a playmaker. He just finds a way. He’s an amazing talent – the best to ever do it, and that’s saying a lot. But I’m looking forward to it.”
Kennard Cox, the other gunner: “Get down there. Get there as fast as possible and try to make a play for my team, so we can keep it stress-free for everybody. Devin is the best who’s ever done it. So we have to give him credit, but at the same time we’re not going to go out there and hesitate. You have to play him like he’s just another opponent and go in with the right mindset. He’s a human being, just like everybody else on the field. He puts his pads on just like we do. So we just have to go out there with the right approach.”
Jeff Ulbrich, the Seahawks’ second-year assistant special teams coach who also faced Hester while playing special teams for the San Francisco 49ers: “Honestly, you have to fight the urge to think any differently than you would. That’s sometimes the advantage that he has: his reputation. He’s very talented, obviously, but then everybody goes down there thinking we’ve got to do something different or something special for this particular guy. That’s when you get in trouble. So you’ve got to fight the urge to think anything differently.”
The Seahawks have a leg up, because of Ryan’s leg.
“The beauty of our situation is, we have a great punter in Jon who’s capable of putting up a punt that we can cover well,” Ulbrich said.
One thing the Seahawks cannot do is approach Hester tentatively. Give him a crease, and he’s gone. Give him the sideline, and he’s gone. Get in his grill as quickly as possible, and aggressively as possible, and maybe you’ve got a chance.
“Being tentative is absolutely the worst thing you can do,” Ryan said. “That’s when you see teams give up those returns, because – I don’t know if they’re playing scared or what – but they don’t take their shots. That’s when he really hurts people.
“Because if you take any kind of pause or any kind of stutter step or anything like that, he’s going to run right past you. He’s that good.”
Not just good, but the best ever. And Hester has the scoring returns to prove it. Even Deion Sanders admits that Hester is the best to ever do it, and that discussion used to begin and often end with Sanders.
“He’s good and the 10 guys he’s got in front of him are good,” Ryan said. “You’ve got to respect that, but at the same time you can’t play tentatively. You’ve got to take your shots and be aggressive.
“Try not to make him look amazing. Try to make him look ordinary.”