CHICAGO – There are times when NFL teams seem to forget how dangerous Devin Hester can be.
Whether it is momentary brain-freeze, fearlessness or lack of execution, they kick Hester the football, which he then often turns into something favorable for the Bears.
Hester grabbed a line drive punt from Carolina’s Jason Baker at the Bears’ 31-yard line in the second quarter Sunday, faked a couple steps to the right, the broke left and raced to NFL history with the 11th punt-return touchdown of his career.
Hester’s return, along with an electrifying kickoff return a few minutes earlier, helped propel the Bears to a 34-29 victory against Carolina Sunday at Soldier Field. He owns the NFL career record for return touchdowns (15) and now has the career punt-return record (11) all by himself. He was tied with Eric Metcalf before his 69-yard score.
“I’m glad they’re still punting to me, it gives me more opportunities,” he said. “This is the NFL, the greatest football competition in the world, so you don’t want to shy away from one person. I hope the next team will have that mentality they can stop me.”
Hester may become a marked man again after Sunday. On the second play of the second quarter, he grabbed a kickoff at the back of the end zone and was one block from setting an NFL record. Finally, Panthers kicker Olindo Mare was able to force Hester out of bounds at Carolina’s 36-yard line. Had Hester broken that one, he would have eclipsed the record of 108 yards set by Green Bay’s Randall Cobb earlier this season and by New England’s Ellis Hobbs in 2007.
Bears coach Lovie Smith, like Hester, hopes teams don’t play it too safe against the Bears.
“You have to play eventually, you can’t continue to kick the ball away,” Smith said. “Devin hadn’t been really involved before hadn’t had a lot of big returns, so I can see why they chose to kick the ball to him. They may think twice now.”
Hester finished his punt return touchdown with a somersault into the end zone, then another, and then one more, which drew a flag for illegal celebration. Hester always thanks the other 10 players on thepunt return for his touchdowns, along with special teams coach Dave Toub.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” said safety Craig Steltz, a member of the punt return unit. “Before every snap, you know you have the best of all-time back there. It gives you that much more of a boost. Punt return’s all about effort, and you never know when your block will be that one that springs him. We block our butts off for him, but you know you’re blocking for the best of all-time.”
Steltz said Hester is masterful at luring the opponent’s punt coverage team right where he wants it.
“[Hester] does what he does,” Steltz said. “We know where the return’s going. The [opponents] are running down and see him going one direction and he’s almost setting up our blocks for us.”
Hester’s last return touchdown came on a 64-yard punt return last year at Minnesota, which tied him with Metcalf. Hester knew he had a shot when he saw Baker’s punt coming to him.
“Whenever I get a kick like that, I have an opportunity to pretty much freeze the defense [with a fake],” Hester said. “When they’re getting blocked, they see the first reaction of the return man, after that they don’t really get a chance to see it until later. They go off first instinct. I just want to draw everybody to the right side and hopefully get it back to the left.”