LAKE FOREST, Ill. Once again, the Chicago Bears are getting many happy returns from Devin Hester.
The specialist who set records running back kickoffs and punts in his first two seasons seems reborn on special teams after struggling the past few years while trying to adapt to a bigger role on offense.
“Devin has it going right now,” coach Lovie Smith said. “Guys are doing a great job blocking for him. He’s feeling it, of course.”
Hester did a little bit of everything against Minnesota on Sunday.
He handled kickoffs for the first time this season and wound up returning two for a total of 100 yards. He was effective again on punts, running one back 42 yards. Throw in a 19-yard touchdown catch, and it was a good afternoon all around for Hester.
The 27-13 win over the put the Bears (6-3) in a tie with for the NFC North lead with a tougher schedule looming.
Five of the Bears’ six wins are against teams with three wins or less at the moment, including two with 2-7 records (Detroit, Dallas) and a pair that are 1-8 (Carolina, Buffalo). The exception was Green Bay in September.
Now, they’re in a short week with Thursday’s game at Miami, although Chicago might be catching the at a good time. Tyler Thigpen most likely will start at quarterback after suffered a season-ending shoulder injury and Chad Henne injured his knee in Sunday’s win over Tennessee. Coach Tony Sparano said Henne might be available, but the Dolphins signed veteran Patrick Ramsey on Monday.
For the Bears, there are few breaks after this week, with home games looming against Philadelphia, New England and the along with a trip at Green Bay.
It would help if Hester keeps this up.
No one has more combined punt and kickoff returns for touchdowns than Hester, who shares the league’s career record with Brian Mitchell with 13. They are also tied for second with nine punt returns for TDs, one behind Eric Metcalf, but it was a long time between big plays.
He went two seasons without returning a punt or kickoff for a touchdown and was taken off kickoff returns last year. The TD drought ended when he ran a punt back 62 yards in a win over Green Bay in September. He had a 50-yard return against Carolina in October and returned another punt 89 yards for a touchdown against Seattle the following week.
Now, he and Dez Bryant are tied for the league lead with two punt returns for touchdowns. His five returns for 20 or more yards are tops in the NFL.
And he just showed he can still be dangerous on kickoffs, too.
That’s an opportunity Hester welcomed and he got it against Minnesota, even though the Bears have two solid options in Danieal Manning and Johnny Knox.
“It’s a team effort thing, and whenever I get the opportunity to make plays I want to be a part of it and so my teammates have faith in me, let them know that you can always count on me,” Hester said. “I’m going to go out and bust my tail and help them get the job done.”
Seeing Hester on kickoffs was a welcome sight for Knox, too.
“When you’ve got the best returner in the world on your team, you want to put him back there at any time because he’s going to make something happen,” Knox said.
While Washington and Buffalo avoided him previous two weeks, Minnesota went at Hester and paid for it.
His 32-yard kickoff return following a first-quarter field goal seemed to set off some alarms on the Vikings sideline. They sent a low kick at Rashied Davis, the front man, after ‘s 53-yard touchdown to Percy Harvin. The result was a 32-yard return for Davis.
That gave the Bears possession on the Minnesota 49 and set up a 19-yard TD pass from Cutler to Hester in the closing minute of the half.
After that, the Vikings seemed to go back to their original plan. And it didn’t work out well for them.
Hester broke off a 68-yard kickoff return from the end zone along the right sideline in the third quarter, setting up a field goal by Robbie Gould that made it 20-13, but his most impressive play came when the Vikings punted on the following possession.
Pinned along the right sideline, Hester somehow burst through a crowd of defenders and wound up with a 42-yard return after breaking about five tackles along the way.
“I just like getting the ball in my hands,” Hester said. “I feel like I can do great things with the great talent that God blessed me with. I feel like I can help my team in any way that I can. Kickoff returns are just another opportunity for me to get my hands on the ball.”