For one of the greatest returners in history to get free enough that a punter has to tackle him usually means the punter or someone else on the coverage team fouled up, and that was the case Sept. 27 in Chicago at Soldier Field.
In the second quarter of his third N.F.L. game, Masthay punted a line drive that Hester took back 28 yards before Masthay took him down. Masthay was not as fortunate after booming a 57-yard punt with good hang time from his own end zone in the fourth quarter. Hester escaped the coverage and , finishing it off by hurdling Masthay just before the goal line. It was a game-changing score in Chicago’s 20-17 victory.
“He kind of hopped over me,” Masthay said. “I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that. That’s not really in my mind, what will I do if he breaks through there.”
So what will be on Masthay’s mind during the N.F.C. championship game Sunday? Dropping the ball flat on his foot, which is vital to successful directional punting and no cinch in the wind at Soldier Field.
On Jan. 5, 1986, Sean Landeta, the Giants’ punter at the time, discovered that in an N.F.C. divisional playoff game. As the ball left his hands, a gust of wind blew it so much that his foot barely touched it. Chicago’s Shaun Gayle grabbed the ball at the 5 and ran in for the first score in the Bears’ 21-0 victory. A championship followed.
The forecast for Sunday calls for light wind with a high of 21 degrees Fahrenheit, according to . But Masthay is preparing for worse conditions.
“Obviously, this is an entirely different weather deal than it was back in September,” Masthay said. “Learning how important ball placement can be, especially against a guy like Hester, I’m kind of mentally gearing up to that and know that going in.”
The Packers kept Hester quiet in their 10-3 victory at Lambeau Field on Jan. 3, partly because of good coverage and partly because Masthay placed four punts inside the 20-yard line.
Hester, who two weeks earlier set an N.F.L. record with his 14th career touchdown on kickoff and punt returns, advanced only two of Masthay’s eight punts, for 35 yards.
Containment will be especially important Sunday because Soldier Field’s grass surface is notorious as one of the N.F.L.’s worst.
“I think any time you’re on a surface that’s not the level you’d like it to be, it favors the man with the football or it favors the individual that knows where the football is going,” Packers Coach Mike McCarthy said.
That, of course, would be Hester.
“You can’t let him get around you,” said Sam Shields, a rookie cornerback for the Packers who plays on special teams. “He’ll give you a one-two cut, and boom, he’ll be gone. You have to be patient and contain him.”
Masthay, an undrafted free agent from Kentucky who was cut by the in 2009 and signed by the Packers last January, will do his part by trying to land punts between the hash marks and the sideline.
He finished the regular season well. Over his last nine games, Masthay’s 39.9-yard net average ranked third in the N.F.L. He put five punts inside the 20 against on Oct. 31, the first Packer to do so in a game since 1978, and 25 for the season.
For the season, he averaged 43.9 yards a punt, with a 37.6-yard net. He was well below those averages against the in the wild-card game but did not have to punt in the divisional game against the Atlanta Falcons.
“I’m much more confident than I was the first time we played in Chicago,” Masthay said. “I’m not as worried, I guess. Worrying is kind of a function of thinking too much and not being as confident. I’m more confident this time around. That’s been a process of going through the entire season and hitting good punts. I’ve gotten better at doing that, hitting a bad punt and moving on.”
With Hester back there, the Packers cannot afford bad punts Sunday.
“The return in the first game, the ball was punted right down the middle of the field,” McCarthy said. “So we still have to cover the ball. We didn’t do a very good job covering, and we didn’t do a very good job placing it. That’s what we have to be very aware of this week.”