Green Bay Packers' Tim Masthay watches his punt in the second quarter against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., on Jan. 2, 2011. / File/Press-Gazette
Tim Masthay was the Green Bay Packers’ MVP in their playoff-clinching win over the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field three weeks ago.
In a low-scoring, field-position game, the first-year punter kept the ultimate game-changing return man, Devin Hester, from being any kind of factor in the Packers’ 10-3 win despite having to punt to Hester eight times.
In Sunday’s NFC championship game, Masthay probably will be punting in similarly cold conditions at Soldier Field, this time with a Super Bowl berth on the line. But is there really much chance he can have another game like that against possibly the best return man in NFL history?
“We’re going to try to,” Masthay said Thursday. “We don’t want to punt eight times, but we’re going to take it punt by punt and expect to succeed on each punt. It’s a tall order, it’s tough, but we know we can do it.”
Anyone who knows the Bears knows Hester’s critical role. They can win playing a conservative brand of football in large part because they have Hester on special teams.
“They win the field position battle every week because of that guy,” an NFL scout said this week. “Look at all the short fields they get.”
In fact, the two games between the Packers and Bears illustrate the difference Hester’s performance makes.
In the first game, Week 3 at Chicago, the Packers led 10-7 early in the fourth quarter when Masthay boomed a 57-yard punt with excellent 4.75-second hang time. Hester retreated, fielded the ball with open field between him and the coverage team, exploded through an open lane and returned the ball 62 yards for a touchdown that put Chicago ahead 14-10.
The Bears won, 20-17, in large part because of that free touchdown in a low-scoring game.
“Especially when I’m going against a guy like him, I realize ball placement is more critical than just hitting a good distance and hang-time,” Masthay said. “It’s more about managing the distance and managing where you place the ball. And obviously right now you can’t go out there (in the cold) and hit a 4.75 (hang time), so hitting a ball like that is not an option. But it just goes to show how critical ball placement is, and on top of that the coverage.”
In the second meeting, the Packers punted eight times, which tied for their season-high and had the makings of a disaster against a player who averaged 17.1 yards a return this season and has scored 10 touchdowns on punt returns in his career, including three this year.
But Masthay had the game of a lifetime in the Packers’ 10-3 win. He had a solid 36.6-yard net average with no shanks out of bounds, and Hester only returned two of the eight punts.
Chicago’s best starting field position after a punt was only its own 27. Masthay forced one fair catch, at the Bears’ 14, and had two punts downed inside the 5-yard-line – both in the fourth quarter with the Packers leading only 10-3. On Hester’s two returns, Masthay’s ball placement pinned him along the sidelines deep in his own territory – Hester caught one at his 7, and the other at his 11 – so though Hester had decent returns of 19 yards and 16 yards, he didn’t tilt the field.
Masthay also had one touchback, on a punt from the 50, and his lone poor punt technically ended up a 48-yarder with no return because of good roll.
“The objective, when you’ve got a guy who can change the game the way Devin can do that,” special teams coach Shawn Slocum said, “is you’ve got to limit, No. 1, the space that he has to operate in, and, No. 2, limit the total number of return opportunities.”
Repeating that this week, though, is a major challenge, because it only takes one return to turn a game, or at least give Hester’s offense a jolt.
Last week in the Bears’ divisional-round game, Seattle’s Jon Ryan punted nine times, all Australian-style, end-over-end punts, which is a major concession to distance but allows for maximum control.
Even though Hester returned only two of the punts for a 15-yard average, it’s hard to call the Seahawks’ punting a success. Ryan’s net average of 31.7 yards was low, a full five yards shorter than Masthay’s three weeks ago, so the short punts cost field position. And one of Hester’s returns was a 26-yarder in the first quarter with the Bears leading only 7-0. It wasn’t a touchdown return, but it ate up one quarter of the field and set up Chicago with a short field at the 50 when the game still was close. The Bears scored on a four-minute, eight-play drive to go ahead 14-0.
“You have to put him in areas of the field you can get your coverage unit, and you have to contain him in an area,” said Brett Swain, one of the Packers’ core cover men on special teams. “As soon as he starts running around, working laterally and working north-south, it’s over. It might not be a huge return for a touchdown, but he’ll still snag you for a good 30-, 40-yard return. You have to be sound in your coverage, sound in your technique down the field.”
Hester also is a head-ache as a kickoff returner – he’s returned five kicks in his career for touchdowns, including playoffs – though the Bears haven’t used him full time in that role this season. Despite not having a touchdown, he’s averaging an astronomical 35.6 yards a return on 12 returns.
In the last meeting between the teams, Danieal Manning (33 returns, 24.7-yard average) was the Bears’ deep man on kick returns, but with a berth in the Super Bowl at stake, the Packers can expect Hester on some or all kickoff returns also. Because teams often kick short and away from Hester, the Bears often line up return men Manning and Johnny Knox in front of him instead of big blockers for the wedge. That hurts the blocking for Hester but makes it more costly to kick pop-ups or squibs.
Still, in what figures to be a low-scoring game, Hester’s best chance to make a difference will be returning punts. This will be the biggest test of Masthay’s young career, and the Packers know the difficulty he faces repeating his performance from three weeks ago.
“Come into a game with the wind swirling or you’ve got some snow or it’s cold outside, it’s hard to punt the ball in the cold,” Swain said. “Our approach, paint (Hester) in a certain area, but if (Masthay) miss-hits the ball we have to react to it. That’s what we work a lot in practice, miss-hit balls, (making sure) we’re down the field and we’re where we’re supposed to be.”