There’s something about a Packers-Bears game that gets Tim Masthay hyped.
There’s the rivalry between historic franchises.
There’s the stakes involved in a divisional rematch of the NFC championship game.
Oh, and that he actually gets to play.
The Packers’ punter has been called to action seven times in the first two games of 2011. Masthay had eight punts alone in each of the last two games against the Bears. That’s 16 punts against a team with one of the most dangerous return men in NFL history — Devin Hester.
“It’s exciting to go against a guy like him because he’s widely considered the best in the league, maybe the best that’s ever done it. It’s invigorating,” Masthay said. “On top of that, playing the Bears, they’ve got a great defense and playing at Soldier Field.
“That adds a little bit of heightened awareness and invigoration to it, too, because there’s a chance we could be punting a lot of times.”
Masthay shined in his last two games against the Bears. With a playoff berth on the line on Jan. 2 at Lambeau Field, he left 4-of-8 kicks inside the 20-yard line, kept Hester to just two returns and had two fourth-quarter punts downed at the Chicago 3- and 2-yard line. All of this in a 10-3 ballgame.
Masthay and the punt team contained Hester to just three returns with a long of 11 yards in the NFC championship. Masthay also crushed a 65-yard punt with 3:07 left in a 21-14 game.
Those two performances were in the midst of Masthay’s outstanding second half of 2010. He hopes to regain that brilliance, preferably Sunday, after an average start to 2011.
Masthay has a net average of 23.2 yards on seven punts with one touchback and one inside the 20 through two games. The low point has been a 72-yard return for a touchdown by Darren Sproles in the season opener.
“I’m a little frustrated with myself right now because I’m not hitting the ball like I was during the preseason,” Masthay said. “But we haven’t had a whole lot of punts this early in the year, so I’m not worried about it.
“I’m kind of trying to figure that out. It could just be I’ve mis-hit a couple punts and there’s nothing really to it. I feel good about my preparation. I feel good about the fundamentals I train. Hopefully it’s just a small little funk and I’ll come out of it.”
The Packers’ coaching staff knows Masthay is off to a slower start than expected. By the end of the Super Bowl run, he was a force when it came to field position. It all began in a 9-0 win against the Jets on Oct. 31, 2010, when Masthay put five punts inside the 20-yard line and did not allow a single return yard on eight punts. He was named NFC special teams player of the week after the performance.
“I thought he started off really strong in camp and was in sync,” special teams coach Shawn Slocum said. “We haven’t had that many punt opportunities. He’s not far away from being in sync. All it takes is one good punt. I expect him to be good in this ballgame.
“We can do a better job on the direction of the punt, but really it’s just a rhythm and being in sync thing. He’s not far away. He looks good in practice. I think Sunday he’ll be back to what we expected and we’ll move forward.”
Direction was the problem on the Sproles return. Slocum wanted to pin him to the sideline, but the punt carried down the middle of the field.
And everyone would feel a little better had Jarrett Bush been able to stay out of the end zone on a punt that hit at the 1-yard line against the Saints. It was one of those perfect kicks that rebounded straight up in the air. Bush slipped, but technically the punt should have landed a few yards shorter.
“I don’t think anybody ever questioned his ability to be an NFL punter,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s a very talented young punter. He’s physically gifted, just the way he hits the ball. He’s done a lot better in his directional punting and so forth. He had several fine performances down the stretch there at the end of last season.
“The first two games are probably not where Tim would like them to be, as far as placing the ball. But Tim is a weapon for us, and that’s the way we approach the game. And his ball placement will be big in the outcome of this game.”
Nothing has changed, preparation-wise, this week for Masthay. Not because Hester looms. Or that Week 1 and 2 left a little to be desired.
Almost like a golf shot, that perfect swing is out there.
“He’s really a student of the game,” Slocum said. “He’s a good technician and it just all came together for him (last year). He got in sync and with that, rhythm for a punter’s important.
“He was collected mentally and it just all came together. I think he’s close to doing that now.”