Packers could exploit Falcons' flaws on returns

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Atlanta Falcons punter Matt Bosher (5) and cornerback C.J. Goodwin (29) tackle Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Devin Hester (17) during a punt return during the first half of an NFL football divisional football game, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017.

GREEN BAY — If the Seattle Seahawks’ front office envisioned the type of influence a late-season pickup might exude during a playoff run, the performance of return man Devin Hester likely fit the bill.

Regarded as the greatest returner of all time — he has 20 combined touchdowns on kickoffs and punts — Hester was signed off the street on Jan. 4, three days before the Seahawks hosted the Detroit Lions on wild-card weekend. The 34-year-old Hester, who starred with the Chicago Bears and Atlanta Falcons, spent part of the regular season with the Baltimore Ravens before he was released in mid-December.

But what might have been viewed as kicking the tires on fading talent turned into an important weapon when the Seahawks visited the Falcons last week. Though his team lost, Hester was as dangerous as ever. He averaged 38.8 yards per kickoff return, including a 50-yarder and 78-yarder, and had an 80-yard punt return negated by a holding penalty.

It’s a performance the Green Bay Packers would love to replicate in the Georgia Dome on Sunday afternoon.

“I mean, it doesn’t surprise me because it’s Devin Hester,” said Jeff Janis, a wide receiver and kick returner for the Packers. “That’s just what he’s good at. I wasn’t too surprised when I saw it, but yeah, as a special teams guy it makes you a little worried when he’s back there because you just never know what he’s capable of.”

The idea that Janis or punt returners Randall Cobb and Micah Hyde can match what Hester did last weekend is somewhat far-fetched. What matters instead is the understanding that the Falcons’ coverage units can be exposed for big yardage, even if the Packers only manage to do so once or twice. The Falcons were among the bottom third of the league in kickoff yardage allowed (22.6 yards per game) and longest punt return allowed (68 yards) during the regular season.

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Which is why the previous meeting between these teams should bolster the Packers’ confidence: Rookie wide receiver Trevor Davis ripped off a 55-yard punt return in the second quarter that, four plays later, led to a touchdown pass by quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

“We had a big return against them when we played the first time,” said tight end Richard Rodgers, who also plays special teams. “Obviously we have to play well on special teams if we want to win the game.

Added special teams coordinator Ron Zook: “Punt returns, a lot of it is the ball being kicked right and guys being on their guy and so forth. I think all year long that we’ve made great strides. That was the thing going into this season that we said we had to be better and we’ve had a couple big returns called back, which, you know, I think everybody in the league has. It’s an area of special teams that’s pretty hard to officiate.”

While Janis and Rodgers said they didn’t notice any schematic wrinkles that sprung Hester for big returns, it merits watching to see if the Packers mimic the one common element on each of Hester’s attempts: He brought the ball out from any depth of the end zone on kickoff returns.

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Of Hester’s five returns, all of them originated at least 15 feet into the end zone. Three times he brought it out from 5 yards deep, and his other two runbacks came from 8 and 9 yards, respectively, with the latter producing a 78-yard return.

“I think everybody on their team fundamentally did what they had to do and got in position to make blocks,” Janis said. “He’s a special type guy that can just make things happen. If everybody is on a guy and you’ve got a guy like him back there, every time back there has the potential to bring one back.”

Should the Packers adopt even a sliver of Hester’s boldness it would signal a departure from the norm. Both Janis and running back Christine Michael, the other kickoff returner in recent weeks, have exercised extreme caution with their decisions. If a touchback is there to be had — even from just a yard or two deep — they seem content to take it.

But that was before Hester slashed the Falcons for huge returns. Maybe his performance will make the Packers a bit bolder.

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