It has been almost six years since the Bears’ Devin Hester scored a 64-yard touchdown on a punt return against the Saints at Chicago’s Soldier Field, but New Orleans coach Sean Payton hasn’t forgotten the moment.
The play figured prominently in one of the three defeats Payton has suffered in as many trips to Chicago while in charge of the Saints. And one touch like that from Hester on a kickoff for the Bears (3-1) on Sunday could be the difference in whether New Orleans (4-0) can get its first win at Soldier Field in 13 years.
As Payton put it this week after alluding to Hester’s TD, “He’s arguably the most decorated returner in our league’s history, and that’s just a fact. That’s a big deal in this game.”
Hester, by most estimates, should be slowing down by now. It has been more than seven years since he stormed into the NFL, going on to set a league record by returning 12 punts and six kickoffs — including one in the Super Bowl as a rookie — for scores. He’ll turn 31 in November.
But he hasn’t slowed down. Even though kickoffs have moved up 5 yards to the 35 these days, he heads into Sunday’s game ranked No. 1 in the NFL with 453 yards on 14 kick returns.
Hester established a franchise record for Chicago in Week 2 with 249 yards on five kickoff returns in a 31-30 win at home against the Vikings. One of those returns went for 76 yards, and another went for 80.
Then, in a 40-32 Week 4 loss at Detroit, Hester racked up 147 yards off kickoffs. He has been less impressive on punt returns this year, but he’s a large reason why Chicago’s offense has been starting drives on its 31-yard line on average. Only Kansas City and Seattle — both 4-0 — are starting their drives from better spots.
“His résumé speaks for itself,” Saints special teams coordinator Greg McMahon said. “He is a dynamic player — nothing with that guy surprises anybody in our league.”
Who Dats learned the hard way just how dynamic Hester could be.
Aside from returning a Steve Weatherford punt 84 yards for a TD in that game against the Saints on Dec. 30, 2007, Hester also hauled in a 55-yard TD reception to help Chicago beat New Orleans 33-25.
Then on Dec. 11, 2008, the Bears vanquished the Saints 27-24 after Hester drew a 38-yard pass interference penalty to set up the game-winning field goal in overtime at Soldier Field. Both of those losses eliminated the Saints from playoff contention, and they spoiled any hopes of avenging the painful 39-14 defeat at Chicago in the 2006 NFC Championship Game during Payton’s first season in New Orleans.
But at least two things work in the Saints’ favor as they renew their rivalry with the Bears and try to corral Hester.
One: Hester is strictly returning kicks these days, and he hasn’t run one back for a score since 2011. His only touchdown last year was on a reception.
Two: New Orleans’ special teams coverage unit has already faced and contained dynamic return men such as Arizona’s Patrick Peterson (whose astounding ability to run back punts earned him a Pro Bowl nod as a rookie) and Miami’s Marcus Thigpen, who’s No. 5 in the NFL in kickoff return yards with 213.
The Saints also handled Hester just fine in a 30-13 win at home in 2011, and they’re aware they’ll need to do the same Sunday — as well as on the road in Week 6 against the Patriots’ Julian Edelman, who’s No. 6 in punt return yardage.
“These guys are all scary dudes,” said Thomas Morstead, New Orleans’ punter/kickoff specialist. “Some of the best returners in the league we’re facing week after week after week here.”
Morstead added that, while Peterson and Thigpen have prepared them for the latest showdown with Hester, the wind in Chicago could prevent him from placing the football exactly where he wants — that is, wherever the Bears’ prolific return man is least likely to dole out damage.
A fifth-round pick for the Saints in 2009, Morstead has never played in Soldier Field. His weekend plans included dialing up former Saints kickers John Kasay and John Carney for pointers on everything from how to deal with the wind in Chicago to what kind of cleats to wear.
“I’m excited for the challenge,” Morstead said of facing Hester. “We just have to be on our game.”
If they are, with the way quarterback Drew Brees has been performing and his teammates on defense have been rushing the passer, chances are good the Saints will return to New Orleans with a rare win in Chicago instead of experiencing all-too-familiar disappointment at Soldier Field.