ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — It is as true today as it was the last time the Broncos and Bears met in 2007: you kick to Devin Hester at your own peril.
And it’s probably something you shouldn’t do.
“Not in a million years,” said Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey.
After enduring a rough two-year stretch in 2008-09 when he didn’t return a kickoff or a punt for a touchdown, Hester has returned to his early-career form the last two years, returning five punts and one kickoff for a touchdown in the last two seasons, averaging one touchdown per 15.2 returns in that span.
Fifteen returns have passed since Hester’s last touchdown, an 82-yard punt return against the Detroit Lions in Week 10. Statistically speaking, he’s due.
“This cat is gifted to do things that obviously no one has been able to do the way he’s done it in a short period of time as he’s doing it,” Broncos safety Brian Dawkins said. “You can have coaches that beat their chest, (saying), ‘We’re going to kick it to him.’”
As the Broncos learned in 2007, that is a grave tactical misjudgment.
“We’re not going to kick away from him,” then-punter/kickoff specialist Todd Sauerbrun said in the days leading up to that Thanksgiving weekend game at Soldier Field.
Hester scored twice in the third quarter on a 75-yard punt return and an 88-yard kickoff return. The impact of the touchdowns was profound; for the first three and a half quartersof the game, these represented the Bears’ only touchdowns, and were all that separated Chicago from a 34-6 deficit.
Instead, the Bears only trailed by 14 when they blocked a Sauerbrun punt with 7:25 remaining, setting them up at the Broncos’ 18-yard-line. The Bears scored four plays later, forced a defensive stop on the next series, then drove 65 yards to a game-tying touchdown with 28 seconds left.
It would have been easy to wonder how the Broncos could have possibly lost when, with half of the fourth quarter remaining, they had massive advantages in total yardage (411-165), yardage per play (6.4 to 3.6), first downs (20-8) and even turnover margin (plus-two for the Broncos). Even after the final score was recorded as Bears 37, Broncos 34, most statistical gaps remained bulbous; the Broncos had 137 more yards, 1.8 more yards per play and four more first downs while retaining the takeaway margin.
Hester made all the difference, in a way a returner rarely had.
“I wouldn’t (kick to him) but I’ve been around coaches that have,” said Bailey, one of four players left on the Broncos from that raw afternoon in Chicago. “I know the last time we played them — we all remember that.
“We talked about it a little bit. We know what type of player he is. We’ve just got to take no chances with the guy.
“He’s the best in the game, the best ever in my book.”
The shifting of kickoffs to the 35-yard-line and Matt Prater’s leg strength is likely to nullify Hester on kickoffs for Sunday’s game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. But punts remain a danger, and in a game expected to be defined by suffocating defenses one mistake — whether it’s a turnover, a missed assignment or blown coverage on a punt — could decide a game with significant playoff implications.
Thus, you won’t hear any hubris-oozing talk from the Broncos about Hester. It’s all about respect of their foe’s biggest healthy game-breaker and the threat he poses to transform the game, and both clubs’ seasons with it.
“If you give him a little space, he’s gone. He’s fast — fast enough to take in the opposite direction like that,” defensive end Jason Hunter said. “You definitely have to respect him for what he is.”