He’s not a secret weapon, but no one expected to find Devin Hester where he was on the first play of the game Sunday at Soldier Field.
But it was Hester who was lined up deep to receive Ryan Longwell’s kickoff, and although the first kick sailed over his head for a touchback, Hester ignited the Bears with a 68-yard kickoff return.
It was a rare appearance for him in the role. In the Bears’ previous 28 games, Hester had returned a kickoff in just two of them. He’d been replaced by Danieal Manning and Johnny Knox. It was Knox who wound up representing the NFC in the Pro Bowl last season after the Vikings’ Percy Harvin backed out of the game.
But the Bears mixed it up and Hester provided a spark, also adding a 42-yard punt return against the Vikings, who entered with the league’s best coverage unit.
“At one point I really tried to focus on receiver,” Hester said. “I felt like I had the return game mastered down and I wanted to really focus on receiver. Now I'm feeling a little more comfortable at receiver, I can start back focusing on returns as well, maybe give me a chance to study them both.”
Why turn to Hester now? He’s still starting on offense, but the Bears have been using him less and it’s one way to get the ball in his hands more often and keep him happy. Manning and Knox are excellent returners, too, but having a third in the mix cannot hurt. Most of the work has gone to Manning this season as Knox is nearly an every-down receiver, and this will give future opponents something to consider.
“We're trying to get Devin the ball on the offensive side, but putting him back there as a single returner, you'll know he'll get an opportunity to make some plays on that,” coach Lovie Smith said.
Hester is tied with Brian Mitchell for the most return touchdowns in NFL history. Chances are he will hold the record alone before this season is over, especially if they keep giving him more chances on the kickoffs.
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Brad Biggs covers the Bears for the Chicago Tribune