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The key to just enjoying Devin Hester's latest, greatest game was to avoid looking at his hands.
If you looked at his hands you noticed on his 48-yard touchdown reception that they were in position to take a hand-off, not haul in a high-arching pass (and what a beautiful scoring strike that was, Jay Cutler). Hester looked like a lineman inserted into a game as a third tight end near the goal line, ostensibly to block. But then the quarterback keeps the ball and the big galoot goes out and finds himself wide open in the end zone. Instead of opening up his hands to give himself his best chance to haul in the touchdown, he forms brackets around his mid-section and hopes the quarterback can find a way to get the ball in there.
Thankfully, Hester is talented enough to make the catch (some of the time) even if one hand is coming down on the ball rather than joining the other in the classic cradling action. He probably had coaches in middle school (and definitely in high school) who told him and told him and told him that if he wanted to be a consistent receiver he couldn't have lapses like that. They grew tired of telling him at the U (Miami) and he mostly lined up at cornerback there (when he wasn't returning kicks). Then he became a receiver again for the Bears.
Hopefully at least some of those coaches had a chance to watch the game Sunday. If so, they had to be shaking their heads in exasperated appreciation
Next up was the pivotal kickoff return early in the second half right after the Vikings had scored to pull within 26-10. Hester has always been prone to moving a little too far forward as kickoffs descend. It is one of the small reasons he has returned about three times as many punts for touchdowns as kickoffs.
And sure enough, standing at the two-yard line, No. 23 had to reach up at the last second and catch the kickoff over his head rather than hauling it into his midsection. He seems to be doing that even more than usual this season. Perhaps it is because with the kickoffs having been moved up to the 35-yard-line this season he so often finds himself in the back of the end zone, trying to snatch kicks down out of the air before they fly over the back line for the touchback.
Anyway, not only is Hester more likely to muff the catch when he has to stab at it like that, he also is forced to start the return flat-footed or even moving backward. The guys who get it at gut level often have a running start as they do so.
Then again, a slow start can have an advantage. When returners bobble the ball or stumble initially, as Hester did during his record-setting punt return for a touchdown a few weeks ago, it makes it more likely that members of the coverage team will converge just a bit more as they race down the field.
When Hester then busts out laterally looking for a gap, he has a slightly better chance of finding one. At the critical moment as he went sideways Sunday, it looked like tight ends Kyle Adams (who also made a big play on the post-safety free kick when he secured possession a moment before the Viking horde descended on what could have been a loose, live ball) and Kellen Davis (or maybe Matt Spaeth) were leading the way.
They were able to make blocks to seal off the outside of a hole. And then the glorious Hester just accelerated away from the defenders pursuing from the inside. He cut back to avoid the kicker and was gone. And so was the game for the Vikings.
As Mr. Joniak described it on the radio; "He turned a crack into a canyon!"
* How about Julius Peppers' absolutely contemptuous sack of Donovan McNabb late in the third quarter? Part of it was that he thought McNabb was going to throw the ball away and therefore Peppers, fearing a roughing penalty, didn't want to completely wrap him up. So he just gave him a shove instead and an off-balance McNabb crashed to the turf.
* Chris Kluwe tried not to kick it to Hester. The Viking punter messed himself up in the process, but he tried. His first two punts looked good on the stat sheet, netting 45 and 42 yards. But one of them was a shank that benefited from a very lucky roll. Then the luck ran out. Kluwe mis-hit the free kick after the Stephen Paea safety (which he should have at least shared officially with Brian Urlacher - it was the sight of Urlacher racing toward him that caused McNabb to go to the turf). And that gave the Bears great field position. And he absolutely shanked an 18-yarder his next time out.
So then he went ahead and kicked a big one (over 50 yards) that Hester returned 27 yards. Finally he tried one more directional kick. It traveled all of 24 yards.
* Meanwhile, Bear punter Adam Podlesh put one punt out of bounds just inside the 10 in the first quarter and soon thereafter had another one fair-caught at the five to set up the safety. Advantage Bears special teams, as it was on placekicks and obviously in the return game. For the game, Dave Toub earns what must be about his 50th most valuable coach award.
* Matt Forte had another great game rushing the football with all of his "jump cuts" (thank you analyst Cris Collinsworth) and more broken tackles than usual. But what he doesn't do might be even more impressive than what he does. Tyler Klutts' first-half fumble, which the Vikings failed to recover before it rolled out of bounds, reminded that Forte continues to be the most sure-handed of backs. He simply does not put the football on the ground.
* And lookee here, many, many paragraphs into the column and we haven't even mentioned the Bears offensive line. And I'm sure center and captain Roberto Garza would want it that way . . . time to stop writing.
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Posted on Jan 12, 2018