How much should opponents fear Hester?

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

During his daily news briefing Wednesday, someone asked Atlanta coach Mike Smith a question that every head coach faces when his team prepares for Chicago: Would the Falcons kick to Bears returner Devin Hester?

Smith, whose Falcons will take on the Bears this Sunday at the Georgia Dome, offered the typical response.

"Well, we can't divulge whether we're going to punt to him or not," Smith said. "But through the last couple of years, he's one of the most dynamic punt returners in the league. We're going to definitely have a plan to try to neutralize him. It'll be a big challenge for our special teams to keep him under control."

Here in the NFC North, we all know the dangers of kicking to a game-breaking returner. (Google "Minnesota Vikings" and "Reggie Bush" for more information.)

In this case, however, a more specific question might have been: "Do you need to keep the ball out of Devin Hester's hands?"

Facts are facts, and this season Hester hasn't been nearly as explosive as he was in 2006 or 2007. Perhaps slowed by a rib injury that forced him to miss one game, Hester is averaging 5.4 yards on 11 punt returns. He has been better on kickoffs, with a 23.4-yard average and a long of 57. But to this point Hester has been most effective as a receiver on offense, where he has two touchdown receptions.

This is not to suggest Hester has slipped or that opponents have figured him out. He remains a dangerous weapon that shouldn't be overlooked. But it will be interesting to see whether the Bears' upcoming opponents will adjust based on Hester's slow statistical start.

The only way to ensure a returner can't touch the ball is to kick it out of bounds. But even that approach can aid the Bears' field position. (On kickoffs, it moves the ball to the 40-yard line. For punts, it almost always limits distance.) As a result, this strategy is only reserved for the most extreme situations.

Usually, Hester is the embodiment of extreme. Will that perception continue? We'll find out soon enough.