LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Devin Hester is ready to start fielding punts again.
Bears coach Lovie Smith Thursday said plans are for Hester to play at returner in Sunday's Bears game at Denver for the first time this preseason.
"I think it's important for us to see," Smith said. "This week we're playing the game like the regular season is here. You'll see most of our guys in a role that they will play during the course of the season.
"I don't think that there's a reason why we would let Devin do a lot of that before now, but things change about this third game of the preseason."
Hester hadn't even fielded many punts prior to this week's practices, and wants to do it Sunday to get off the rust.
"I feel like I need to get back into the groove, but at the same time it's up to the coaches -- it's not up to me," he said. "All I can do is go by what the coaches say."
Hester's big challenge until now has been learning new starting quarterback Jay Cutler so the two can become a viable passing combination.
They hooked up for two connections in the first preseason game, but failed to connect four times. Last week against the New York Giants, Hester failed to go deep enough to catch up to a 60-yard heave by Cutler.
"The thing is, he has a great arm and he proved it that night, on the move and throwing it, what, 60 yards on the move?" Hester said. "That's pretty tough for a quarterback. You don't really see a quarterback who can get it out that far away.
"Jay's a quarterback who can do it. And now we know what we have to do now."
Because he knows Cutler's arm strength now, Hester said he has one simple adjustment to make.
"To just keep running as fast as I can, no matter what," Hester said. "If he gets flushed out of the pocket don't come back, don't do any scrambling drills, just keep going."
Cutler remarked after the first preseason game about Hester's inability to go up and break up an interception, and later said he never meant it as a slam of his receiver.
His thoughts on Hester now are obviously more supportive.
"He's fine, he's doing a great job," Cutler said. "We missed a couple routes, I put him in some bad spots a couple times and he's going to be explosive out there.
"He's going to get a lot of balls and I look for big things out of him this year."
Still, Cutler said he needs more work with Hester and all his receivers before the season opener in Green Bay.
"We're still learning, we're still working some kinks out, we're still trying to figure it out," Cutler said. "And luckily for us we've got two more preseason games to go out there and play and get some more game situations and find out who we want to get out there with us."
Offensive coordinator Ron Turner sounded like someone who's willing to get Hester some work chasing more Cutler deep passes when the Bears play Denver.
"I like to go after it and take shots and do all that, and we won't treat this any different than any other game," Turner said. "We'll call some things to give [Cutler] opportunities to get the ball down the field if we get the right look."
DBs Danieal Manning and Zack Bowman, who were out with hamstring pulls since early in camp, practiced Thursday for the third straight day and will be game time decisions to see their first preseason action Sunday. ... DE Alex Brown was held out of practice due to a sore hamstring but is expected back Friday.