Smith not sure if Hester will practice this week or play Sunday

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Devin Hester walked off the far end of the field and dodged the rush, the way he often does on kick returns.

It was a nifty misdirection.

This time he avoided the media, but the bigger issue is whether the Chicago Bears' elusive return specialist will be able to perform similar moves against Tampa Bay on Sunday. Hester did not practice Wednesday after undergoing an MRI the previous day for a left rib injury and his status for the home opener remains in question.

Asked about the test results, coach Lovie Smith said, "I definitely don't go over anything like that."

He also said he wasn't sure if Hester would practice this week or play Sunday.

Hester was taken from the sideline on a cart during the third quarter of Chicago's 20-17 loss at Carolina.

The Bears were leading 17-6 when Hester left the game after returning a kickoff following a 45-yard field goal by Carolina's John Kasay, but it was not clear exactly how -- or when -- the injury occurred.

He caught the ball a yard into the end zone, twisted to his left at about the 15 and was barely touched before heading out of bounds at the 23.

Hester was still in motion when Julius Peppers, trying to slow him down, extended his right arm and was seen about a second later clutching the left side of his rib cage. He walked gingerly toward the Chicago sideline and was carted from the field, but Smith would not pin the injury on one play.

He also said Hester does not have to practice this week to go Sunday.

"We've seen Hester enough," Smith said. "If he's ready to go Sunday, he'll play. You would like all the players to practice each day, but sometimes it doesn't work out that way. It's not like he has to practice Friday to be ready to play."

The two-time Pro Bowler is off to a relatively quiet start and had little impact against Carolina, averaging 21.7 yards on three kickoffs and returning two punts for 9 yards before the injury. Losing him would be a huge blow for Chicago, even if he has six kickoff returns for just 120 yards and is averaging 11.3 yards on 25 punt returns.

Last season, he broke his own NFL record by running back four punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns. The third-year pro is fourth on the NFL's career list with 11 kick return scores and needs just two to tie Brian Mitchell's record.

He also returned a missed field goal 108 yards in 2006 and ran back the opening kickoff in the Super Bowl against Indianapolis that season for a touchdown.

The Bears converted him to wide receiver last season hoping to capitalize on his big-play ability and gave him a bigger role on offense this season. So far, he has just two catches for 13 yards.

With safety Brandon McGowan to undergo season-ending surgery on his left ankle and Hester possibly out, Danieal Manning will likely be a busier man against Tampa Bay. He'll return to the nickel back role on defense and could be the primary kickoff returner.

Nathan Vasher figures to play a bigger role returning punts after running back three for 7 yards last week, and Earl Bennett might also be used in that role. He or Mark Bradley could also see time at receiver if Hester does not play.

"Selfishly, I want to be the guy back there," said Manning, who has two kickoff returns for 54 yards. "You want to go out there and approach it like you're the man. If the opportunity comes, I'm going to be excited."