Foes gunning for Bethel on punt returns

TEMPE, Ariz. – Dave Zastudil is just doing what he’s always done.

But whether it’s a booming punt downed inside the 20 or a strategic dart to the sideline, the Arizona Cardinals punter knows he has a little extra help this season.

Second-year defensive back Justin Bethel has established himself as one of the premier gunners in the league, and he has the stats the back it up. He’s leading a special-teams unit that’s No. 1 in the NFL in punt-return average, allowing just .8 yards per return. Yes, less than one yard per return. And that's thanks in large part to Bethel, who's consistently about five yards ahead of the defender -- when he's not double-teamed and forced out of bounds.

“Whether it’s putting the ball where it’s supposed to be or having good hang time or pin it inside the 20, it’s just nice knowing you have a guy out there who really is a special special-teams player,” Zastudil said. “I know there’s times where I’m going to mis-hit a ball, and I know there’s guys like him -- and other guys on our team, too, but especially guys like him -- who can actually, if you mis-hit a ball, he can go down there and it’s not a big deal.”

Zastudil has been one of the most consistent punters in the league recently. He set an NFL record with 46 punts downed inside the 20-yard line last season. But even the steadiest of legs can use a guy like Bethel, who blocked a field-goal attempt Sunday against the Detroit Lions.

“He understands I have a job to do,” Zastudil said. “He understands that if I put the ball where he is or hang it up a little bit longer, it benefits him.

“I understand that if I just put it somewhat near where I’m supposed to, he’s going to make the play.”

Everyone else is realizing that, too.

Teams are beginning to double-team Bethel on punts, forcing him out of bounds on the gun. But it hasn’t stopped the 2012 sixth-round draft pick out of Presbyterian. Last week, the Lions tried those tactics and he still made the tackle.

“I think his reputation is starting to have a resume to go with it,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “With a second-year player, sometimes they say he’s a one-hit wonder. But no, I think this kid is special.

“I don’t think they can do much more than double-team him.”