Eight years into his career, and it looked like Devin Hester was just getting started on Sunday. He put up a career best 249 yards on five kickoff returns, giving him an average return of just under 50 yards. I'm sure I wasn't the only Bears fan who was skeptical when the team kept him on as a return specialist, but two weeks into the season Phil Emery's plan looks nothing short of genius.
Special teams plays often seem fairly straightforward - ten players try and block someone wearing a different colored jersey, and the returner does his best to get upfield. While that rough description can be an all-too-accurate one when a return breaks down, the best way to frame a kickoff return is to think of it as a run play. The "offense" uses blocks to create a running lane for the returner, and the "defense" does its best to defeat the blocks and tackle the guy with the football.
Thinking of the return as a uniquely drawn-up run play is precisely the framework that Joe DeCamillis must have had when drawing up this first return, Hester's 76 yard response to the Vikings' opening touchdown. Just like the trap play that Marc Trestman and Aaron Kromer deployed against the Bengals on the goal line last week, the four blockers directly in front of Hester start the play by switching sides and making less-than-expected blocks.
On any return, every blocker is assigned a specific man to block, and as you can see when the GIF pauses mid-way, most everyone had his man. Two problems, however: the "pulling" player who came across the formation wasn't able to find his man (the lone Viking circled in red) in time, and one up man was forced to take on both a defender and the "extra" defender the kicking team gets, the kicker himself (the other red circle).
Hester helps sell the trap by running straight towards the three blockers to his left, but his quick cut the other way gets him into the lane that the play was designed to create. With the defense now slightly out of position, Hester is able to do what he does best - make people miss and turn on the jets.
Since that "pulling" Bears player wasn't able to find his man until it was too late, Hester has to break off from the clear running lane shown at the pause - he can see more than just light at the end of that tunnel. Like any good running back, Hester weaves around one blocker and heads straight towards the unblocked defender, forcing the defender to stop in his tracks. With the defender frozen, Hester is able to slide his way past him and hit the open field. If that one block gets made, maybe Hester is able to take this one all the way. As it stood, the defenders that got the 2-on-1 highlighted at the pause were able to force him to the sideline before he made this one the quickest 7-7 game in NFL history.
If that first return was a trap play run over fifty yards of grass, this next one from the second quarter is more of an inside zone run. Hester again starts it off by heading straight towards the 1-on-1 blocks made by the wall of players that forms at the 20. Like any inside zone, however, it isn't straight man across - there is going to be a quick double-team at the point of attack.
You can see that double-team directly in front of Hester at the pause. While the double leaves a man unblocked, that poor circled-in-red Viking simply didn't know what to do when confronted with Hester's speed. With the one chance at stopping this one early wasted, Hester reaps the benefits of his double-team and again hits daylight. I question Hester's decision to head towards the sideline after this cut ends, but I'm willing to live with Hester mental errors when they happen at midfield and not inside the Bears ten.
Pittsburg hasn't given opponents many kick return opportunities so far this season, partially because they haven't scored enough to have to kick it all that often. Still, I'm sure Mike Tomlin is going to make sure that punter Zoltan Mesko and place kicker Shaun Suisham do their best to keep the ball as far away from Hester's hands as possible. Whether it's field position from a return or field position because the other team just kicked it out of bounds, Jay Cutler and company will be happy to take it.
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