The most intriguing component of the St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears matchup on Sunday isn’t the offense or defense. In what has become a pass-heavy league that focuses completely on the offensive side of the ball, special teams could tell the story in this game. While Devin Hester may not be the same player he was years ago when he seemed to go off at anytime for a big return, he is still one of the most feared presences when it comes to returning punts.
The 31-year old wide receiver really isn’t an offensive weapon nowadays unless he is returning a kick or punt. Greg Zurlein will have to limit any chance that Hester has to return kicks. Zurlein has 30 touchbacks on 50 kickoffs. His powerful leg and ability to go side-to-side on kickoffs is allowing the Rams to set up the kick coverage to shut down returners. His season long kick return is 80 yards, but he has three returns that have went for over 40 yards.
Even though it has been a few years since he broke a kick return off for a touchdown, he still has the ability to outrun his opponents if the blocking holds. This game is going to be about field position and controlling the ball. Both defenses can force turnovers and get to the QB, so any advantage gained from the special teams units could make or break the game.
Hester is averaging 28.2 yards per return on the season, so he is still putting the Bears offense in good position when he has the opportunity.
Punt returns have easily been Hester’s specialty through the course of his career, as he’s racked up 13 touchdowns on punt returns alone. He is gaining 13.3 yards per punt return so far this year. That’s a pretty good average for a returner that teams should know, fear and avoid. Hester has returned one punt for a touchdown this season that came in Week 7.
The punt coverage unit will has to step up their game and help force fair catches against the still-dangerous Hester. If the Rams lose their integrity on coverage, they will get roasted by the return specialist.
It could be argued that Rams punter Johnny Hekker is having an All-Pro season. The second year punter is averaging 45.6 yards on his punts and 43.5 net yards per punt. He is giving the coverage team time to get downfield and shut down punt returners. That two-yard difference is a huge deal when it comes to limiting teams’ starting position after a three-and-out.
In 10 games, he has only had two touchbacks on 53 punts. His ability to angle the ball and control the distance has been nearly impeccable all season long. Hekker and the punt coverage unit will have to continue their strong play Sunday in order to take Hester out of the game.
Tavon Austin‘s breakout game a few weeks ago might have made teams a little too aware of him on returns. While his average on punt returns is extremely skewed thanks to several penalties, Austin has several good returns on the season. If Austin can provide the Rams with more than the 8.9 yards/punt return has averaged this season, it would do a whole lot for the offense led by battering ram Zac Stacy.
If St. Louis limits the penalties on returns, Austin could prove to be a-game changer again, especially if the Bears elect to give him chances. The Bears might be cautious in punting to him and opt to kick towards the sidelines in an attempt to pin Austin deep and force fair catches.
The special play of both teams is something to watch on Sunday as both teams have electrifying returners. With the Ram and Bears starting backup QBs, the offenses may lean on the run and short passing routes to control the ball. That would lead to a boring offensive game, so Austin and Hester could pose an exciting battle between each other to determine the star of the matchup.