Let me be honest with you: When the Chicago Bears selected Devin Hester in the second round of the 2006 draft, I thought it was a waste of a second-round pick. There was no doubt that Hester had been a star at the University of Miami, where he returned six kicks for touchdowns over the course of his career at “The U”. However, he was entering the NFL without a true position, lacking the necessary polish at either wide receiver or cornerback to be an impact player at the NFL level. Any team drafting Hester was taking a chance that he may never be more than a depth player.
Looking back on that now, I obviously made the wrong call. Devin Hester has been not only one of the most electrifying players in the league over the last ten years, but also the greatest special teams threat in the history of the game. His ability not only to change field position but to threaten to score every time he touches the ball has impacted every game he has appeared in. He has been a constant worry for kickers and punters, whether prompting them to kick away from him or just forcing changes to game plans on a weekly basis. And as demonstrated in his most recent game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Hester continues to make game-changing plays even as he closes in on his 32nd birthday.
In the still above, the Atlanta Falcons prepare to return a 2nd-quarter punt from the Buccaneers. The Falcons have six men near the line of scrimmage with four of them overloaded to the defense’s left side. Their alignment suggests that they are setting up for a return to this side, as teams will typically attempt to put the greatest pressure on the return side of the field in order to impede the punt coverage team. Immediately after the snap, the left side of the Falcons line goes man-to-man against the punt coverage team, with one player rushing from the right side and another dropping off to block further downfield.
This next still shows the Bucs’ punt coverage team racing down the field about 2.5 seconds after the ball is kicked. Their personnel are appropriately spaced at this point, with approximately 4-6 yards between each player. They are somewhat staggered vertically on the field with most players between the 20- and 30-yard lines. Of particular interest is that the vast majority of Buccaneers are currently unblocked. The gunner on the left side of the screen is battling a double team, but apart from this block the Falcons are making no significant efforts to impede the coverage. At lower left and highlighted in yellow, Hester waits for the punt.
As the play advances, we now see Hester just after he has received the ball. Directly in front of him is a Tampa defender who appears to be in position to contain Hester. However, highlighted in blue, that same defender is being blocked in the back by a Falcon. After viewing the clip in real time, I believe that this penalty should have been called, as the momentum provided by the illegal block prevents the opponent from reaching Hester. Meanwhile other Falcons players are preparing a number of blocks, giving Hester a clear lane to run through.
Hester wastes no time in getting upfield. He makes a quick move to his right and then gets vertical as quickly as possible. His quickness and decisiveness in hitting the hole is a huge reason why he has been so successful in his record-setting career. When blocks are being set up, he reads them and makes a quick move to where he anticipates the gap. His spatial intelligence in reading how plays set up in front of him is unparalleled and, along with his innate athleticism, is the key to his abilities on the field.
Above, we now see nearly every Falcons player is engaged on blocks with the Buccaneers punt team. Each man in Hester’s immediate vicinity is accounted for and the closest unblocked Tampa defenders are still nearly 10 yards away, highlighted by the red circle. The fact that this pair of players can be isolated in this manner suggests two major issues: Firstly, these two Bucs are so close to each other that they are covering the exact same area of the field. Secondly, the portion of the field they are covering is nowhere near where the return is actually occurring. They are now dramatically out of position, and the lack of proximity and awareness by these backside players is a major reason why Hester is able to break this return so easily. In addition to these two players out of position, there is another Tampa player being blocked farther to the right on the Falcons logo, who is even less of a factor in this play.
Just a half-second later, Hester has cleared nearly all defenders and is breaking into Buccaneers territory. There are two important things to point out here. First, highlighted in red, are the same two defenders that were highlighted in the previous screen. They are now within two yards of Hester, which means that had one of them actually been properly spaced on the field, this gap would likely have been closed at this point. Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, someone blew their assignment and there was no backside gap control to help out here. The second factor here that is somewhat alarming for Buccaneers fans is that the backside gunner, highlighted in yellow on the far right, is still only twenty five yards downfield and completely blocked away from where the kick is; he has been completely uninvolved in this play and has been unable to provide any cover for the other members of the punt team. A gunner has one job, and one job only, on punt coverage. He must beat his block down the field and either make a tackle or leverage the play to where he has help. Clearly, neither of these things are happening on this play.
Another half-second and we see that Hester has cleared the entire Buccaneers coverage team and is one-on-one with the punter with approximately fourteen yards between them. There is no one else who has the potential to catch Hester at this point. And, as you’ll see in the next frame, this is where Hester continues to show that he is an elite talent.
At this point, Hester is approximately eight yards away from the Buccaneers punter, Michael Koenen. Unlike Antonio Brown, who decided to try out for the next Karate Kid movie (video link) on his punt return earlier this year, Hester makes a decision early on to cut to the left to avoid any potential contact. With this much distance still between the two players, there is absolutely no way Koenen has a chance at catching Hester. His decision-making and quickness once again allow him to extend the play, turning it from a 30-yard return into a 62-yard touchdown.
This is Devin Hester high-stepping into the end zone on his 20th career kick return for a touchdown ‒ a new NFL record (including returns of punts and kickoffs). He is now either in sole possession of or tied for 10 different NFL records.
Highlighted in yellow, you can see that the official ‒ apparently with no sense of the moment’s historical significance ‒ decided to penalize the Falcons 15 yards for Hester’s celebration. While typically taunting penalties are among the worst for a team to commit (due to the ease of avoiding them), in this case, I applaud Hester for celebrating a truly remarkable achievement. For Hester, it is simply a chance at an extra fifteen yards of greatness.
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Chuck Zodda knows the importance of staying in your lane, how to fake a punt return, the humanity of punters, proper placekicking technique and the Jets.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Rewind.