LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) -Devin Hester's status remained a mystery and so did the extent of his rib injury.
After telling a few reporters earlier Thursday he had torn cartilage, the Chicago Bears' record-setting return specialist backtracked and said his ribs are simply bruised. Either way, he hopes to play against Tampa Bay on Sunday.
He remains a game-time decision after missing his second straight practice Thursday, but he seemed relieved that tests earlier in the week did not reveal a more serious problem.
``It's a lot better,'' Hester said after practice. ``It's improved a lot, and I'm feeling a lot better.''
Hester was taken from the sideline on a cart during the third quarter of last week's 20-17 loss at Carolina.
a ``real sharp pain'' as he twisted to his left 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 over to the Chicago sideline and was carted away with what he thought was a more serious injury.
Instead, he was ``very relieved'' by the results of an MRI on Tuesday.
``It wasn't what I expected,'' he said. ``I was expecting something (worse) than what it was. But it came out pretty good.''
If he can't play, Danieal Manning will have a bigger role on kickoff returns, with Nathan Vasher returning punts.
``(Vasher) is a solid catcher,'' special teams coordinator Dave Toub said. ``He's not a blazer. He's not going to break a 110-yard return for you like Devin will. But he's going to get you the first down. He's someone who's going to catch the ball ... and get you that first down.''
Coach Lovie Smith has said Hester does not need to practice this week in order to play, and the Bears could use him on a limited basis, possibly as a decoy.
it's a game-time decision.''
The two-time Pro Bowler is off to a relatively quiet start and averaged just 21.7 yards on three kickoffs against Carolina while returning two punts for 9 yards before the injury. He has six kickoff returns for just 120 yards and is averaging 11.3 yards on 25 punt returns this season.
Even so, losing him would be a big blow.
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 mark.
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.
``It's very sore, that's the main thing,'' Hester said. ``But it's getting better. There are more things I'm starting to be able to do.''

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