ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) - After watching most teams kick the ball away from Devin Hester all season, Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher was a little surprised to hear that Oakland Raiders coach Lane Kiffin planned to challenge the NFL's best returner.
``Serious? Punts and kickoffs? It will be fun then,'' Urlacher said Wednesday on a conference call with Bay Area reporters. ``I can't wait to watch. The last few games he hasn't gotten many opportunities but when he does, he definitely takes advantage of them. So, I'm excited to hear that, it should give us a little boost there.''
Most teams do whatever they can to keep the ball away from Hester, who has nine returns for touchdowns in less than two full seasons in the NFL. Hester is so dangerous at returning kicks and punts that teams often prefer to kick the ball out of bounds just to keep him from having a chance at pulling off another highlight-reel return.
Kiffin said ``it's no fun to kick out of bounds,'' and he wanted to test his special teams on Sunday against a player he called perhaps the best punt returner ever to play the game.
Whether that's just pregame bluster or his actual strategy won't be known until Sunday.
``We would definitely welcome that philosophy,'' Chicago coach Lovie Smith said. ``Does he mean it? Most teams haven't kicked to him. I can understand why you'll get a guy that would say, 'Hey, he puts on his shoes just like everyone else. We're going to kick the ball to him. We don't like what's happened so far. We need to change the tempo.' If I was on the other side of the field, I would kick the ball to Devin Hester.''
That's easy for Smith to say. He doesn't have to defend Hester.
Oakland struggled early stopping returns, but has improved in recent weeks now that Isaiah Ekejiuba is healthy and Jarrod Cooper is back from a suspension. Now they get their stiffest test yet and they're happy about the confidence their coach is showing in the coverage units.
``I'm glad because I would have been mad at him if he would have said, 'Hey, I don't think you guys could do it. I'm not kicking it to him,''' Cooper said. ``We respect Devin Hester just like everyone else does but you don't turn your whole game plan upside down. You don't play somebody scared. You respect them but you don't play them scared.''
Hester's nine special teams return touchdowns are already tied for fourth most in NFL history, trailing Brian Mitchell (13), Dante Hall and Eric Metcalf (12 each). That doesn't even count his kickoff return to open the Super Bowl against Indianapolis last season.
His 19.6-yard punt return average this season would be the highest in the NFL since Jack Christiansen averaged 21.5 yards per return in 1952 for Detroit.
One thing that makes Hester so successful, according to Cooper, is that opposing teams are so worried about avoiding the big play that they sometimes are too tentative on their coverage. With a player with the speed and vision like Hester's, that makes him almost impossible to stop.
``I watched tape after tape and people were breaking down, not taking shots,'' Cooper said. ``All you're doing is helping him out. Like I said, I have mad respect for him as a player but we have to attack him like anybody else. ... If you hesitate for a minute, you're going to be watching him and getting his autograph after the game.''
Hester impacts the game whether teams kick to him or not. The Bears' average start after kickoffs is the 32-yard line, third best in the NFL. The Raiders are in the middle of the pack on kick coverage, ranking 13th in the league by allowing teams to start at the 26.
One thing the Raiders do have is a kicker who can reach the end zone easily. Sebastian Janikowski has sent 23 of his 35 kickoffs into the end zone, with a league-leading 18 being downed for touchbacks. The Bears have received only five kicks all season in the end zone, with just one going for a touchback.
``If he's going to bring it out, he's going to bring it out,'' Janikowski said. ``We'll see what happens. We've got a good coverage team.''
The impact on punts is even more dramatic.
Opponents are averaging a league-low 30.5 net yards per punt against Chicago even though Hester has only gotten the chance to return 22 of 46 punts. There have been four touchbacks and four fair catches, while 15 punts have either gone out of bounds or been so far away from Hester that the opposing team has downed them before he could get to them.
``They either kick it to him, kick it out of bounds, they kick it to one of the up backs, or the punter kicks it out of bounds,'' Urlacher said. ``When they kick it to him, he usually gets a good return, so it's kind of like pick your poison with him. He's just amazing, He's explosive. He catches the ball good. It kind of makes you mad sometimes, he doesn't start out very fast, he kinds of weaves his way through, but when he turns it on, he goes.''

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