As the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare to face the Atlanta Falcons this Sunday, fans and players are talking about the more-obvious matchup problems for the Steelers. Julio Jones, Roddy White, Stephen Jackson and Matt Ryan are those most commonly discussed, but are people forgetting about Devin Hester?
The three-time Pro Bowl return man made a name for himself with the Chicago Bears, but has now found a home with the Falcons in the Georgia Dome.
A large part of Hester's game has been negated by the NFL's rule of kicking off from the 35 yard line rather than the 30, to limit the amount of injuries related to the kickoff play. The Steelers and Shaun Suisham would be wise to take advantage of playing in the dome and kicking it through the end zone on every opportunity they get to keep the ball out of Hester's hands.
But the punting game is where Hester still makes his mark. Of the 20 return touchdowns to Hester's name, 14 have been on punt returns and one of those was a 62-yard return for a touchdown in 2014. The challenge will fall on rookie punter Brad Wing to utilize directional punts and hang time to minimize Hester's chances at doing damage.
Hester might not get the attention he once did when playing for the Bears, but he certainly has attracted the Steelers' special-teams' attention heading into the game Sunday.
"He is still fast, especially on the indoor turn," safety Robert Golden told Ralph Paulk of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "We have to be on our Ps and Qs whenever he's on the field. We can't take anything for granted against Devin Hester. If the ball is in play, you have to make a tackle."
The Steelers' kicking units have been solid for most of the season, but Jacoby Jones' 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown is the most prominent example of how, if a team lets their guard down, bad things can happen.
"He's always ready to go, so we have to read our keys," Shamarko Thomas said. "We can't make him make us miss. We just have to get to him and hold on. It's one of the reasons why the coaches have been emphasizing lane integrity."
Lane integrity, pursuing the football, running to the tackle. Call it what you want but, if the Steelers can keep Hester from doing damage in the return game, it'll go a long way toward a Pittsburgh road victory.