Hester could be key tonight for Bears

When Bears coach Lovie Smith said back in training camp that he thought Devin Hester could become a No. 1 receiver in the NFL, he didn't necessarily mean this year, but that's how quickly it has happened.

Over the past four weeks, Hester has caught more passes (17) for more yards (250) than any wide receiver, tight end or running back on the team. His yardage is double that of any other player on the team in the last month.

In the past four games, he has caught more passes than all of the Bears' other wide receivers combined and has more than twice as much yardage.

Hester and the Bears will be playing for more than just pride tonight when Green Bay visits Soldier Field, thanks to some huge breaks over the weekend.

For starters, the Bears must win tonight and Sunday at Houston to have any chance. Then, if Minnesota, which lost Sunday at home to Atlanta, loses again Sunday to the New York Giants, the Bears will be NFC North champions.

If the Vikings do win, the Bears can still make it as a wild card if the Cowboys lose at Philadelphia AND the Bucs lose at home to Oakland.
They would lose the tiebreaker to Tampa Bay because they lost 27-24 to the Bucs in overtime in Week 3 and to Dallas because of strength of victory.

First things first, though, for the Bears. If anyone can make the Packers' secondary pay tonight for its in-your-face press coverage, it is the blazing-fast Hester.

"He's improved a lot throughout the year," offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "But the last few weeks you can really see he's playing a lot faster. He's playing with a lot more confidence. He's not thinking as much. He's just coming out and playing and reacting, which is a natural transition for someone learning to play the position."

Part of the reason Hester has emerged as the Bears' No. 1 wide receiver is that other players have failed to produce. But part of it is his own maturation at a position that's still relatively new to him.

Hester was a cornerback as a rookie in 2006, and last season he was spoon-fed after making the switch to wide receiver, catching 20 passes for 299 yards, with 11 of the catches and 160 of the yards coming in the final four games.

He had never started a game in the NFL at wide receiver until opening day this season, and he only has started six times in his pro career, although his playing time has been increasing.

"He's improved quite a bit in all phases as far as being a receiver," coach Lovie Smith said. "Running routes is a part of it. A lot goes into it. It's hard to just move over there in a year and expect a guy to have everything down, but he has made improvement each week.

"You just look at his last game and the threat that he was as a receiver. He's becoming the threat that we thought he would become."

Hester's numbers last week against the New Orleans Saints were modest: 4 catches for 46 yards. But he also drew pass-interference penalties of 39 and 38 yards, the second of which put the Bears in position for the game-winning field goal in overtime.

Hester has been a hot Bears topic all season, but much of the attention has been negative because of his steep decline in production as a kick-returner.

He scored 11 touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns in his first two seasons, setting the NFL record as a rookie with 5 in 2006 and eclipsing it last season with 6.

By comparison, this year has been a major disappointment.

Hester is averaging a pedestrian 5.6 yards on punt returns, 23rd in the NFL and less than half his career average of 14.1 yards. His kickoff-return average of 21.9 yards is 32nd in the league, and he has been replaced by Danieal Manning, who is averaging an NFL-best 29.5.

It seems everyone has a theory for Hester's demise in the return game.

After a brief training-camp holdout, Hester signed a four-year contract extension that included $15 million in guaranteed money and could be worth as much as $40 million if he puts up elite numbers as a wide receiver.

It has been speculated that Hester's struggles in the return game are the result of trying to live up the money or the extra work he's putting in to become a go-to wide receiver.

But Smith said it's more about the unrealistic expectations of others.

"I think what weighed on Devin was probably just the type of success he had the first two years," Smith said. "He's spoiled all of us to where, if he's not scoring every time he touches the ball, it's 'What's wrong with Devin?'

"I see a guy who's developing his entire game. Returns haven't been exactly the way we would like, but as a receiver we're getting No. 1-type receiver play. We like where he's (going). Hopefully we'll see him take another step this week."

And why not? Hester has done some of his best work on a national stage.