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Bears return star Devin Hester can break open a game. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
It’s not often that Shane Lechler takes center stage in pregame conversations.
But with Oakland playing host to the Chicago Bears on Sunday, Lechler is certainly a key factor in how the Raiders deal with Devin Hester, the NFL’s best kick returner.
Do the Raiders punt and kick the ball to Hester and dare him to beat them? Or do they try to keep the ball away from him?
Lechler, one of the NFL’s best punters, says he knows what the smart play is.
“With the situation they’re in right now, I am going to try not to let him touch it,” Lechler told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Because they got a new quarterback this week, losing Jay (Cutler), they’re looking for a spark somewhere. And I don’t want that spark to be against our punt team.”
Cutler suffered a broken thumb against the Chargers last week and will be replaced by Caleb Hanie, a fourth-year player from Colorado State who is making his first career start.
Hanie did have a moment in the sun, completing 13 of 20 passes, including one for a TD, in relief of an injured Cutler in the NFC Championship Game loss to the Packers this past January. But in four regular-season games, Hanie’s line is just 8-of-14 for 66 yards and an interception.
So, the Bears (7-3) know they’ll need to get a lift from Hester, run the ball well with Matt Forte and Marion Barber and rely on their defense if they want to beat the AFC West-leading Raiders (6-4).
“No doubt, we should be underdogs now,” Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher told Mike Dodd of USA Today.
Oddsmakers indeed have made the Raiders four-point favorites.
Said Bears coach Lovie Smith: “Don’t feel sorry for us or anything like that. We have a lot of things in place. … Offensively, we’re going to rely on our running game a little bit more. We have a great defense and special teams. You know how we win football games around here, to that’ll be the case.”
Hester, in particular, is one of the NFL’s best weapons. He has 19 total return touchdowns in his career, notes the Chronicle’s Vittorio Tafur, and is averaging a career-best 21.2 yards on punt returns this season with two TDs. Meanwhile, the Raiders have given up the most punt-return yards in the league and have allowed two to be returned all the way.
Oakland head coach Hue Jackson told Tafur the Raiders will have to be smart how they deal with Hester.
“There are going to be times you’re going to have to kick it to him, and there are going to be times you’re not going to have to kick it to him,” he said. “So we’ll come up with the right plan to fit this football team.”
It appears the Raiders again will be without top running back Darren McFadden and receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. Oakland receivers Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore, both with foot injuries, also could miss the game, which would leave the Raiders receiving corps extremely thin.
With Bush, however, the Raiders ground game has continued to be effective. Oakland averages 156.8 rushing yards per game and is tied for the league lead with 13 rushing TDs.
“The five guys we have up front plus the tight ends and the fullbacks, we’ve got trust in each other doing our job,” center Samson Satele told the Sacramento Bee. “We’re doing it and trying to do it in a nasty way.”
Bears coach Smith knows his defense will have to be ready to stop Oakland on the ground.
“We have to be disciplined and make sure that everyone is in their gap and just be ready to tackle,” he said this week.
It’s the same thing the Raiders know they need to do when Hester gets the ball.
If they kick it to him.