NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans Saints’ special teams turned Chicago Bears’ return specialist Devin Hester every which way but loose Sunday.
Buoyed by the strong right foot of kicker/punter Thomas Morstead, the Saints prevented Hester from influencing the outcome en route to a 30-13 victory before a sellout crowd of 73,019 at the Superdome.
In a sense, the Saints played a 60-minute game of NFL “keep-away’’ from Hester, the NFL’s all-time kick- and punt-return leader with 14 touchdowns.
Consider: Of the 11 kickoffs (6) and punts (5) with Hester back deep in return position, he returned two kicks for 47 yards and one punt for minus-4 yards.
Morstead and the Saints’ kick- and punt-cover units did a masterful job of keeping Hester at bay. Morstead averaged 45.8 yards on five punts, including boomers of 59 and 50 yards that changed field position dramatically in the fourth quarter with the Saints protecting a 17-point lead.
On both occasions, Morstead punted from inside his end zone or near his end zone and still managed to keep the ball out of Hester’s hands.
The 59-yarder went out of bounds at the Bears’ 39 and the 50-yarder left the field at the Chicago 30.
“I thought (Morstead) was outstanding, especially late with those two punts when we were backed up and we were kind of monkeying around offensively,’’ Saints coach Sean Payton said.
“And all of a sudden, he just changed field of position, which was real important.’’
Morstead said he endured a few anxious moments early in the second half when he provided Hester with his best opportunity for a big punt return.
But Morstead punted it high enough, forcing Hester to call a fair catch at the Bears’ 37 with the Saints leading 16-13 at the 10:50 mark of the third quarter.
“I got lucky,’’ Morstead said, “because I did have one bad one right down the middle of the field and we covered it. He fair caught it. So that was a case of our cover team had my back.
“We had one punt when it went in the corner and he fumbled that one (for a 4-yard loss in the fourth quarter), then the other three were out of bounds. That was my redemption, because I felt like I got away with one earlier in the game.’’
Members of the Saints’ kick- and punt-cover units sensed Hester becoming frustrated with his inability to contribute in the return game.
“I don’t know if I frustrated him, but I felt like everybody on our coverage teams were really in the game,’’ Morstead said. “Everybody as running through the end zone like, ‘Hey, you better not even think about bringing it out.’ That’s the mentality we’re trying to establish around here.’’
That mentality was emphasized by Saints special teams coordinator Greg McMahon last week in response to an NFL record-tying 108-yard kick return by Green Bay Packers’ rookie Randall Cobb in Week 1.
That touchdown helped the Packers register a 42-34 victory at Lambeau Field.
“We took that very personal,’’ Courtney Roby said. “All week we did things that we normally don’t do throughout the week because it was important, especially with everything that happened last week. We took that to heart and made sure that we didn’t let that happen again.
“(Hester) has been one of the best for a while, so we just wanted to make sure he didn’t do anything spectacular in our house. I’m sure we got in his head a little bit and that helped out.’’
Saints’ strongside linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar echoed Roby’s sentiments, saying their special teams had something to prove against Chicago.
“Hester is a great player,’’ Dunbar said. “Once he gets the ball, he knows he can be electric. Anytime a great player feels like he’s getting fewer opportunities to make plays, he’s going to feel frustrated.
“But again, this was more about us. It was more about us making plays, not him making plays.’’