METAIRIE - Green Bay Packers rookie wide receiver Randall Cobb made a big splash in his NFL debut, tying a league record with a 108-yard kick return for a touchdown in a 42-34 victory against the New Orleans Saints in Week 1.
If Saints special teams aren’t careful Sunday, Chicago Bears wide receiver/kick returner Devin Hester might challenge or even eclipse the record.
That’s the assignment facing the Saints (0-1) when the Bears (1-0) make their first visit to the Superdome in eight years.
“He’s an elite returner, both as a kick returner and a punt returner,’’ Saints coach Sean Payton said of Hester, a second-round draft pick of the Bears in 2006. “He’s hurt us before. He’s hurt us before as a receiver getting behind coverage up there (in Chicago) in overtime (in 2008).
“He’s dynamic with the ball in his hands. I think he’s gotten better each year as a receiver. His speed is noticeable. Clearly, you have to have an idea of where No. 23 is offensively. It’s easier to know where he’s going to be on kick return or on punt return. With that being said, you have to have a plan with what you want to do with him as a returner.”
The game features two of the game’s elite return men in Hester and Darren Sproles, who made his debut with the Saints a memorable one with 250 all-purpose yards at Green Bay - including a 72-yard punt return for a score and a 57-yard kickoff return.
And while Sproles’ career return numbers are impressive (7,572 return yards, five touchdowns) in six-plus seasons, they pale mightily compared to those of Hester whose numbers are downright gaudy.
Hester holds six NFL records - the most impressive being 14 career touchdowns on kick returns - and shares the career mark for punt return scores with Eric Metcalf (10 each).
Hester is also the only player to return the opening kickoff for a touchdown in the Super Bowl, which he did against the Indianapolis Colts in Feb. 2007. That gives him 15 career kick returns for a score - including postseason play.
It’s no wonder Saints’ kick- and punt-coverage units are working feverishly this week in preparation for Hester.
“He’s one of the premier returners in the game right now,’’ said Thomas Morstead, who handles punt and kickoff duties for the Saints. “Obviously, he’s a guy who gives coaches nightmares every week. We’ll have a plan for him on Sunday.’’
What that plan is remains to be seen.
“He’s a combination of speed and power,’’ Saints fullback and special teams players Korey Hall said. “He’s somebody we have to try to manage, whether that’s punting, so our gunners can make a play, or punting out of bounds, or trying to get the ball outside the numbers.
“Also, in the kick game, we’d like to get some touchbacks and make sure we cover all the way to the ball. That is definitely something we have been focusing on, especially after the last game, finishing all the way to the end zone. Probably this week more than ever we’re going to have to do that.’’
In addition to maintaining their pursuit lanes en route to the end zone, the Saints kick-coverage unit will need to do a better job tackling once Hester brings the ball out.
Cobb broke a handful of tackles on his scoring run, including one where he somehow kept his balance after being spun around by Saints cornerback Leigh Torrence.
The Saints’ punt-coverage unit needs to be on high alert as well since Hester poses a dual threat.
“(Cobb) had a solid run,’’ Saints safety and special teams’ member Jonathon Amayo said. “But we have to wrap up and do what we got to do to get him down, whether he’s 10 yards deep in the end zone or 3 yards in the end zone.
“A lot of guys on the team, especially on special teams, took that personal - as we should. All we can do is correct our mistakes and do our best against Chicago.’’
Against Hester, anything less might enable him to extend his NFL record for kick return touchdowns.
Saints coaches have lifted a no-tackle restriction for Morstead, who tore his left labrum and suffered chipped bones in his left shoulder while trying to tackle New England Patriots’ kick returner Julian Edelman in their first preseason game of 2010.
“I think only 40 seconds had run off the clock when I hurt myself last year,’’ Morstead said. “I was told not to do that in preseason this year.
“But I don’t have any restrictions on that in the regular season,” he said. “Hopefully, I won’t have to tackle anybody. I didn’t miss any games last year. But, that’s one of the reasons why my kickoffs weren’t up to par with my rookie year. That’s why I struggled and didn’t kick off a lot last year. That really affected me.’’
Saints CB Tracy Porter missed a second straight practice Friday with calf soreness and was listed as questionable for Sunday’s game on the final injury report Payton filed with the league office. ? Also missing practice were DT Tom Johnson (calf), WR Marques Colston (shoulder) and K Garrett Hartley (hip). Colston and Hartley won’t play against the Bears, while Johnson is questionable. Also questionable are SS Roman Harper (ankle) and WR Lance Moore (groin), who were limited in practice. ? G Carl Nicks (illness) didn’t practice Friday, but is probable for Sunday. ? The Bears have six players on their roster with Louisiana ties - S Craig Steltz (LSU), RB Matt Forte (Tulane), CB Charles Tillman (UL-Lafayette), G/T Chris Williams (Catholic High), S Chris Harris (UL-Monroe) and G Lance Louis (New Orleans native).
Many happy returns
NFL records owned or shared by Chicago Bears wide receiver/kick returner Devin Hester, a second-round draft pick of the team in 2006:
• Combined kick return touchdowns in a career: 14 (10 punts, 4 kickoffs)
• Punt return touchdowns in a career: 10 (tied with Eric Metcalf)
• Punt return touchdowns, season: 4
• Kickoff return touchdowns in a game: 2
• Combined kick return touchdowns in a game: 2 (twice)
• Combined kick return touchdowns, season: 6 (4 punts, 2 kickoffs)
• Combined kick return touchdowns in a season by a rookie: 5 (3 punts, 2 kickoffs)
• Non-offensive touchdowns in a season: 6 (twice)