By Steve Corkran
Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011 at 3:22 pm in Oakland Raiders.
Then-Raiders coach Lane Kiffin threw down the gauntlet in the middle of the week the last time the Raiders played the Chicago Bears: The Raiders were going to kick to return specialist Devin Hester every time.
Never mind that Hester entered that game, Nov. 11, 2007, averaging 19.6 yards on punt returns and 23.5 yards on kick returns. Kiffin challenged his players to rise up against, perhaps, the best return man in the history of the NFL.
The Raiders held Hester to an average of 2.3 yards on six punts returns and 17 yards on two kick returns. A 64-yard punt return by Hester got wiped out because of a holding penalty.
Four years later, Hester remains the game’s premier return man. He is averaging 21.2 yards on punt returns and 22.9 on kick returns. He has returned punts/kicks for touchdowns on 38 chances.
“As a punt unit, I feel like we have the best weapon in the league in Shane Lechler,” safety Mike Mitchell said. “We’re going to punt to anybody. I don’t think we’re afraid to punt to a specific player.”
Mitchell was just getting started on the subject. He said Hester is a very good return man but not as good as the Raiders’ Jacoby Ford.
“You can quote that, too,” Mitchell said.
We just did.
Lechler said Hester is every bit as good right now as he was in 2007. However, the Bears just lost starting quarterback Jay Cutler to a thumb injury, which forces the Bears to go with a player, Caleb Hanie, who hasn’t thrown a pass in a regular-season game.
Therefore, Lechler says, the prudent thing to do Sunday is to limit the opportunities Hester has to change the complexion of the game.
“As far as I’m concerned, no, it’s not the same attitude right now,” Lechler said in comparing the mind-set now to 2007. “That guy’s too dangerous. With them getting a new quarterback in there, (Hester’s) going to be the big-play guy. I’m not sure yet what we’re going to do, but I’m going to try to at least make him run sideways early, and we’ll go from there.”
Quentin Groves says he and his teammates welcome the challenge of matching skills against Hester.
“If you call yourself the best in the league, you’re going to have to go against the best in the league,” Groves said, “and right now he’s the best in the league. Not trying to take any credit away from Devin, because Devin’s a great returner, but we have to do our job.”
Mitchell cranked up the heat by saying that Hester is the one who should be concerned, and not the other way around.
“He has to worry more about 11 guys trying to take his head off then we do about him housing one … ,” Mitchell said. “After he gets machine-gunned a couple of times, he’s not going to be too quick to return punts. I’m not talking any trash, either. He’s the best punt returner, best returner besides Jacoby (Ford). He’s awesome. But our mentality is, he has to play us.”
Again, Lechler thinks the smart play is to avoid Hester at all costs and place the game in the hands of Hanie.
“I don’t want to put ourselves in that situation, where giving him a chance for him to be the spark in this game, especially with Cutler being down and a new quarterback coming in the game,” Lechler said. “I don’t want to give him the edge in the special teams battle.”
Bears coach Lovie Smith did his best to try to goad the Raiders into kicking to Hester by planting the seed, in a conference call, about the downside to kicking away from a particular player.
“It’s hard to go into meetings and tell your punt team that, ‘Hey, guys, we don’t think you’re good enough, so we’re going to have to kick it out of bounds because we don’t think you can tackle one guy down on the other end,’ ” Smith said. “I just don’t think you can go in and do that very often.”
For what it’s worth, Raiders coach Hue Jackson isn’t following Kiffin’s lead.
In a perfect world, Jackson said, the Raiders would use 20 players at one time against Hester.
“I can’t tell you exactly what the game plan is right this second,” Jackson said, “but I know we’ll have a plan because this guy is as good as there is in football. 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. So, we’ll come up with the right plan to fit this football team so it gives us the best opportunity to win.”
Ten of the 53 players on Oakland’s active roster missed practice Wednesday, including wide receivers Jacoby Ford, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Denarius Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey
Louis Murphy and Chaz Schilens were the only wide receivers healthy enough to practice. At this point, that’s your starting wide receivers for Sunday’s game against the Bears, if not the only ones healthy enough to play.
“It’s a concern,” Jackson said, “but we have a chance to get some of these guys back toward the end of the week. Am I concerned about it? Yeah. Anytime you don’t practice, it’s tough. But we’ll be OK. Guys will keep working at it and, by the end of the week, hopefully we’ll have some of these guys back.”
Moore is walking around with a protective boot on his right foot, presumably the result of an injury he suffered against the Vikings. He left the game at one point but returned and wasn’t mentioned by Jackson afterward when discussing the injured players.
Jackson didn’t say what kept Houshmandzadeh out of practice. Houshmandadeh didn’t play much against the Vikings, and he didn’t appear to get injured on any of those. Neither he nor Moore was available in the locker room.
The official injury report issued by the NFL said Houshmandzadeh’s absence was “not injury related.” Jackson didn’t mention anything along these lines.
Update: Houshmandzadeh missed practice because his wife had a baby.Working with only two receivers in practice presents a challenge for quarterback Carson Palmer, he said.
“It makes it difficult,” Palmer said. “You don’t get the same guys on the field from the week before, that rhythm and timing thing slows down a little bit. So we have our work cut out for us.
“We’re playing against a good group, like I said, and we’re not going to have all our guys. But we’ve got that that have been waiting for their opportunity and looking for a chance to step up and help this team. And guys are going to have to do that this week.”
FORD GETTING BETTER
Ford remains in a walking boot, Jackson said. However, he is close to shedding the boot and making strides toward a return to practice.
He suffered his injury against the San Diego Chargers on Nov. 10 and has not practiced since that time.
“He’s very close to being out,” Jackson said. “He’s still in it for maybe one more time. I think he’ll be out of that thing pretty soon. I’m sure he’ll be excited about that.”
JASON CAMPBELL NOT QUITE READY
Jackson said quarterback Jason Campbell attempted to throw in recent days, only to discover that the right collarbone he fractured against the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 16 isn’t quite ready.
“He tried a little bit, and it just wasn’t there,” Jackson said. “But he’s getting there. It’s going to take some time. He’s working at it, I promise you that. I’m really excited about the potential of him coming back here at some point in time.”
Campbell was told he would need at least six weeks to recover from his injury. The six-week mark arrives Sunday.
Therefore, he conceivably could be healthy enough to resume practicing next week and assume the No. 2 role in time for the Miami Dolphins game Dec. 4.
JACKSON’S BIGGEST CONCERN
The number of injuries incurred by the Raiders this season passes as the biggest challenge Jackson has faced in his first year as a head coach, he said.
Even so, he added, every team has injury concerns, and Jackson and the Raiders aren’t about to use them as an excuse.
“We don’t complain about it,” Jackson said, “but this is not the same football team that started out there. But it is a good football team. I’m very excited about the potential of what we can be because the guys don’t blink.”
Lechler said the Raiders have done a commendable job keeping it together through all the injuries. There’s still work to be done, though.
“Well, I don’t know that we’ve overcome them yet,” Lechler said. “We got a lot of people on the injury list. That’s something this part of the year, you can look across the board, 32 teams got these issues right now.”
The Raiders are 4-1 on the road, 2-3 at the Coliseum. No one seems to have an explanation for why the Raiders have played better on the road, yet everyone agrees that things have to change at home if the Raiders are to be a factor in the playoffs.
“It’s very critical,” Lechler said. “Needless to say, we’re taking this one game at a time but we need to get this going because if we do win this division, we’re going to have a home game and we got to learn how to win here. I don’t know what it is so far, but we got to figure it out soon.”
Quarterback Carson Palmer said it’s imperative that the Raiders execute better at home, beginning from the outset.
“You’ve got to win at home,” Palmer said. “You’ve got to protect your field. We’ve got to do a better job of keeping or crowd in it. We’ve fallen behind and not gotten off to fast starts.
“That’s a huge key for us is starting quickly, putting some points on the board and giving our defense a chance to rest on the sideline early in that first quarter and throughout the first half. But we need to play better, top to bottom. It comes down to finding ways to win and, a lot of times, that comes down to execution. We have to execute better at home.”
Jackson echoed that sentiment.
“It’s very important,” Jackson said. “We have to protect our house. We haven’t done that very well. If we do at home what we’ve done on the road, we’d be sitting pretty good right now. We haven’t done that very well. Our fans have done a great job coming out of coming out and supporting this football team, and this football team’s got to play better at home.”
The Raiders are in line to host a first-round AFC Playoffs game at this point. The fans have done their part, selling out all five regular-season games so far this season.
Raiders chief executive said on radio today — 95.7 FM — that the game is close to being sold out, which means it will sell out by Thursday’s deadline and, therefore, be televised locally.
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