October 08, 2014

Though Devin Hester made his mark as one of the NFL's great return men during eight years with the Chicago Bears, he might be happier as a more complete player in less than one season for the Atlanta Falcons.

Hester faces his former team for the first time Sunday when the visiting Bears and Falcons each try to avoid a third consecutive defeat.

Hester recorded all but one of his NFL-record 20 return touchdowns with Chicago (2-3). He became the first player to take the opening kickoff of a Super Bowl back for a TD and also returned a missed field goal 108 yards for a score while with the Bears.

Many former Chicago teammates sent their congratulations when he set the league record with a 62-yard punt return for a TD in a 56-14 rout of former Bears coach Lovie Smith's Buccaneers on Sept. 18. Hester, though, doesn't have fond memories of his last few years in the Windy City.

"I wasn't happy the last three, four years in Chicago, because things (weren't) going the way I expect," he said following that victory. "I would always have a great camp, have all the receivers saying and coaches saying I had the best camp out of all the receivers. And once the season start off, I'm not there."

Trying to get the ball in Hester's hands as much as possible, the Bears began using him as a receiver in 2007. He recorded 148 receptions and 10 touchdowns from 2008-10, but after catching 49 balls the next two seasons, Hester asked to be used only on special teams in 2013.

While Hester and Bears quarterback Jay Cutler were often not in sync, he feels much more comfortable catching passes from Matt Ryan after Atlanta (2-3) signed him to a three-year deal in March. Hester has 14 receptions for 212 yards with a TD, and has also rushed for a score.

"He's a very level-headed player and goes out and makes plays," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "I think he'll do that again on Sunday. I think he'll make a lot of plays."

Hester is expected to provide a serious challenge to a Bears punt coverage unit that allowed Carolina's Philly Brown to return one 79 yards for a score in a 31-24 Panthers victory Sunday.

While special teams could play a key role in this matchup, both teams likely need a complete effort to bounce back from blowing double-digit leads in their previous contests.

Atlanta held a 10-point advantage early in the third quarter but allowed the New York Giants to score 20 unanswered in last Sunday's 30-20 defeat.

Matt Ryan threw for 316 yards with a TD and an INT, but the Falcons went 2 for 13 on third down, including 1 for 8 in the second half.

Atlanta also was held to 90 yards rushing behind an injury riddled offensive line that hopes to have starting guard Justin Blalock available after he sat with a back injury last weekend.

Veteran Steven Jackson is averaging 3.8 yards per carry and hasn't rushed for more than 54 yards this season.

Though the Bears held Green Bay and Carolina to a combined 146 rushing yards the last two weeks, they yielded six TDs through the air in those games and have given up 266.3 passing yards per contest in the past four.

Things probably won't get any easier against Julio Jones, who leads the NFL with 40 receptions and 552 yards. Another issue for the Chicago defense is seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs having to sit out with a rib injury.

Ryan has completed 65.5 percent of his passes for 805 yards with three TDs and three INTs while going 2-1 against the Bears. Both victories came at home, where he last faced them in 2009.

Chicago coach Marc Trestman hopes to get the ball to Brandon Marshall more, as the No. 1 receiver has six catches for 69 yards and one TD while being targeted 17 times in the last three contests. He had 20 passes thrown his way while recording 13 catches for 119 yards and three scores in the first two.

''We want him obviously to have more productivity," said Trestman, whose team blew a 21-7 lead last week. "When he touches the ball, good things happen. And over the last couple of weeks, we haven't been able to get that done.''

That could change against an Atlanta defense that ranks 24th with 259.6 passing yards allowed per contest.

Jay Cutler has thrown four TDs and one INT while posting a 129.7 passer rating in the first half over the last two weeks. However, he has three picks, no touchdowns and a 44.0 rating in the final two quarters of those contests.

Teammate Matt Forte totaled 337 yards in the last two games. He had 158 - including 90 receiving - with a TD in the last meeting with the Falcons, a 30-12 Bears home victory Sept. 11, 2011. Cutler passed for 312 yards and two scores in that game and Ryan had 319.

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