A return engagement

In Sunday’s big rematch between the Seahawks and Bears in their divisional playoff game, a big priority for each team is preventing big returns by Leon Washington and Devin Hester.

Leon Washington isn’t just a record-setting kick returner; he’s a connoisseur of the art that is returning kickoffs and punts.

So who better to ask about the differences between himself and the Chicago Bears’ Devin Hester as the Seahawks prepare for Sunday’s divisional playoff game at Soldier Field?

“The difference is he’s got 14 touchdowns, and I’ve got seven,” Washington said with a laugh.

Rampaging Returners
The Seahawks’ Leon Washington led the NFL with three kickoff returns for touchdowns during the regular season, while the Bears’ Devin Hester did the same thing on punt returns. How these two compare heading into Sunday’s game:

  • Washington Hester
  • Kickoff returns 57 12
  • Yards 1,461 427
  • Average 25.6 35.6
  • Touchdowns 3* 0
  • Punt returns 22 33
  • Yards 249 564*
  • Average 11.3 17.1
  • Touchdowns 0 3
  • *– led the NFL; Hester did not have enough kickoff returns for his average to qualify as the best in the league

That Hester does, and that Washington does – for their careers. And each has three this season. Hester has returned three punts returns for touchdowns, including an 89-yarder against the Seahawks at Soldier Field during their 23-20 victory in Week 6. He also has four touchdown receptions. Washington has returned a club-record three kickoffs for touchdowns, and also came within a premature-victory celebration of scoring on a punt return.

Hester’s 14 combined scoring returns (10 punts, four kickoffs) are the NFL record. Washington’s seven kickoff returns for scores are one shy of the NFL record (eight by the Browns’ Josh Cribbs) – and one more than some of the best to ever return kicks (Gale Sayers, Ollie Matson, Mel Gray and Dante Hall).

Historic stuff, no matter how you stack it. But there is more to the Washington/Hester comparison than just staggering statistics.

“We both do things well,” Washington said. “He’s obviously an explosive guy, and he really really excels at punt returns. And I really really excel at kickoff returns. So we’re both guys that can score from anywhere on the field.”

And have. Washington’s TD returns this season have covered 101, 99 and 92 yards. His oh-so-close punt return went for 84 yards. Hester’s TD returns in 2010 were 89 yards, 64 yards and 62 yards.

“That’s my mindset, and that’s our team’s mindset, that every time I touch the ball I can take it all the way,” Washington said. “Like I’ve said all season, I’m only as good as the guys around me.

“I’ve been fortunate enough in my career – and I’m sure Devin would say the same thing – to have special teams that really get out and try to score.”

That’s part of the reason Washington averaged 25.6 yards on kickoff returns, as well as 11.3 on punt returns; while Hester had league-high averages of 17.1 and 35.6 (although he didn’t have enough kickoff returns to qualify for the top spot).

And those are the reasons the Seahawks and Bears will enter Sunday’s game determined to contain these two.

“Well, when you kick the ball to Leon we think he’s going to score. We do. We think he’s going to run one back,” coach Pete Carroll said. “And you certainly have the right to think that about Devin. He’s proven that.

“There’s that anticipation that the great players and the great returners have that’s really an exciting part of the game.”

Teams have kicked away from Washington and Hester, or at least tried to. They have tried high, looping kicks to give the coverage units more time to get up field, or get the ball in someone else’s hands. They have simply kicked the ball out of bounds on punts. Obviously, even the best-laid plans don’t always work.

“It’s interesting to see each week how a team will handle Devin,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “It’s all part of our game plan of trying to score points to see how they’re going to deal with kicking off to us.

“But we do get a taste of that this week. Here in the playoffs you look forward to the challenge and it’ll definitely be a challenge for us to try to hold down a great returner like Washington.”

One coach’s challenge is another’s anticipation.

“We’ve counted on Leon,” Carroll said. “When he gets tackled at the 25- or 30-yard line, we’re disappointed because we think he’s going to go (the distance) every time he gets it. The amount of excitement that Devin Hester has generated over the years by proving he’s the best ever – that lights up a stadium, it lights up an audience, it lights up everybody just because you know it can happen.

“So that factor is a great factor to have on your team. I can’t imagine with all the touchdowns he’s made the impact he’s had on so many games. But Leon does give us that sense.”

Seahawks special teams coach Brian Schneider points out what is likely the most similar trait these two share.

“It’s natural. Those just have it,” he said. “It’s also about them trusting the people around them. But a lot of what goes on out there is just natural. Those guys have it. They have a lot of courage No. 1, to catch back there and get it and trust people in front of them, and then just to take off and do what they do.”

Despite all their similarities, there are subtle differences. Michael Robinson knows, because he has faced both – Hester in Week 6 and Washington while playing for the 49ers.

“Both of them have returned kicks for touchdowns against me,” said Robinson, who signed with the Seahawks in September and plays special teams as well as fullback.

“Leon is more of a running back, so you expect him to cut it up a little bit more. Devin is more of a speedier guy; he wants to get to the edge. He’s got great quick-twitch muscles. And the thing about Hester, his team feeds off of it. The 10 guys blocking around him, they believe he can score every time – and they block like it, they don’t count on him just making the play himself.

“When he has success in the return game, their whole offense comes alive. That’s the challenge that we have. We have to eliminate some of the excitement that he brings.”

Offered Schneider, “Every returner has a little thing to him. Leon is a catch-and-go type. Devin is too, but sometimes he actually surveys stuff and he can make a cut. Against us, he made a cut from like 20 yards away where he just had the vision to see that thing and he knew what he wanted to do.”

Rather than any radical new plan, Schneider is striving for the consistency that allowed the Seahawks to rank third in the league in opponent starting position after kickoffs (24.6 yard line) and also be among the Top 10 in kickoff (10th at 22-yard average) and punt (ninth at 9.3) return averages.

“When you have your system, and what you do is all just playing off each other and those guys playing aggressive, you can’t get tentative,” Schneider said. “Once you get tentative, that’s when he’s really really good.”

Schneider then laughed before adding, “Not that he’s not good when you’re not tentative. He can make you look real bad.”