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Panthers-Bears matchup of the day: Saturday

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Dan Parr

dparr@pfwmedia.com
Associate editor

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By Dan Parr

Here's a look at a key matchup heading into Sunday's battle between the Panthers and Bears.

Bears RS Devin Hester vs. Panthers' kick coverage

Hester, the special-teams weapon the Bears have long relied on to supplement, and occasionally carry, a lackluster offense, has yet to break loose for one of his trademark returns this season. His longest return thus far is a 29-yarder.

The kickoff rule change to move the line of scrimmage up five yards has obviously played a role in limiting his kickoff return opportunities. He has six kickoff returns and ranks 44th in the league in kickoff return average (20.7 yards), but he's also been quiet as a punt returner. He's tied for 19th in the league in punt return average (10.3 yards) and has more fair catches (four) than returns (three).

The Bears' offense could get back on track this week against a Carolina defense that has been hit hard by injuries at linebacker, but a long return or two from Hester would provide a much-needed boost.

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera is well aware of Hester's ability as a returner, having watched him from the Bears' sideline when he was defensive coordinator during Hester's rookie season in 2006. Rivera may advise P Jason Baker to direct his punts out of bounds and keep the ball out of Hester's hands.

Only half of Panthers PK Olindo Mare's kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks this season under the new kickoff rule, so there's a good chance Hester will get a chance to return kicks Sunday.

The Panthers' coverage has been suspect at times. They have allowed a kickoff return of 30 yards or more in every game this season, and Cardinals rookie Patrick Peterson had a 89-yard punt return for a touchdown against them in Week One.

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