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The Honolulu Advertiser

Updated at 11:11 a.m., Thursday, September 20, 2007

NFL: Cowboys hope McBriar can neutralize Hester

By Calvin Watkins
The Dallas Morning News

IRVING, Texas — Two of the most dangerous special teams players in the NFL will occupy Soldier Field on Sunday night.

Mat McBriar, arguably considered the best punter in the game, and Devin Hester, the league's top returnman, will go head-to-head when the Cowboys visit the Bears.

Hester has a combined eight career NFL touchdowns and has produced 743 punt return yards over the last two seasons.

McBriar, a former University of Hawaii punter, leads the NFC in gross punting average at 47.0. He's kicked a 64-yarder this season, and last year's 48.2-yard gross average tied for fifth best in NFL history.

Yet, McBriar might not kick to Hester on Sunday night — coach Wade Phillips said as much yesterday afternoon.

And that bothers Hester.

"It's frustrating when guys kick it out of bounds and don't give me a chance," Hester said. "This is the NFL. It's the highest level of football. Kick it to me and play football. Don't be scared. When we face a great returner, we take it as an opportunity to see how good we are."

When teams kick to Hester, he goes off.

Last week, Hester scored on a 73-yard punt return against Kansas City. He returned a kickoff 95 yards for another score, but it was nullified by a holding penalty.

Cowboys special teams coach Bruce Read has been thinking about Hester for a while. He's studying film trying to come up with ways to stop Hester. Where do you position your players? Do you change personnel? Do you want faster guys out there? Do you need experienced guys?

Read wants McBriar to do one of two things: kick it high enough so Hester has to fair catch the ball or kick it out of bounds..

One problem: Hester doesn't like to fair catch.

"The guy is amazing," Read said. "He's big and he's strong and he's fast. He's got great vision and a great group around him, and they block like crazy for him. It makes him tough."

Read said McBriar doesn't like kicking out of bounds all the time. So in practice this week, McBriar has worked on sending the ball toward the sideline. If the ball is sent to the sideline, it places Hester in a corner, where he doesn't have much room to run.

"Hester is so shifty, he's fast and he's got the moves," McBriar said. "I have to try to pin him on the sidelines, and I've got to give guys time to get down there. Our guys have to be fast because he's fast.

But McBriar has the ability to change the game by himself.

In Week 1 against the Giants, the Cowboys led 24-19 in the third quarter. Forced to punt, McBriar sent one from the Cowboys' 30 to the Giants' 6. R.W. McQuarters returned the ball to the Giants' 19.

The punt went for 64 yards and had the Cowboys' sideline buzzing. The Giants punted without gaining a first down, and the Cowboys scored on their next drive for a 31-19 lead.

"Mat is very dangerous, too," said receiver Sam Hurd, who also plays on the punt return team. "You want to stop Hester before he hits a seam, but he has to be careful of McBriar, too."

It's a great matchup that could impact the long-term success of both teams.

Sunday's game could influence home-field advantage regarding possible playoff berths, momentum going into Week 4 and could answer whether the Cowboys are Super Bowl contenders.