Arizona Cardinals punter Dave Zastudil might be the team's Most Value Player in 2012. Now obviously that might say more about the state of the team this season than Zastudil, but the nine-year veteran has been crucial in setting up the Cardinals' defense throughout the regular season.
The overused Zastudil leads the league in punts (98), punt yardage (4,546) and fair catches (33). He is also first in the NFC in punts placed inside the 20-yard line (38), and arguably more astounding is the fact that not one of his 98 attempts has been blocked this season.
Heading into Week 16 against the Chicago Bears, not a single opponent has run one of Zastudil's punts back for a touchdown, but regardless, Arizona's punter may have to err on the side of caution Sunday.
After all, he'll be kicking to a man, whose mere presence on a football field can be quite frightening.
The Bears Devin Hester hasn't run back a punt or kickoff in 2012, however in six-plus NFL seasons the former second-round pick and three-time Pro Bowler has likely already stamped his ticket to Canton.
Despite being shut out of the end zone this season on special teams, Hester already owns the NFL records for most punt return touchdowns in a career with 12 and combined kick return touchdowns with 17.
Hester is no stranger to University of Phoenix Stadium, either. One of those 12 punt return touchdowns capped a feverish fourth quarter comeback capped a feverish fourth quarter comeback by Chicago on a Monday night to forget in the Valley back in 2006.
Hester has also torched Arizona kicker Jay Feely during his career. In a Sunday night game against the New York Giants during that same 2006 season, Feely attempted a 52-yard field goal that fell yards short of the mark and into the secure mitts of Hester. The former Miami standout took advantage of a dazed New York special teams unit, and return the kick 108 yards for a touchdown (Chicago record).
So, although Hester is not ranked in the top 10 in either kick or punt return average this season, the Cardinals, and more specifically Zastudil, will guard against the big play when it comes to kicking to a specialist who holds nine league records.
"It starts with our specialists, because [Hester] returns kicks also, our specialists have to do a good job," Cardinals special teams coach Kevin Spencer told Arizona Sports 620's Doug & Wolf Friday. "Our coverage squad is going to be challenged. This is why you play the game. You play to test your skills against the other guy's skills. We are going to be tested big-time, there's no doubt about that."
While every position coach wants to show he has supreme confidence in his respective group, Spencer said he will likely follow some sage advice he once received from Bill Belichick.
"I learned a lesson a long time ago from Bill Belicheck," said Spencer. "Belichick use to say 'You need to eliminate the people that can beat you.' Devin Hester is a guy you need to eliminate.
"I always tell the guys, 'Look if you want to take this personal or think that I don't believe in you, that's on you...because this guy is a game-changer. We don't want him changing the game.'"
While Spencer elected to use the word "creative" when describing his game plan to eliminate what Hester does well, he also indicated that Arizona will likely not be afraid to kick away or out of bounds to counter Chicago's special teams standout.
So will Zastudil on Sunday do what Scott Player could not? For now, that remains to be seen.