Back on Oct. 14, Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell was standing in front of his locker and acknowledging the wonder that is Devin Hester.

"He's the best there is. The best in the game," Longwell said of the Bears' return specialist. "That's one of the things I've come to grips with kicking in this division like I have my whole career. You're going to face him twice a year. And you have to realize quickly that Hester doesn't have off days."

Longwell shrugged at the biannual challenge, as if he were in the rough on a long par-5, about to hit a 3-wood 265 yards to an island green.

"One mistake," Longwell said, "whether it's by the kicker or the coverage, and you're toast."

To that point, Longwell had never been victimized by a Hester touchdown return. He considered himself lucky.

Two nights later at Soldier Field? Pull up the replay of Hester's 98-yard kickoff score and you may notice Longwell flailing at the Chicago 35, his helpless tackle attempt looking a lot like a 3-year-old's cartwheel.

Just like that, the Vikings kicker found his way into the impressive "Devin Hester Touchdown Return" montage, a reel that now includes 19 clips -- 12 punt returns (an NFL record), six kickoff returns and a missed field goal return.

In that mix is the 92-yard burst Hester had to open Super Bowl XLI. And, yes, the montage also includes four scores against the Vikings, who welcome Hester to Mall of America Field on Sunday.

"What makes him elite is that he's so explosive and he has incredible vision," special teams coach Mike Priefer said. "Anybody with vision, explosion and speed, that's the trifecta right there. And he knows how to set up his returns better than most. He can make you think he's going one way, but he's already got his next move planned out."

The return

So what went wrong on that Week 6 kickoff at Soldier Field? It doesn't take much.

Longwell's hang time was acceptable. His distance? A few yards shorter than anticipated, especially with a tail wind.

But the fatal flaw, Priefer notes, came in the Vikings' inability to "set the edge." On the left side of the coverage unit, rookie Christian Ballard did a tremendous job blowing through a double-team. Yet as Hester made his first move, the two outside Vikings, Marcus Sherels and more so Devin Aromashodu, simply stayed too far outside.

If Aromashodu had squeezed the play in, Priefer believes, Larry Dean was in position to make a stop. Instead, Dean barely got a fingertip on Hester, whose comet speed dizzied Longwell, turning the veteran kicker into a weak last line of defense.

"We needed Ryan to slow Hester up and he didn't," Priefer said. "You have to have a kicker who can slow him down and make him go sideways to give our guys an extra second to get there."

As he often does with opposing returners, Priefer showed his special teams what he calls "a good, bad and the ugly" Hester compilation this week. And while, yes, that 98-yard torching was included, so too was an effective line-drive kickoff a quarter earlier on which Aromashodu took Hester down at the Chicago 9.

Perhaps someone should put that on YouTube.

Special abilities

Hester's speed is easy to show on film. His balance and strength, however, prove even more impressive live.

"An arm tackle is not going to take him down," Priefer said. "He has a thick lower body and if you try to hit him without wrapping up, he's going to bounce off the tackle every single time."

As for the other eye-catching clips from Hester's 2011 portfolio, they're not always touchdowns. Priefer points to a dazzling return at Denver three weeks ago when Hester fielded Britton Colquitt's punt 3 1/2 yards from the sideline and, within a breath, had three Broncos around him.

"Surrounded," Priefer said. "It looked like Custer's Last Stand. But Devin just spun out of it and went all the way out to the other side."

Five Broncos put a hand on Hester before Spencer Larsen took him down after 26 yards. Chicago responded with a 42-yard touchdown drive.

"I have to teach that stuff," Priefer said. "Here's what he can do, these are his special abilities. What can we do to combat it by squeezing, keeping our leverage and continuing to work toward the ball?"

Priefer looks forward to having another crack at Hester this weekend.

"You can't be frightened," he said. "But you're always concerned."

Dan Wiederer •