Devin Hester shines at receiver in Falcons debut

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) Before the Atlanta Falcons decided to sign Devin Hester, they wanted to make sure he wasn’t content just returning kickoffs and punts.

Hester persuaded the team there was more to his game.

Then he went out and proved it in his debut with the Falcons.

Hester made five catches for 99 yards, including a key reception in the final minute of regulation that set up the tying field goal against the New Orleans Saints.

The Falcons won in overtime, 37-34.

”It was not the least bit surprising,” coach Mike Smith insisted Monday.

Then again, there was plenty of skepticism after the Falcons doled out big money to sign Hester as a free agent. While no one doubts he is perhaps the greatest return specialist in NFL history, it seemed unlikely the 31-year-old would make much of an impact when the offense was on the field.

After all, he had not caught a pass for Chicago since December 2012. His last significant contribution as a receiver came four years ago, when he had 40 receptions and four touchdowns with the Bears.

”We sat down with him and had a very frank conversation, what our thoughts were and what we wanted him to bring to the table,” Smith recalled. ”He told us he was not just a return man, he was a wide receiver, too, and one who could help us. He told he would come here to compete for playing time in the wide receiver group.”

The Falcons seemed largely set at that position, with Julio Jones and Roddy White both healthy, joined by emerging third receiver Harry Douglas, who had a career-leading 85 receptions last season when the two starters were hit with injuries.

But Hester, who is only 5-foot-10, still has plenty of speed and shiftiness. He gives quarterback Matt Ryan another target who can work out of the slot in much the same way as Douglas, helping to compensate for retirement of tight end Tony Gonzalez.

For one game, at least, it went about as well as the Falcons could’ve hoped.

While the defense struggled to stop Drew Brees and the Saints, Ryan spread the field and threw for a franchise-record 448 yards. Overall, the Falcons piled up a staggering 568 yards in total offense.

Jones had seven catches for 116 yards. White hauled in five receptions for 72 yards, including a touchdown. Douglas grabbed six passes for 69 yards. Gonzalez’s replacement, Levine Toilolo, chipped in with three catches and a TD. All four running backs had a catch as well, including a short throw that Antone Smith turned into a 54-yard score.

”We came out,” Hester said, ”knowing that it was going to be a tough fight, knowing points were going to be thrown on the board left and right. And with Drew Brees, knowing the type of offense that he runs, we were going to have to put up a lot of points. As a receiver, we knew that it was going to come down to us.”

The Falcons don’t expect those numbers from Hester every game, but hope the opener will lead teams to shade more coverages in his direction. That would open up more opportunities for Jones and White.

”That’s really what it’s all about when you have playmakers,” Smith said. ”The more you have, the better opportunity you have to move the football and score points.”

Hester didn’t have much impact in the return game, bringing back one kickoff for 21 yards and one punt for just 1 yard. Smith said that could change when the team gets away from the Georgia Dome, where ideal conditions make it easier to position punts or boom kickoffs through the end zone.

The Falcons (1-0) travel to Cincinnati on Sunday to face the Bengals (1-0).

”We didn’t want him to come here just to be a punt and kick returner,” Smith said. ”He told us he would help win games any way he could.”

Early on, he’s been true to his word.

Notes: Smith will not provide an update on LT Jake Matthews until Wednesday, when teams are required to submit an injury report to the league. The Falcons’ first-round pick sustained an ankle injury near the end of the first half against the Saints. He returned to the sideline in the second half, but never went back in the game. … Smith praised the sellout crowd that turned out for the season opener. ”My ears were still ringing when I got up,” he said.

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