The Falcons face the Jets on Friday night in their second preseason game of the season at MetLife Stadium. Here are pictures from the game.
When Devin Hester joined the Falcons last season, many wondered if the best kick/punt returner in NFL history could still be an X-factor at 31 years old. Despite a record-breaking campaign in 2014—one that included 504 receiving yards, two TDs and a Pro Bowl nod—the same question is being asked today.
Although this unease is warranted given the nature of football and how it takes a physical toll, Hester, now entering his 10th professional campaign, alleviated concerns on Friday by running back a punt 59 yards against the Jets at MetLife Stadium. His return set up a quick four-yard touchdown drive that gave Atlanta a 14-0 lead.
Clearly, he still has it.
Perhaps the most encouraging part about this highlight is Hester's vision. No, he isn't as fast as he was in 2006, but his ability to navigate the field allows him to remain a legitimate threat. His ability to shed tackles helps quite a bit, too.
"On the second drive, the credit goes to Devin and the punt return team for setting us up down there," Matt Ryan said, via ESPN.com. "We got the ball on the 3 or 4-yard line, whatever it was, three plays and we were able to punch it in."
Another reason to believe Hester can be an X-factor in 2015 is the talent around him. Coordinator Keith Armstrong has, by almost every measure, consistently put together one of the NFL's best special teams units. Friday's game showed us why.
Hester's big return would not have materialized without a lot of help—specifically from Allen Bradford and Phillip Adams. Just as Hester eluded Tanner Purdum (No. 46), Bradford pushed Joe Mays (No. 53) out of the way, and by doing so allowed Hester to shift right and find a big opening.
The former Bear didn't have a clear path to the end zone, however. Once Hester broke free, Saalim Hakim (No. 19) put himself in position to make a stop. But Adams laid a technically sound block on the Jets receiver, which might have added roughly 30 yards to the return.
Every time Hester catches a punt or kick, Falcons whom he can trust to open up lanes are scattered all over the gridiron. Eric Weems, Cliff Matthews and Robert Alford are among those who have proved their worth on special teams; based on the first two exhibition contests, Allen and Bradford should be able to do the same.
And it's not like Hester's wheels have greatly diminished. According to NFL Network, his top speed on the aforementioned play was 22 miles per hour. For perspective: 22 MPH is equivalent to 10.76 yards per second.
So while Hester may not be in his prime anymore, make no mistake—he still has a lot of value.