Despite the offensive woes the Atlanta Falcons experienced during Saturday’s 13-9 preseason loss at Miami, one positive was the chemistry between Matt Ryan and Devin Hester on two pass plays totaling 21 yards.
Hester, who entered the preseason unsure of his role in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, looked comfortable running his routes while using his elusiveness to gain extra yards after one of the catches. Such cohesion with Ryan has been brewing throughout practice. Several times this preseason, Ryan has pulled Hester aside for extended conversations about why there was miscommunication on a given route. Even during Saturday’s game, Ryan was animated pre-snap in making sure Hester was lined up correctly on a play that resulted in an 8-yard completion from Ryan to Hester.
Hester, who is adjusting to playing all the receiver spots rather than just the slot, recalled one of those practice scenarios with Ryan.
"We did like a down, out and up type deal,’’ Hester explained, "and in the past when we ran the out, if the corner played over the top, he’d back-shoulder it to me. And so I was expecting him to back-shoulder it, and he threw it deep. And he said, 'You were right on that one, but the next time it comes up, if that guy’s playing over the top of you, let’s back-shoulder it.’ Four plays later, that came up, and we back-shouldered it and made a good play on it.
"It’s just little small things that come with practice and timing. You get all your kinks and knots out in practice. That was one of those instances where we did something in previous years. We just had to get back on the same page.’’
The manner in which the dialogue between Ryan and Hester transpired is important to note. Hester realizes he doesn't run every route perfectly. When he does make a mistake, at least he knows Ryan’s approach to correcting the matter won’t be condescending.
Such wasn’t the case during Hester’s time alongside Bears quarterback Jay Cutler in Chicago. The main reason why Hester asked not to play offense during his final year with the Bears was because of his strained relationship with Cutler.
"If we weren’t on the same page, Jay just didn’t say anything to me,’’ Hester said. "He just wouldn’t (throw) to me. That’s just how he was.
"With Matt, if he sees something that he feels needs to be changed, he’ll come to you and say, 'Hey man, what do you think about doing it this way? It will give us a clearer look, and I’ll be able to get the ball to you.’"
Leadership is a quality Ryan displays on a daily basis despite not being overly vocal. Falcons coach Dan Quinn, in his first year, has gotten a better feel for that quality in Ryan this preseason, including observing those exchanges with Hester.
"Matt has that kind of respect because we all see the amount of time that he puts into it, and I think as a teammate, you get a lot of regard and respect for those guys,’’ Quinn said. "Say, 'Look how hard this guy’s going for it in terms of preparation, the energy he brings, the detail that he goes with it.’ I respect those both ways, from the quarterback to the receivers.’’
Hester, the most accomplished kickoff returner in league history, certainly appreciates having Ryan as his quarterback, regardless of how many offensive snaps or targets he gets come game day.
"He’s just an all-around quarterback,’’ Hester said of Ryan. "He goes through his progressions. He makes the right reads. He doesn’t care who’s out there, he just expects guys to make plays. Whoever the defense gives the opportunity to make the play, that’s who he goes with.’’
And the Falcons know Hester is capable of making plays with the ball in his hands.