Devin Hester, we meet again. After tormenting the Detroit Lions for years as a return specialist for the Chicago Bears, the Lions once again face Hester in Week 8 during his first year with the Atlanta Falcons. In his ninth season, the 31-year-old veteran is showing no signs of letting up as he expands his role beyond special teams and into a full-time receiver.
One of the lone bright spots for the Falcons this season is their passing game. Through Week 8, the Falcons are ranked fifth in the league in terms of passing, with an average of 289 yards per game. Quarterback Matt Ryan is enjoying a productive season and has fantastic targets in receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White.
In a somewhat surprising twist, Ryan's favorite target beyond his superstar receiving duo is Hester, whose previous forays into full-time receiving work were less than impressive. An injury to receiver Harry Douglas has provided Hester with additional offensive snaps, and he has responded with 18 receptions for 263 yards and a touchdown. Most impressively, 130 of Hester's yards have come after the catch, meaning he averages over 7 yards after each reception (as a point of reference, Golden Tate ranks at the top of the league in yards after the catch but averages only 5.3 yards after each reception). Those receiving numbers will not blow you away, but Hester is on pace for his most effective season ever as a receiver. He has caught 18 of his 25 targets and is making the most of his touches.
In addition, Hester has not forgotten his roots as a return specialist. Unlike his time with the Bears, where his return game suffered whenever he was pressed into duty as a receiver, Hester is showing that he is more well-rounded this year. Hester continues to return kicks and punts with the best in the league. This season, Hester has returned 17 kickoffs for 389 yards (22.9 average) and 11 punts for 131 yards and a touchdown (11.9 average). Those numbers rank Hester as the fifth- and ninth-best returner for kickoffs and punts, respectively.
Basically, Hester is still an effective returner, but he is not the "avoid at all costs" returner he used to be in Chicago. According to Football Outsiders, the Falcons' average starting field position is their own 26-yard line, 20th-best in the league (for more interesting info on each team's drive stats, go here). Obviously, this is not all Hester's fault. The Falcons have been turnover-prone, and their defense has not provided the offense with many breaks. Still, these stats show that Hester is no longer a field-flipping monster, but rather an above-average returner with some juice left in his tank.
The good news for the Lions is that they are more than capable of preventing Hester from hitting a home run in either facet of his game. The Lions' passing defense has been great for most of the year, sans a few hiccups, and allows only 216 yards through the air per game. Hester's greatest opportunity to hurt the Lions in the passing game is by turning short dump-offs or slants into big gains. The Lions' pass defense's biggest struggle so far this year has been in allowing yards after catch, where they are currently ranked 20th. Bringing Hester down quickly before he finds space in the open essentially negates his effect as a receiver. It will be all about the swarm defense when Hester gets his hands on the ball.
On the special teams side, the Lions boast solid coverage teams. They allow an average of 21 yards per kickoff return, sixth-best in the league. In addition, kickoff man Sam Martin does not give up a lot of opportunities for returns. The Lions' punt coverage has been a bit less consistent, with an average return of 8.8 yards, but it has prevented the big plays. The punting unit forces a lot of fair catches, which limits returners' ability to really flip field position. Hester is aggressive in fielding kicks and has only four fair catches on the year, but Martin is an expert at pinning opponents deep. His 15 punts inside of the opponent's 20-yard line are tied for the best in the league. In fact, Martin may simply be guilty of out-punting his coverage, as his 48.1 yards per punt average is tied for third-best in the league.
Bottom line: Hester is still a dangerous and multi-faceted player, but he is an extremely known quantity. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has shown a knack for game-planning, and the defense has surprised many this year with its effectiveness. On special teams, Martin has earned the chance to take Hester on. As long as Martin doesn't overshoot his punt coverage and give Hester a lot of open field, I do not foresee Hester making much of an impact in the return game.