No one accounted for Hayden Hurst.
And with the former first-round tight end’s size and speed, that was a mistake for the Minnesota Vikings. The Falcons faced a fourth-and-1 from Minnesota’s 35-yard line in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 40-23 Falcons victory and elected to go for it. Holding a 33-15 lead, the Falcons figured they’d try to put the game away as opposed to attempting a long field goal or pooch punting the ball away.
For the Falcons, this play proved to be the final piece in their first victory of the season.
After the snap, quarterback Matt Ryan offered a play fake, with every other receiving target flowing to the right. Lining up next to right tackle Kaleb McGary, Hurst ran a drag route across the middle and was left alone near the left sideline. Ryan threw the pass to the wide-open Hurst, who then sprinted past the goal line for a 35-yard touchdown. Plays like that were why the Falcons traded for Hurst to replace Austin Hooper, who signed a four-year contract with the Cleveland Browns.
It hasn’t always been that easy for Hurst.
While he does have another long touchdown -- a 42-yard score against the Dallas Cowboys -- the 6-foot-4 and 260-pound tight end has been working hard to nail down some chemistry with Ryan. With the absence of exhibition games, Hurst said it has been challenging to be on the same page more often than not. And considering he has a different body type and playing style than Hooper, Hurst and Ryan are still trying to figure each other out at times.
“I think it’s developing each week,” Hurst said. "We didn’t have (an exhibition season), so it’s hard being the new guy kind of finding my way in this offseason. I think Matt’s trusted me, and he’s gauging my speed and my size, and how I run routes -- using my speed and my size to get open on guys. It’s just an ongoing thing that we’re working on.
“I think the past couple of weeks it’s gotten better, especially this week. We’ve done some more one-on-one stuff. Hopefully that comes to fruition. Like I said, it’s an ongoing relationship. The more I can show him what I can do on Sunday, the more he’s going to trust me.”
Hurst was selected by the Baltimore Ravens with the 25th overall pick in 2018 and spent two seasons with the franchise. The Falcons traded for him not long after the 2020 league year began, which meant Hurst suddenly was forced to learn a brand new offense that was much different from Baltimore’s.
Hurst immediately embraced the change of scenery, since it meant he would be the top tight end on the depth chart.
Hurst spent time this offseason working out with Ryan, although those opportunities were limited with a pandemic shutting down team facilities and many travel options. After the absence of OTAs, minicamp and exhibition games, the chemistry between Ryan and Hurst is an ongoing process.
“It’s definitely unique because I’m sure Matt’s used to a certain body and frame at the tight end position,” Hurst said. “I think I bring a different skill set, if you will. Again, it’s Matt gauging how fast I run certain routes, how I use my body to get open on these certain looks. It’s Week 7, it’s an ongoing thing. I think it’s going to be better and better each week.”
Through six games, Hurst has hauled in 19 passes for 227 yards and three touchdowns. Hurst is coming off one of his better games of the season, when he caught all four his targets for 57 yards and the touchdown.
Receiver Julio Jones believes Hurst will play an even bigger role on offense as the season progresses.
“We’re going to get Hayden a little bit more, too,” Jones said. “He can definitely spread the field a lot for us. He’s definitely a mismatch for safeties and linebackers, just by his size and speed. He’s very versatile. Great hands, he can do it all. We just have to keep working him and get him comfortable here. But at the end of the day, Hayden’s going to be a great tight end for us.”
After Falcons owner Arthur Blank fired coach Dan Quinn and made Raheem Morris the interim coach, multiple players mentioned that the intensity was ramped up at practice. Hurst said this was a positive development from his point of view because it further allowed him to replicate his game speed at practice.
By playing faster at practice, Hurst believes Ryan will be able to time the throws that go his way better. And as a result, the two should connect much more often.
"I love that, that’s just how I’m wired,” Hurst said. “I’m going to run every single route like it’s the last route I could ever possibly run. I’m going to run it so me and Matt can be on the same page, so he sees how fast I’m going to run it in a game. It’s been fun.”