Atlanta Falcons at St. Louis Rams
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: St. Louis
On TV: NBC
FLOWERY BRANCH — Eric Weems, a third-year reserve who played in six regular season games last year for the Atlanta Falcons, won't buy into the addage that NFL preseson games are boring.
Returning a punt 34 yards, Weems helped set up a field goal by Jason Elam that gave the Falcons a 10-3 lead in the second quarter of last week's exhibition loss at Detroit. And since NFL coaches measure effort and execution more than wins and losses in preseason, coach Mike Smith was excited to see Weems' big gain down the right side of the field.
"They punted the ball directly to me, and I had a great block up front," Weems said Monday. "Everyone, they gave me a butt to run off of, so I just seen what I can get."
The Falcons lost Harry Douglas, a second-year punt returner and the team's No. 3 receiver, to season-ending knee surgery two weeks ago, so Weems — who worked strictly on the Falcons' practice squad in 2007 — was the first player given a chance to fill the vacancy.
He must beat out Chandler Williams to earn the job, but Weems believes much of the effort he gave the last two-plus years could soon pay off.
A chance to make a 53-man NFL roster, contribute at receiver and on special teams while earning a handsome salary is exactly what Weems set his sights on when Atlanta signed him as an undrafted free agent from Bethune-Cookman two years ago.
"I've been taking advantage of my opportunity because if one guy goes down, another guy has to step up," Weems said. "I've been trying to work hard every day catching punts before and after practice."
Douglas turned into a great find for Falcons special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong last year. Adam Jennings made enough mistakes to end his tenure by Week 11, and Douglas had already taken away his job on returns.
His value soared in a Week 12 win over Carolina, which gave up Douglas' 61-yard return for a fourth-quarter touchdown.
Falcons kickoff returner Jerious Norwood saw how Douglas complemented Armstrong's schemes by filling his role and not trying to overplay the position.
"I think a big key for us is the timing," Norwood said. "If you don't have the timing right, you're going to have guys maybe missing blocks and then the kickoff team's going to be coming down right on you."
Smith expects his team to improve on punt coverage even though Atlanta set an NFL record by allowing only 43 yards in a 16-game season.
For those who yawn through an exhibition game, Smith would beg to differ. In last year's preseason loss to Indianapolis at the Georgia Dome, Smith saw the future of his team's success when the Colts fielded three punts for a 5-yard average.
Nothing spectacular about gaining or giving up a low margin on punt returns, but Smith knew Armstrong's ideas blended easily with Michael Koenen's skills as a directional punter.
Armstrong was one of the first hires in January 2008 by Smith, a first-time head coach. The Falcons signed him soon after Bill Parcells took charge as team president of the Miami Dolphins, who employed Armstrong from 2001-07.
During Armstrong's first six years, the Dolphins finished among the top eight in NFL punt coverage all but one season.
"It's really a collaborative effort," Smith said. "(Koenen) is a very directional punter, so we can cut the field down. He did a great job of putting the ball on the sideline, and the scheme we used in terms of punting and overloading to where he kicked it, I think that helped us."